Lifeline Assistance: Government Assistance Program That Provides Free Cell Phones & Calling Minutes for Low-Income Americans

Technology designed for individual users has been a part of modern day life for some time now. In fact, its integration is so complete that cell phones are commonly seen as an essential tool for today’s citizens. In order to assure that Americans are equipped with these tools, the government has developed a largely unrecognized program called Lifeline Assistance, designed to supply both free cell phones and free calling minutes for Americans in need.

Unsurprisingly, the depressed economy of the last several years has contributed to an increase in requests for government subsidized cell phones. Interested in learning more about Lifeline Assistance and possibly obtaining a cell phone of your own? Here are ten facts – some of them controversial – that you probably didn’t know.



1. The program is not available everywhere. Currently, the Lifeline cell phone program is available to residents of 38 states, in addition to citizens living in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Programs continue to pop up all over the country.

2. In spite of limited availability, over 10 million free government cell phones are now in use. All of these phones were distributed since 2008, when the Lifeline program began issuing wireless phones in addition to landlines.

3. You can qualify based on your income. In some states (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas), a household income of 150% of the poverty level will make you eligible. In the remaining states that participate, a household income of 135% is required.

4. You can also qualify by accepting assistance from other government programs. Simply stating that you accept assistance in the form of SSI, food stamps, Section 8 housing, Medicaid, or most other government assistance programs will qualify you.

5. The odd ones out. Of the 40 participating states and domains, three have programs that differ from the rest. Specifically, California, Alaska, and Oklahoma stray from the free phone/free 250 minutes plan. In California, 1000 minutes cost $1; in Alaska, unlimited talk and text cost $1; in Oklahoma, 250 minutes cost $2.50.



6. It’s not really the “Obama Phone.” Opponents of President Obama and his policies were quick to call the free government cell phones (which grew in popularity during his presidency) the “Obama Phone,” even though they were first distributed under President Bush.

7. Citizenship not required. The rules regarding eligibility are pretty lax and there is no procedure in place that verifies or even concerns itself with citizenship. Therefore, even illegal residents of the United States are able to obtain a free cell phone.

8. Fraud is rampant. Because there are relaxed eligibility restrictions, many people who don’t truly qualify are receiving free phones anyway. In Puerto Rico, 5% of the entire population has fraudulent free phone accounts.

9. This American program has, at its root, a Mexican billionaire. Carlos Slim – with an estimated net worth of over $75 billion – is the owner of Safelink Wireless, the first company to participate in the business of free government cell phones.

10. Free government internet might be next. Programs already exist that put affordable internet access into the hands of needy Americans, but the success of the Lifeline Assistance Program and the importance of internet access in today’s world have convinced the FCC to propose a free internet program for Americans who qualify.

In 2008, the first year that the program offered cell phones, the total cost was in the neighborhood of $800 million. That number is quickly rising. In 2012, it exceeded $2.2 billion.