So what do you do if you enroll with a Lifeline provider and find that you are not happy with the phone, phone service or customer care? Are you stuck with them forever, or even until the end of your annual plan? The answer is no.
Each Lifeline cell phone provider has different strengths and weaknesses. One may provide better quality phones, another may provide more voice minutes and texting limits, while another may provide higher quality customer service. And it’s hard to know if you are getting the best company for your specific needs at the time that you initially subscribe. And given that so many do not shop for the best company, against our recommendations, and simply pick up a phone from a street tent, a large number are likely to be disappointed.
If you’re not satisfied with your current Lifeline cell phone provider, you are allowed to switch to another one, but only after you have maintained your current service for at least 60 days. Many believe that you have to first cancel with your current provider before enrolling with a new provider, but this is not true. The Universal Service Administrative Company (usac.org) who administers the Lifeline program has very specific rules that instruct phone vendors on how they must handle what then call a “Benefit Transfer” (a phone company switch) to another provider.
As long as you have passed your initial 60 day period, Lifeline providers are required to take you in as a new customer, essentially transferring your current subscription to them. The new provider will send transfer paperwork into the USAC and they will update their National Lifeline Accountability Database (NLAD). If the new company doesn’t want to accommodate you with a transfer, remind them of the Benefit Transfer rules they are required to follow. It may be easier for them to tell you to cancel your current account and then to later get back in touch with them to enroll. But don’t let them get away with that.
We’d like to tell you that you will be able to keep your current phone number, or even your current phone, but each provider is different and some may and some may not do either. And if you do get a new phone you may have a lag time between the cancellation of your current service while waiting for your new phone.
What if you really need to switch providers within the first 60 days of service? In this case you will need to contact your current provider to cancel that service, and then contact a new provider to enroll in a new program. But you are going to run into a bit a problem. When people enroll with a new Lifeline service provider, that provider checks to see if your name is already on the USAC’s NLAD database. If it is, they cannot legally provide service for you. So, if the company you just canceled with has not yet submitted the forms to USAC to remove your name from the database, you’re out of luck. The time it takes for a vendor to submit the cancellation information and then how it takes for the USAC to process it may vary from vendor to vendor and time to time. The providers submit this information in batch, and it’s in the provider’s best financial interest to keep your account active as long as possible (to get their monthly payment from the government) and on the other end you’ve got the USAC, which is a government body and likely not super efficient.
Boring details: USAC.org Benefits Transfer page