The Free Obama Phone: Real or Urban Legend?

The official word from the Lifeline free cell phone experts.

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Since the day Barack Obama was inaugurated, the term “The Obama Phone” has persisted. People say Obama is redistributing the wealth by starting a program that gives free cell phones – Obama phones – to the poor. Detractors of both President Obama and of the government’s long-standing phone assistance program have fought over this claim since 2009 with each side mudslinging “facts” at each other. is going to clear this subject up once and for all with the most detailed account of the facts that you will find anywhere. When you next have a discussion on this topic, just give those on the other side the link to this page.

Is the government giving out free cell phones?

Yes. This part is true. They fund low end cell phones plans, and offset some of the cost of landline phones. The programs that authorize the phone distribution program are called Lifeline Assistance and Lifeline Link-Up. Lifeline Assistance helps pay monthly phone bills and Lifeline Link-Up helps pay the initial outlay for the phone and installation. The two programs are often lumped together and simply called Lifeline.

These Lifeline cell phones are delivered through relatively new, government-approved cell phone companies like Safelink Wireless, Assurance Wireless and Reachout Wireless, among others. These companies were spun of off larger prepaid cell phone companies to specialize in the Lifeline program.

Did Obama start the free phones program?

Obama Phone urban legend

That looks like a big fat NO to us.

The cell phone distribution program did begin in 2008, the year Obama was elected president, but that is a coincidence. Let’s look more closely at the facts.

Notice that earlier we said Link-Up helps fund “installation.” What installation does a cell phone have? None. So why is installation part of Link-Up, which is under the Lifeline program umbrella? Because, the whole thing began back in 1996 when the Federal Communications Commission authorized the programs for landline phones. At that time it provided discounts on landline phones only, for obvious reasons.

To this day the government provides discounts on landline phones for financially disadvantaged people in the United States and U.S. territories. The Link-Up portion helps with the installation and the Lifeline Assistance part helps with the monthly bills, to the tune of roughly ten dollars a month.

So, the subsidization of phones began under President Clinton, and has continued under Presidents Bush and Obama.

Over that time, the usage of cell phones rose and the costs came down. Assuming one believes in the Lifeline program in the first place, and remembering that the FCC has mandated the program, it only makes sense to expand the phone assistance program to include cell phones. So, in 2008 the first application of this program for mobile phones began when a company called Tracfone started their Safelink Wireless service in Tennessee.

Aha, some say, that’s the same year Obama was elected! Well, that’s true. But the service in Tennessee was launched three months prior to Obama being elected. And that means the discussion and approval of the extension of the program occurred under President Bush’s watch.

The Bush Phone, anyone?

How did the Obama Phone rumors start?

Just how did this “Obama Phone” rumor get started anyway? Back around early 2009, emails began circulating that called the free cell phone program the Obama Phone. And you know what happens when emails start getting passed around — few people verify them, and just simply forward them to everyone in their contact list. And the people who forward them believe that Barack Obama has socialist tendencies, so there was a willing audience. Here is just one sample email:

FW: Obamaphone… no joke!!
I had a former employee call me earlier today inquiring about a job, and at the end of the conversation he gave me his phone number. I asked the former employee if this was a new cell phone number and he told me yes this was his “Obama phone.” I asked him what an “Obama phone” was and he went on to say that welfare recipients are now eligible to receive (1) a FREE new phone and (2) approx 70 minutes of FREE minutes every month. I was a little skeptical so I Googled it and low and behold he was telling the truth. TAX PAYER MONEY IS BEING REDISTRIBUTED TO WELFARE RECIPIENTS FOR FREE CELL PHONES. This program was started earlier this year. Enough is enough, the ship is sinking and it’s sinking fast. The very foundations that this country was built on are being shaken. The age old concepts of God, family, and hard work have flown out the window and are being replaced with “Hope and Change” and “Change we can believe in.”

Variations of these emails persist to this day. Like President Obama or not, they are simply false.

And then there are videos like this one, that went viral. Videos of these misinformed people don’t help:

Who qualifies?

