How Can Senior Citizens Get Free Cell Phones?
As people age, access to reliable phone service becomes more essential than ever. Senior citizens use their phones to make appointments, call for emergency help, access community resources, and stay in touch with friends and family. In today’s world, where so much communication is done online, there is also a frequent need for Internet access among seniors. No one should be without a phone.
Currently, cell phones, especially smartphones, are the easiest way to access telephone, text messaging, and the Internet. However, with cell phones becoming ever more modern and skyrocketing in price, senior citizens who may be on a fixed income may worry about spending a lot on a device or on cell phone service.
The good news is, there are several ways for seniors to access free cellular phones and free or reduced-rate phone service, which includes texting and data as well as traditional phone calls. Both government-funded programs and special rates from private companies give senior citizens access to the technology they need.
The Lifeline Assistance Program
The “free government cell phones” you may have heard about in the news are related to the Lifeline Assistance Program. This program provides free or reduced cellular service for people in a lower income bracket and to those who receive certain types of government assistance. The program actually started in the 1980’s and was applicable to landline phones, but given the updates in technology, coverage has shifted to cellular phones.
Available in all 50 states, the Lifeline Assistance Program offers a monthly discount of $9.25 for cellular services. In cooperation with the program, several companies offer plans starting at $9.25 so that the service is, in essence, free to customers. The program is run by the FCC and administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company, but actual phone service is provided by private cellular companies. About 15 million households are currently enrolled, with millions more eligible if they apply.
There are several qualifications that must be met if you want to apply for the Lifeline Assistance Program (LAP). First and foremost, you must either have an annual income less than 135% of the Federal poverty guidelines, OR you must receive assistance from another qualifying government program. Each state has its own programs that qualify, but participation in any of the following federal programs makes you eligible for the LAP in all 50 states:
- Public Housing Assistance/Section 8 Housing
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Veteran’s Pension and Survivors Benefit Programs
- Home Energy Assistance Program
- Food Stamps/SNAP
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
- Tribally Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
If you do not receive any assistance but do have a low income, you may qualify based on income alone. Your income must be less than 135% of poverty guidelines to participate in the LAP if you do not receive any other assistance. Many senior citizens who are on fixed incomes through Social Security may qualify. The poverty level does vary a bit by state, and by the number of people in the household. Here is a chart to help you determine if you are eligible - your income must be at or below that listed to qualify for the LAP.
Income, as considered for this program, includes both taxable and nontaxable income for all members of the household combined. In addition to wages or salary, income includes pensions, Social Security, interest and dividends, alimony, child support, gifts, lottery winnings, inheritance, and rental income.
A few other qualifications apply to be eligible for the LAP. You must have a valid mailing address - P.O. boxes are not acceptable. You are allowed only one line per household, with a household consisting of people who live together and share money. You must be able to provide proof of income, such as yearly taxes or your three most recent months of pay stubs.
If you qualify for the program, it is easy to apply. You can apply online, by mail, or directly through the cell phone company you choose to use, which is the simplest option. You will need to provide your name, date of birth, last 4 digits of your Social Security number or Tribal Identification number, and a valid address. Simply visit a cellular service provider in person or online and ask them to help you apply for the Lifeline Assistance Program, and they will receive the credit directly.
Where do the free cell phones come in? Well, the companies that are contracted directly with the LAP either offer a free cell phone (as with Assurance Cellular) or allow you to use your existing phone and provide you with a free SIM card to connect to their service (as with QLink and Safelink). If you do need to purchase a phone, these companies also offer very inexpensive refurbished options starting at around $10.
Assurance, QLink, and Safelink also offer very low-rate cellular plans that are $9.25/month so that your service will be fully covered by the program. These plans are required to offer at least 250 minutes of talk time per month along with usage of at least 4.5 GB of data, including texting. Or you can elect to use any cellular service provider and use the $9.25 as a credit toward your service plan.
It is important to note that you must recertify your eligibility for the LAP annually. You also must use your cellular plan at least once every 30 days, or you will receive a notice stating you must use it within 15 days or be disconnected from service.
If you qualify, the Lifeline Assistance Program is a great way to get free or low-cost cell phones and cellular service. However, given the strict eligibility requirements, not all senior citizens will qualify. Fortunately, there are some other options for keeping your cellular costs low.
Deals Through Cell Service Providers
If you are looking just for a free phone but don’t mind paying for service, there are frequent offers from large providers such as T-Mobile and Verizon that you may want to accept. Free smartphones are often tied to a contract and higher-priced service plan, however, so if you want to keep costs low, it may make more sense to purchase a less expensive phone and opt for lower rates for service.
In that case, consider what discounts you may qualify for given your membership in groups devoted to senior citizens. If you are a member of AARP, discounts are available through many companies, including Cricket, Lively, TracFone, Sprint/T-Mobile, Verizon, Consumer Cellular, and AT&T. If you are a member of the Association of Mature American Citizens, you can take advantage of 50% off Pure Talk monthly plans and receive a free iPhone SE when you sign up for a contract. Veterans receive 25% off all AT&T cellular plans.
Additionally, particular companies offer discounts to seniors that may make things more affordable. T-Mobile’s 55-Plus Plan offers unlimited minutes and data starting at $27.50/month. AT&T’s Senior Nation Plan, offered to those 65+, provides 200 anytime minutes, 500 night and weekend minutes, and unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes with plans starting at $29.99/month. Consumer Cellular offers 5% off service plans for those aged 50 or higher, and has no contracts. With Lively, cost depends monthly on your estimate of how great your needs are for talk, text, and data, so you can really make your own price.
A Few Other Options
If you are in need of a free phone and reduced service plan costs, it may be wise to ask a friend or family member for a phone they are no longer using and then apply to an LAP program that provides a free SIM card with setup. That way, you will get a more advanced phone at no cost and connect to the service plan for free, as well.
Finally, if you need a cell phone purely for emergency use, any cell phone that holds a charge can be used to call 911 regardless of whether there is a service plan. Look at 911cellphonebank.org to find free cell phones, but remember they are only able to call 911 and no other numbers. This might be a good option if you typically use a landline but want a portable option for emergencies out of the home.