How to Get Discounted or Free Cell Phones for Seniors
Cell phones can be a lifeline to the outside world, especially for older Americans.
Unfortunately, not all seniors can afford the high cost of a new cell phone and service. A new cell phone can cost hundreds of dollars and that cost is simply out of reach for millions of Americans.
Lifeline Assistance is a federal government program that provides a discount on qualifying monthly telephone service to Americans with lower incomes — including seniors.
Older Americans who meet certain eligibility criteria can receive discounted or free cell phone service as well as a free phone. Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is the Lifeline Program?
The Lifeline assistance program, which is part of the federal Universal Service Administrative Company, was created in 1985 to help Americans with lower incomes access affordable telecommunications services.
The program expanded over time, and can now help pay for the cost of landline or cell phone service.
How Do I Qualify for Lifeline?
To qualify for the Lifeline program, seniors must have an income at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines or they must participate in certain government assistance programs.
You can check your eligibility by visiting the Lifeline program website and entering your zip code.
Older Americans aren’t the only ones who can apply for Lifeline. There’s no age restrictions or age requirements to qualify.
Qualify by Income
Here is a table of income thresholds for the Lifeline Assistance program. Income limits are higher in Alaska and Hawaii. The Lifeline assistance program is available for only one account per household.
135% of Federal Poverty Guidelines in 2023
|135% of Federal Poverty Level
Qualify by Assistance Program
You can also qualify for Lifeline if you — or someone in your household — participates in certain government assistance programs.
Here is a list of eligible programs:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance
- Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit
Seniors who reside on federally recognized tribal lands may be eligible for additional discounts.
You may notice that Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people ages 65 and older, isn’t on the list. There’s no program out there that offers free cell phones for Medicare beneficiaries.
However, SSI is a program specifically for older adults. And about 17.2% of Medicare beneficiaries are also enrolled in Medicaid, so these dual-eligible seniors can also qualify.
How to Apply for the Lifeline Program
To apply, you’ll need to fill out information on the National Verifier website.
You can also call the Lifeline Support Center and request a paper application. The support center is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST and the number is 800-234-9473.
You may need to provide proof of income, like a tax return or three consecutive pays stubs, when you apply for Lifeline.
What Happens After You Apply for Lifeline?
Once your application is approved, you have one of two options:
- Choose a Lifeline provider near you and sign up for free phone service (and potentially a free cell phone) with them.
- Have your $9.25 monthly Lifeline discount applied to your phone bill with your current carrier.
You’ll also need to recertify your eligibility each year to keep your benefit current.
After your application is approved, you’ll have 90 days to choose a phone company and sign up with a participating Lifeline service provider.
Use the Companies Near Me tool from Lifeline Support to find a list of available carriers offering cell phone plans in your area.
There’s a long list of participating Lifeline service providers. Many of these cell phone providers are regional, and only available in certain states. Assurance Wireless, SafeLink, Access Wireless and Life Wireless are four of the biggest Lifeline providers.
What Kind of Free Cell Phones Are Available?
Each cell phone provider offers a slightly different package, so it’s important to compare your options.
For example, some Lifeline providers offer a free phone with a limited number of minutes and texts per month, and you can purchase extra data or minutes as needed for an added cost.
Other carriers offer more generous cell phone plans that include unlimited talk, text and data along with hotspot capabilities and even international calling.
Your free cell phone will likely be an Android, and it probably won’t be a well-known brand like a Samsung Galaxy. Assurance Wireless, for example, lists the ANS Artia, Moto G Pure and Moxee m2160 among its available free cell phones for users.
Once you’ve set up service with a Lifeline provider, you should receive your new cell phone in the mail within seven to 10 business days.
Other Ways to Get Free Cell Phones for Seniors
If you don’t qualify for the Lifeline program, major carriers frequently run promotions that provide you with a free cell phone when you sign up for a plan.
For example, Verizon offers several discounts on phones when you add a line or sign up for service (and have a cell phone you can trade in).
Make sure to read the fine print. To get a “free phone,” you’re usually required to enroll in an unlimited plan, which can cost $70 or more a month, plus taxes and fees.
Discount carriers, like Boost Mobile, offer big savings on a cell phone when you switch to their service. When we checked, new customers could get a $200 virtual prepaid card toward the price of their phone after making their third monthly payment.
If you’re looking to lower your monthly photo bill, you can compare these cell phone plans offering service — and data — for less than $30 a month.
You can also learn how to buy a used phone on places like Amazon or even Craigslist, which can save you hundreds of dollars, then pair it with a low-cost phone plan.
Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. She focuses on retirement, Medicare, life insurance and investing.