What Are the Best Government Cellphone Plans?

The Lifeline program is a federal benefit for low income individuals and households. The program provides discounted services on cell phones, Internet, and landlines. Several cell phone service providers participate in the Lifeline program, offering discounts and, in some cases, free devices along with free or very low-cost phone plans.

If you need help affording cell phone service, you should know that the Federal government might have a plan for you. The Lifeline program provides discounts on landline and cell phone service, as well as broadband Internet for households. Many cell phone companies work with this program to provide phones, service (including talk and text), as well as data to qualifying customers. In addition, if you do not qualify for the Lifeline program, but are a veteran, active-duty military member or a government worker, you may be able to qualify for provider programs that offer special discounts.

The Lifeline Program

Instituted in 1985, the Lifeline program was created to provide low-income households with access to basic telecommunication services. Over the years it has been modernized to include cell phone plans. Many cell phone service providers have partnered with The Lifeline program to provide service which may include a free phone or smartphone, talk and text, as well as a data plan with hotspot.

It should be noted that the Lifeline program provides one discount, device or plan per household. A "household" is defined as two or more people who live together and share living expenses. Roommates who each pay a share of the rent and for their own food are not a household (and each person who qualifies on the basis of income could qualify for a Lifeline benefit) whereas a parent and minor child (who the parent supports financially) are considered a household and only qualify for one plan.

How to qualify

To qualify for the program, your household income must be under 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. You may need to prove your income when you apply for service. Another option is to show that you participate in one of the following programs:

  • Medicaid
  • Federal Public Housing Assistance
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Tribal-specific programs: Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), Head Start
  • Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit Programs

If you believe that you qualify for this benefit, you can apply online through the Lifeline National Verifier, fill out and mail a paper application, or, in some cases, apply through your state. Mobile phone service providers that participate in the program also provide direction on how to apply for benefits.

Companies that offer Lifeline Plans

The Lifeline program does not provide services directly. Instead, you will need to work with a mobile phone provider that offers a Lifeline plan.

The benefits and services provided under the Lifeline program can vary by provider. For example, some providers offer a straightforward discount on (currently $9.25 under federal guidelines for non-tribal members) off your monthly bill while others provide a complete package of free phone, data, text and call time that may be free or extremely low-cost.

Take time to compare each plan, as well as network coverage, before making your choice, particularly if you need the coverage and service that a full-service provider such as T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T can offer. While the benefits with the major companies can be limited, you may prefer the reliability of these networks and companies.

Here is a list of some of the providers that participate in the Lifeline program, keep in mind, however, that not all providers operate in all states. In addition, plan benefits are subject to change and may vary between states. Contact the provider to learn about what is currently available.

Access Wireless: Access wireless offers nationwide coverage along with free voicemail, caller ID & call waiting
domestic long-distance and a rewards program. You can bring your own phone if you wish and it is possible to upgrade to additional data (for a fee).

Assurance Wireless: Assurance wireless provides a free smartphone, 10GB of hotspot data each month, and text and calls.

AT&T Lifeline: AT&T Lifeline provides discounts on both landline and mobile phone plans, but these vary by state and region. Contact AT&T to get more information.

T-Mobile Lifeline: T-Mobile offers the Lifeline Discount on its regular plans, including its most basic mobile phone plan which runs about $20 per month without the discount.

SafeLink: Safelink program provides mobile phone and data service exclusively to Lifeline customers.

TruConnect: Participants in TruConnect's program receive a free smartphone, up to 14GB of data each month, along with unlimited talk and text.

Q Link Wireless: This is another Lifeline provider that is offering unlimited data, talk & text, access to 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots (at no cost).

Verizon: Verizon offers a $9.25 monthly discount on cell phone bills. This discount is available in a limited number of areas in specific states.

Note: Due to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which will be in effect until funding runs out or the government begins shutting down after the pandemic is over, many of these companies are offering enhanced discounts and benefits, including discounts on phones and tablets. While these benefits are temporary, you may be able to enjoy better service and products while the benefit is available.

Plans for Servicemembers and Other Professions

Military service members, first responders, health care professionals and government workers may also be entitled to discounts on their cell phone service. These discounts are not provided by the government, but by individual cell phone companies that offer these discounts in recognition of the service provided by government employees and members of the military.

Military Discounts

T-Mobile: 50% off "Magenta" plans which include talk, text, data and streaming content. Available to active-duty military and veteran families.

U.S. Cellular: 15% discount on individual and family plans. Offered to active duty military and veterans. If a servicemember suspends service while deployed overseas, U.S. Cellular will reinstate service when the service member returns home. This discount is available to members of the national guard as well as reservists.

AT&T: 25% discount for several phone plans that incorporate paperless billing and autopay discounts. Both veterans and active-duty military qualify.

Boost: Boost does not offer a discount, but its Deployed Military Program will allow you to keep your account and phone number in suspended status for up to 990 days while you are deployed.

Note: Military and employee/professional discount programs often require you to provide proof of status or employment. This may be as simple as uploading a copy of your military or work ID, but the requirements vary between providers.

Other Discount Phone Plans

If you don't qualify for the Lifeline program, a military discount or a government worker plan, there may still be other ways to save on your cell phone plan. Budget and prepaid providers offer extremely attractive rates with some trade-offs in terms of service quality and coverage. Still, if you don't travel much and have access to Wi-Fi throughout most of the day, these plans may be a good option for you. In addition, many of the major carriers offer bare-bones plans that might fit your budget better than one with lots of bells and whistles.

Final Word

Your income should not keep you from having access to a cell phone. If you are having difficulty affording a cell phone, you should first check to see whether you qualify for lifeline assistance. In many cases, you will be able to get a phone and a plan for free or at a very low cost. Otherwise, review options such as military, veteran, and employee discounts, as well as pre-paid and budget plans that can keep your costs low while ensuring that you have access to phone service.

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AT&T lifeline phone
T-Mobile lifeline phone
Verizon lifeline phone
Boost lifeline phone
U.S. Cellular lifeline phone
Q Link lifeline phone
Assurance lifeline phone
Access lifeline phone
TruConect lifeline phone
Safelinkl ifeline phone

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