Learn Seven Things You Need to Know About Phone Assistance Programs

If it’s a struggle to pay your phone bill each month, you might have wondered if there are any government assistance programs to help you afford this essential service. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) offers the Lifeline program as a way to help low-income consumers afford cell phones and other communication services.

In addition to Lifeline, many states have telephone assistance plan (TAP) programs that eligible applicants can take advantage of. Your local Department of Human Services office can provide information on the programs available in your state. 

While phone assistance programs can be a great way to stay connected, there are certain things you should know before applying. Review the following sections to learn more about getting help with your phone bill. 

1. Free Phone Programs Aren’t Necessarily Free

Many popular search topics include “Free Government Phones” or even a “Free Obama Phone.” While some programs have free cell phone options, the most common phone assistance program is not actually free. It does, however, offer discounts on communication costs.

Currently, Lifeline program subscribers get a price cut of $9.25 off each month’s phone bill. Lifeline is offered in every American state, territory and commonwealth. This plan also offers a Tribal assistance program for those living on Tribal lands recognized by the federal government.  

Service must be obtained with a participating phone service provider, such as AT&T or T-Mobile. Note that providers vary by location and some phone companies don’t participate in Lifeline. 

2. You May Automatically Qualify for Lifeline

If you or someone in your household already qualifies for certain federal assistance programs, you will probably automatically qualify for Lifeline assistance. These programs include:

  • Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA) or Section 8
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit

Even if you don’t receive any of these federal assistance programs, you will most likely be eligible for phone assistance if your income is 135 percent or less than the federal poverty guidelines. These figures are updated annually, so check back each year to see if the guidelines include your household. 

When calculating these numbers, the government will evaluate figures based on factors that include the amount of people in your home and where you are located.

To automatically qualify as a resident of Tribal lands—including reservations, Pueblos and colonies—you or another household member must participate in one of the federal assistance programs listed above.

You can apply if you meet the FPL or participate in any of these programs:

  • Tribal TANF
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
  • And similar programs for Tribal lands.

Tribal participants may also qualify for an additional program called Lifeline Link Up. This program helps with certain activation or installations fees.

3. Your State’s Phone Assistance Plan May Offer Extra Benefits

Lifeline is a great federal program for phone assistance, but your state may also offer comparable benefits. Most states offer a telephone assistance program (TAP) to qualifying residents. 

For example, low-income Minnesota residents can get a landline phone discount at $7 per month through the TAP program. State residents who have hearing loss, speech or mobility impairments can also rent special equipment from TAP at no charge. 

To discover if TAP programs are offered in your state, contact the Public Utilities Commission or your nearest Department of Human Services office. If you receive other benefits, such as SNAP or SSI, your social worker can tell you about your state’s phone assistance programs. 

4. Getting a Free Smartphone Phone Isn’t Just a Myth

It sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t! If you qualify for Lifeline, certain programs can help you out with getting free smartphones with Android operating systems. 

Programs like Virgin Mobile’s Assurance Wireless, Q Link Wireless and TAG Mobile are all examples of providers that offer free phones to eligible customers. The specific benefits of each program will vary, but here are some basics to these low-cost plans besides free Android phones:

  • Coverage across the county
  • Unlimited texts 
  • A set monthly minimum of minutes for voice calls
  • A set monthly data limit, usually 1GB or 2 GB
  • Voicemail services
  • And more!

5. You Can Get a Landline Discount or a Wireless Discount—But not Both

Lifeline and state TAP programs offer different discount programs, but each household may only use one phone assistance plan at a time. Some cover a wireline (landline) phone, while others only cover wireless or cell phone services. Lifeline subscribers also have the option of choosing a broadband plan or a voice/broadband service bundle.

6. Applying for Phone Assistance is Easy!

Once you know that you’re eligible for Lifeline, simply follow four easy steps to apply. 

  1. Enter your location information on the Universal Service Administrative Company’s Lifeline provider locator.
  2. Ask the company for a Lifeline sign-up application.
  3. Fill out the information requested on the application. Besides the basics like your name, Social Security number (SSN), birth date and address, don’t forget things like your Tribal Identification number to maximize your discounts. Provide proof of certain items as necessary.
  4. Provide a valid form of identity.
    1. This can include your driver’s license, among other accepted forms of ID. 

In some areas, you may have to apply through your state agency instead of phone company. No matter where your application is processed, you must provide proof of your household’s gross annual income. Some of the accepted items include: 

  • A tax return from the year prior.
    • Any proofs of income that don’t detail a full year’s income are still useable, with limitations. You need to show three months of income, these stubs must be from three successive months in the same year. For example, you can show your pay slips from May, June and July 2019.
  • A pay slip (paycheck stub) or a statement from your employer regarding your income.
    • These must be current.
  • Proof of your benefits received under the Social Security program.
  • Proof of unemployment benefits
  • Any other official documents regarding your income, such as a divorce decree

7. Phone Assistance Plans Have Monthly and Annual Conditions

As long as your income status remains the same, you can continue using your phone assistance benefits. However, you will be required to assess your eligibility annually. Your phone service provider will usually notify you when it is time to provide new income verification. 

Additionally, you can lose your benefits if you do not use your phone often enough. Check the terms of your current contract. Some state that you must use your phone at least once every 30 days to maintain benefits while others require at least one call every 60 days. Many providers count texts and voice calls toward these usage minimums.