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Phones play a vital role in daily life. They keep us connected to family, friends, work and emergency services. But in reality, access to phones or phone service is an out-of-reach luxury for many low-income folks.
Cost shouldn't have to be a barrier to necessities. Government programs and other options may be available to those who need help. Here's how to get discounted or free phone service and phones. (Find out how the government defines low income: What is considered low income?)
How to get discounted or free phone service for low-income households
Apply for the federal Lifeline program
The Lifeline program is a federal program that offers discounted phone service to eligible low-income households. It reduces phone service costs by up to $9.25 per month (or up to $34.25 per month for those who live on tribal lands).
You may qualify for subsidized service through Lifeline if:
Your income is at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines.
You participate in a government assistance program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income.
If you or someone in your household participates in a tribal assistance program.
Consumers in most states can apply with a participating phone service provider. You can apply online at nv.fcc.gov, by mail or through a phone company. California, Oregon and Texas residents need to check with their phone company or state website to learn how to apply. If approved for the Lifeline program, you'll need to recertify annually.
Explore state programs for low-income households
Your state may have its own low-income program that you can use along with the federal government's Lifeline program. Eligibility requirements are typically similar to the federal program.
For example, the California LifeLine program offers a discount of up to $17.90 on monthly home or cell phone service for households meeting certain income requirements or for people enrolled in a qualifying public assistance program, such as Medicaid or Medi-Cal.
The Idaho Telephone Service Assistance Program helps lower phone installation costs or provides $2.50 in monthly savings on service costs.
If you're eligible for a program in your area, contact your phone company to start the application process.
Search for affordable phone plans from carriers
Don't qualify for a low-income program? You can still find cheap cell phone plans from prominent and smaller carriers. The more stripped-down a plan is, such as offering fewer text messages or little to no monthly data, the less expensive it's likely to be.
Prepaid plans usually don't require a credit check and are a fraction of the cost of popular unlimited postpaid plans. For example, Connect by T-Mobile's prepaid plans start at $10 a month.
You can try other strategies to lower your cell phone bill, such as setting up automatic bill payments to receive autopay discounts from your service provider. Also, additional discounts may be available for seniors, service members and veterans. Compare prices and benefits from different carriers to find the right plan for you.
If you still need help paying your bill, try contacting United Way's 2-1-1 for resources.
How to get free or discounted phones
Some phone service providers that partner with the Lifeline program also offer free or cheap phones to eligible participants. For example, Assurance Wireless and SafeLink Wireless services include a free smartphone, monthly data, texting and minutes. Availability and pricing can vary by location, so ask carriers for details.
There are other ways to save money on a phone, regardless of income. You can check online marketplaces such as Craigslist, Facebook, OfferUp or Buy Nothing groups for free or deeply discounted secondhand devices. But be wary of scams and stolen gadgets. Going through trusted websites such as Swappa and Gazelle to buy a used phone will likely be the safest bet — these reputable sites screen listings for fraud and quality issues on your behalf.
Another option: Check out policies and promotions from phone carriers, such as a free cell phone when you switch plans, buy-one-get-one-free deals or major markdowns when you trade in a device. These types of offers often pop up around holidays and sale events such as Black Friday.