The free cell phones only go to those who qualify for the program under the exact same eligibility requirements that have been in effect since 1996. An applicant is generally eligible if they are at or below 135-150% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (depending upon the state in which they live), or if they already participate in one of many public assistance programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, energy assistance, public housing and others.

Nothing about the Lifeline eligibility has changed since President Clinton’s days. Nothing has changed since President Bush’s days.

Who pays for the phones?

There’s another running argument about if the phones are or are not paid for by taxpayers. Yes and no, it depends how you look at it.

The money actually comes from a small fee added to most people’s monthly phone bills, called the Universal Service Fund fee. For a complete discussion of this, please read, “Do Taxpayers Pay for Government Cell Phones for the Poor?”

And it’s important to note that it does not cost any more to provide cell phones to people than it does landline. The government subsidizes both equally. In fact, landlines are often more expensive because the Link-Up portion is not always required for cell phones, depending upon the state.

Spread the Word: The Obama Phone rumor is false!

Now you’ve got all the facts and information you need to rebut anyone who calls this valuable program the The Obama Phone. Set the record straight by giving them the link to this page.

And of course, you can share this page with all your friends on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere with the buttons just a few lines below.



  1. Matt says

    C’mon, there is no justification to give out cell phones for free. What else iMacs, TVs and Xboxes? To say is not a tax is BS.

  2. ruben says

    I was under the impression that these cell phone companies were passed the bill…. in return they passed the bill to us cellphone customers for the fee?

  3. Lul B Haji says

    I get obama phone before three years Ago bat my number is disconnected i want if I can get second CH and thank you Obama and Any one Help Me.

  4. Mike Aaron says

    I wish the country was one big village. that the companies who provided did the best they could to enrich the lives of all, that they were paid fairly for their efforts, and treated their workers fairly. I wish we raised our children to love each other not look for differences. That we sent all our children to school and it wasn’t a small elite few who could afford a good education. When will we realize that if we sent every capable student to college we would have a nation of intelligent workers, instead of masses of laborers who are losing their jobs to lower wages overseas, we shouldn’t want those low paying jobs anyways. How about a tribal council of leaders who actually worked together to govern the villagers justly. to make sure they weren’t abused by corporate interests? No, we have to be concerned with some free cell phones.

  5. Nat Cia says

    I believe most people are angry at the wrong crowd. There are people that will take advantage of just about anything and everything that comes their way.

    I believe it all starts at home, the system is messed up. I was once without a job and having had stayed at home with my child for a few years until he started pre-school I was lacking “work history” so many of the places I was applying for would not hire me because of it, not because of lack of experience. Prior to finally landing a job way below “my standards”, I had gone to the county office to see about getting job leads and this is what transpire.

    -Hi, I’m here to see if you can give me some job leads.

    -Ok, you have to sign up for cash aid, if you qualify, you have to do 40 hours of training, you will get money and job leads

    -I don’t want money from you, I want to get a job, I just want some job leads that’s it.

    -Well it doesn’t work that way!!! You HAVE to apply for cash aid, once you qualify, you will get the job leads.

    I left with nothing and kept looking for work until I found it. While working there for two years, I kept looking for something better and finally gave myself a $5 raise when I found my current job.
    While working at that one place, I saw a LOT of people come in that had food stamps and cash aid, some people (I would peek at their receipt) would have up to $1000 in food stamps and after getting to know the customers, I realized how MANY of them where job less, doing drugs and drinking while begging for money on the streets. It made me angry, there I was, working nights, risking my life and busting my ass paying taxes while they are begging on the streets, making more money then me doing so and still getting assistance from the government. It makes me sick and to put the cherry on top I would have to be nice to them because I was being watched 24/7 by surveillance cameras,

    One time a well known customer offered a job to one of these homeless drunks, the homeless guy was in his late 30s, well spoken and had really good manners (I knew him because at night, people that came in would tell me their stories) this guy came from a family that had money, he had had an argument with his brother and had come to California, he became an alcoholic here when he couldn’t find a job and started begging on the streets. Any how, the known customer, offered him a job and he said this…. “”No thank you my friend, I make about $3000 a month begging on the streets, why would I want to work? I live in the empty field, with a tent under a tree, have a little stove and use the gas station bath room. I’m good to go. Thank you anyway.”” This is what society has become!!!

