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A lot of people are experiencing financial headaches right now in the wake of the coronavirus, but a cell phone bill doesn’t have to be one of them.
Here’s how it works:
1. Free Lifeline cell service is for low-income or unemployed customers.
From now until June 30, consumers can submit an official document that confirms their current income information — such as an unemployment benefits notice. After that date, customers will need to provide pay stubs from prior three months to verify their income-based eligibility for Lifeline, unless the FCC extends the waiver period. For details visit the FCC.gov.
You may also qualify if your household income is at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines. (For example, a household of 5 can have income of no more than $41,418/year.)
You also qualify if you participate in one of these federal assistance programs:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)
- Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit
- Tribal Programs (and live on federally-recognized Tribal lands)
NOTE: Lifeline only allows one Lifeline account per household.
2. Apply online for the Lifeline program.
Head to the National Verifier website and do the following:
- Choose your state and click “Get Started.”
- Enter your information to create an account.
- Sign in with your newly created username and password.
- Start new application.
- Enter your qualification information (upload documents, if necessary).
- Submit your application to find out if you qualify.
- Receive your application ID.
3. Enroll in a Lifeline cell provider in your area.
Once your application has been approved by the National Verifier, you can browse Lifeline cell phone plans in your area. Enter your city/state or zip code to get a full list of providers, and then browse each one to see which features you like the most.
You may enroll in your chosen provider online, by phone, or in store (if applicable).
NOTE: Some areas also offer a free landline or internet access through Lifeline. You can’t, however, register for more than one Lifeline account. If you pick a cell phone plan, you can’t also sign up for internet or a landline.
4. Bring your phone, or even get a new one for free.
Many Lifeline providers allow you to bring your existing phone — assuming it’s compatible with their system. Check the providers’ websites to see if your handset works with their system.
In some special cases, you can even get a free phone to go with your free cell service.
5. Get at least 3GB data and 320 minutes of talk time for free.
Each cell phone company that participates in the Lifeline program has slightly different offerings, but 3GB of data seems to be the norm.
That amount of data is enough to send about 3,000 emails, browse the internet for about 60 hours, stream 600 songs, or watch 6 hours of standard-definition internet video.
During coronavirus, however, many of these providers have given their customers free extra data.
6. Get unlimited texting and 320+ minutes of talk time.
Every plan we’ve seen offers unlimited text messaging. While many providers provide 320 minutes (4 hours) of talk time as part of their plans, some offer unlimited talk time — and others that normally meter their talk time have given their customers unlimited plans, at least through the end of May.
7. Need more data or talk time? You can purchase more.
Providers with metered data or talk time offer bundles for customers to purchase, should they need more. One provider we found offers an extra gigabyte of data for $5, and 250 additional voice minutes for $5.
But with providers offering unlimited talk and expanded data right now, it’s probably not necessary in the near-term.