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Lifeline Frequently Asked Questions

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The Lifeline Assistance program can be very counter intuitive and since it’s a government program, there can be a lot of hoops to jump through.  To complicate matters further, dozens of companies take part in the Lifeline Assistance program.  So, aspects of the program can even vary from company to company. The program itself, the various plans and the phones can be confusing to a new applicant.   Below, we answer some of the most common questions we receive on the Lifeline Assistance program.

We cover the following questions below:

  • Who Pays for These Phones? Is it Really Free?
  • Is This the “Obama Phone?”
  • What Do I Need to Qualify?
  • What Documents Do I Need to Bring?
  • What Counts as “Income?”
  • Is There a Long Term Contract?
  • What Happens if I Want to Cancel?
  • What Happens if I Lose or Break My Phone?
  • Can I Get a Phone for Someone Else in My Household?

Question: Who Pays for These Phones? Is it Really Free?

Yes, the phones are actually, genuinely 100% free.

The phones are paid for by everyone in the United States who has a phone. It’s called the Universal Service Fund. Everyone pays a few bucks into this fund. The money from the fund then goes towards paying for phone service for low income individual who can’t afford normal cell phone plans.

Question: Is This the “Obama Phone?”

Yes and no. The program is called the “Obama Phone” because the plan truly kicked into action when Obama stepped into office. Yet Obama actually had very little to do with the program.

The program was first authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1996. When it was first authorized, the program applied only to landline phones. The FCC created a plan that let low income households get free landline phones.

In 2008, when Obama took office, the first application for mobile phone use of the same plan was approved. Obama didn’t have much to do with it. The dates were more or less a coincidence; though many people started associating the program with Obama.

Question: What Do I Need to Qualify?

You need to fall under the program’s earnings requirements. You’ll qualify if you earn less than 135% to 150% of the federal poverty guideline for your state. You can also qualify based on qualifying for another government assistance program, such as food stamps, public housing or Medicaid.

Question: What Documents Do I Need to Bring?

The more documentation you can bring the better. You’ll need at least one document proving your income to be eligible if you’re trying to qualify based on income. Here are some of the documents you should bring, if available:

  • Paycheck or pay stub. Recent months preferred.
  • Tax returns. If you don’t have a copy of your tax return, you can request another copy from the IRS.
  • Unemployment statement. If you’re on unemployment, bring in your statement of benefits it prove that you’re not employed.
  • Proof of other income. For example, bring a copy of your pension statement of benefits if you’re on a pension plan.
  • If you qualify under any special program, bring proof of that program. For example, bring your Medicaid care plan and your Medicaid card to prove your Medicaid eligibility.

All the information you provide must be provided under penalty of perjury. That means deception on any of these forms could have serious consequences, including jail time.

Question: What Counts as “Income?”


Naturally, your paycheck counts as income. Yet a lot of people wonder – do things like unemployment, pensions or workers comp count as income?

When it comes to qualifying for the program, the answer is yes. Social security, child support, interest from investments and paychecks are all lumped into one category. Your total income from all your income combined has to be less than the 135% to 150% of the federal poverty guidelines.

If you’re qualifying using another government program, you may be asked to use your adjusted gross income (AGI) instead. Your adjusted gross income is your total pretax income, minus some specific expenses. These expenses include alimony payments, half of self-employment tax, contributions to IRAs, college tuition and student loan fees among others. Essentially the government gives you a small “credit” for certain expenses.

Question: Is There a Long Term Contract?

No, there is no long term contract. You receive your phone on a “use as you will” basis. If you want to cancel your plan, you can do so at any time with no consequences.

You do have to re-qualify for your plan once a year. All you need to do is fill out a few simple forms that demonstrate that you still fall under a qualifying category. Apart from that, there are no other annual requirements to participate in the program.

Question: What Happens if I Want to Cancel?

If you want to cancel your account, all you need to do is call them and let them know.

If you’re canceling because you no longer qualify for the program, you can actually switch to a paid account. That will let you keep your phone number and all you contacts and use your phone like a normal phone plan.

No matter what the reason you decide to cancel, there will never be any penalty fees. You’ll get to keep your phone. If you change to another phone provider, you may still be able to use the same phone provided the phone is unlocked.

Question: Do I Need to Be an American Citizen to Use the Program?

No, you don’t. The form doesn’t have a citizenship requirement. The eligibility form doesn’t ask for a social security number.

You just need to be able to show documentation that you qualify. If you’re an immigrant with a job, you can use your pay stub as income verification to qualify. If you’re on another government program, like Section 8 or food stamps, you can use that to qualify. As long as you bring verification in, nobody’s going to check if you’re a citizen.

Note: technically the program is only valid for US citizens. However, getting qualified for the program without US citizenship is not difficult. Social security numbers are not checked.

Question: What if I Get Declined for the Program?

Try again at another location. The Lifeline program is not difficult to qualify for. In fact, reporters who don’t actually qualify for the program have had no trouble finding store locations who were willing to give them phones anyway. If you get turned down at one location, try again at another location.

If they never ran your verifications through any kind of system, you can literally just go to a different store on the same day. If they ran your name through a system and it came up declined, then wait 30 to 60 days before trying again with the same carrier. You can try again with a different carrier on the same day.

Outdoor sellers and “booth” vendors may be more likely to approve you than a cell phone store. Look for Lifeline phone vendors outside of food stamp or government assistance offices. These employees are paid to give away a free product, so they’ll be more than happy to help you get approved.

Question: Do I Get a Voicemail?

It depends on your carrier. Most carriers and most phones carry basic phone features like Caller ID and voicemail. Sometimes it’s the phone’s limitation, rather than the carrier’s limitation that doesn’t allow certain features (like call waiting.)

Question: What Happens if I Go Over My Minutes?

If you go over your minutes, your phone will stop working until the next month.  You can always add more minutes by buying an Airtime Card online, or by visiting a participating retailer that sells refill cards.

Question: Is Text Messaging Included?

The answer to this question varies from carrier to carrier.  So, you will need to check with your carrier.  In some cases, your free cell phone program covers text messages.

Question: What Happens if I Lose or Break My Phone?

If you lose your phone, you may be qualified to receive a replacement. Safelink Wireless offers one replacement phone for each customer. The phone will be a used phone instead of a new phone. Most other carriers won’t give free replacement phones.

Generally speaking, if you lose your phone you’ll lose all the minutes that was on the phone. If you have a credit card linked to that phone, make sure to call and cancel the phone immediately so you don’t incur any charges from anyone else using your phone.

If the phone dropped in water, try soaking the phone in dry rice for a day. The rice will draw the water out of the device and often return it to working condition.

If you can’t get a replacement phone, you can often purchase one from Amazon.com for $20. Walmart and Target will also sell replacement phones for under $20 dollars.

Question: Can I Get a Phone for Someone Else in My Household?

Unfortunately not. The Lifeline program has a strict one phone per household rule. This can cause some complications.

For example, you won’t be able to get a phone for your son or daughter. If you live in a nursing home with 50 other patients, you won’t be able to get a phone if another patient who has a Lifeline phone shares the same address as you.

The Lifeline program is designed to help the head of a household lift themselves out of poverty. It’s meant to help people find work, manage kids or handle essential daily tasks. Lawmakers deemed that only one phone per household was necessary to do this.

Note that both landline phones and mobile phones fall under the same program. You can’t have one free landline phone and one free mobile phone.

These are some of the most common questions we encounter about the Lifeline program. If you have more questions, email us and we’ll add it to the list.

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