    The system is so flawed it’s not even funny, you can go and apply for any kind of assistance and nothing gets checked, they take your word for it. So lets keep enabling the drunks, pot heads and addicts by giving them money on the streets and providing cash aid and food assistance.

    • Sheila says

      That is so true. Very well said. I think its crazy how any one can get any kind of aid without providing proof or evidence. And the homeless people on the streets, when I see them I feel really sorry for them but something tells me they are fake. The way they dress and look does not even look like a homeless. They say they are hungry but when offered food, they refuse and ask for money. So obviously they don’t need the money for food, they use it to buy drugs or whatever. Some of them even sit on the streets with their kids. Omg, how can you take the poor kids and have them stay on the street the whole day and beg for money. What a shame!

  6. Bryon says

    I know some people that milk the system, food stamps, free medical, free dental and now a free cell phone. They work and get paid cash under the table. I hope the government uses the free cell phones to track and follow the ones that work for cash and lock them up for fraud. Maybe they can listen in on the phone calls and hear some of the deadbeats making drug deals.

  7. dianna says

    Free cell phones? Free for who. Somebody pays the price. Nothing is free. Seems there was a time when the only phones were land lines in your home, there were no cell phones. How did we ever survive without them. Now everybody has one attached to there hip. My income bracket is too high for a free phone, wouldn’t take one even if I could. Though my income bracket is too high for a free phone, still live paycheck to paycheck. I don’t feel as though my tax dollars should support a cell phone habit for those who cannot afford it. We are a one cell phone family. Hubby has one for his work, we use it as OUR phone. It is non contract and when we can’t afford minutes it is off until we can. Nobody should have to pay for my phone use, and I shouldn’t have to pay for anybody elses either. Too many people taking handouts instead of helping themselves, doing what they have to…..It is called survival. True there are those that need help, but how many don’t and just find ways to take advantage of a system working class america can no longer afford to take care of. I make twice as much as I did 20 years ago and still find it hard to survive. I have no problem with people who need help, I have a problem with those who are too lazy to help themselves, but kiniving enough to help themselves to what I bust my ass for everyday of the week, and have no shame about it. In a country where there are more people unemployed then working, how much more “free” can we continue to bare the burden of? The government is not independently wealthy. The money comes from the taxpayers. I think it is time to put a tighter fitting lid on the cookie jar and start slapping some hands.

    • Brian says

      The problem you’re describing originates from corporate welfare, which sucks far more money out of people’s pockets than the mythical hordes of welfare slackers. You’re angry at the wrong group of people.

      • dAVE hARRIS says

        Im not sure exactly what corporate welfare is although I see the term thrown around a lot. Are we talkiing about Solyndra? Or is that sort of thing ‘good” corporate welfare. I do know that we have an ever increasing number of parasites in our society. Mythical? Come to my office any day of the week and see all of the mythical recipients spending their day on the streets. We spent over a trillion on entitlement programs last year. How much on corporate welfare?

        • Mike Aaron says

          these cell phone companies are making money hand over fist, they have successfully lobied our government into giving them subsidies, but we are not concerned about that? we are enraged that someone gets to make free phone calls? Really I can’t understand this type of thinking. These corporations should not be getting handouts, our government should not be owned by the people making political contributions. Some free cell phones is trivial and distracts the focus of the masses, we need to fix our government, hold corporations accountable, and empower the poor and impoverished. Every person we train or educate, the ones we help out for a period and then they become contributing members of society, they are the ones who will make this country great again. We need to come together, to help restore our people to dignity and our government to it’s role of defending the constitution and bill of rights.

          • cheute79 says

            Replace “corporations” with “government at all levels”. Corporations have oversight, from shareholders and government. Government is supposed to have oversight: the voters. But most voters are ignorant, and will vote for anyone who will give them a handout, so their oversight is much worse than “corporations”.

            No one can “empower” another; they can only disempower. The government, media and education system do most of the disempowering. If one feels empowered, or has the attitude of being empowered, he is. Few people are, either by dispostion or because they don’t care.

            If “we” (the people, as in government) educate someone (pay for it), we should limit the areas of study to something where the recipient can actually help. “we” need to produce more electricians, more welders, more millwrights, and more chemical plant operators, and fewer lawyers (huge numbers have no job when they graduate), no graduates with degrees in “[fill in the blank] studies”, communications, Medieval Russian Literature, etc. That only increases national debt, decreases self esteem, causes anger, and devalues a High School diploma.

  8. maurine says

    My friend still has an “Obama phone” even though she does not qualify for Food Stamps anymore.
    No one has ever taken it back and she still gets the free minutes. This is her back up phone.
    She should never have gotten Food Stamps to begin with. She lied and said her husband left her and she
    didn’t know where he was. No one ever checked.

    What a gig if you can get it.

    I have MS and still work even with my extreme fatigue.Have never gotten a dime from the government.
    My mother was only approved for $10 a month in food stamps when she was old, in declining healh and paying a supplement to the government so she could get a home aide who did nothing but her homework while “helping’ my mother.

    My father was a WW2 Veteran, died young and my mother never got anything from this great country who gives everything away to people who never did anything for this county.

  9. Terry says

    The Founding Fathers warned that Democracies have a shelf-life. One of the contributing factors to the demise is the size of the population willing to vote itself a paycheck. It starts small, then the burden placed on the backs of producers is overwhelmed. There is nothing more mobile than rich people and money. The “one size trophy for all participants” mentality is killing the American Competitive Edge. Giving money for nothing never made a person stronger; to believe otherwise is naive at best, and at worst criminal.

    If you want to incentivize self-growth, we must demand that all recipients of any subsidy work. Even if it’s community service, fabricated gradeschool papers to critique, silverware and napkins to fold (then unfold), or a ditch to dig that was filled in the day prior, recipients must work. When being on welfare is as bad as, or worse than work, recipients will be more willing to stay in school and seek employment in the private sector.

    For parents that would otherwise use their children as an excuse: vouchers–to be used by government approved, regulated, and inspected daycare centers.

    It is true that I might find myself asking for welfare. And I’ll be the first to pick up the rake and drag it across the City Hall lawn until such time that one of my applications for a job is accepted. If God should find it in His plan to take my legs between now and then, I’ll do my best to read at local hospitals to children. I am an American, and I can earn my way in life….

    • Prof Mo says

      Terry, I agree with you wholeheartedly. What you describe isn’t hard to implement, but it is too out-of-the norm for politicians to want to do it.

    • M Hooper says

      Slavery in all but name is no vice, right?
      Dickens describes well the sort of society you advocate and we are sliding into.
      If we have democracy today, I don’t see much of it, when the strings are pulled by the people who get the most government welfare. Companies like GE, pay no taxes because they have lobbied successfully to have the tax code written so that the government gives them a bonus from your tax money, in addition to them NOT paying any taxes on April 15.

      Perhaps you need to widen your focus to see who your real enemies are?

    • Mike says

      Earn your own way in life? Your hypothetical scenario sounds like charity to me, bub. Pssh, whatever, not on my City Lawn, freeloader….

  10. dick steele says

    My son ,like others is disabled. The mental health and lack of care in the USA is horrible.1 out of 4 are involved . Would you deny them help. This service is paid for by a small universal tax in.your phone bill.

    • mike says

      First of all, I’m sorry about your child. However it should not be my money that I (work) for going to supply a phone to a no good sorry ass that won’t look for work. There are available jobs, granted not the best of jobs, but these particular people I refer to don’t think they should have to work. They feel entitled to get everything for nothing, they think their owed something. Well I don’t owe them shit. They need to get off the couch, sidewalks and food lines and take whatever job they can get and become a contribution to the country. If I had my way everyone not willing to work for food would starve. Have a great day.

      • M Hooper says

        You suffer– as do millions of both jobless and working people– under the corporate rule of this country. But if it were your elderly or infirm mother or son or, indeed, yourself, who was unable to work due to illness or age, and you wouldn’t or couldn’t help out– with the money that you have worked so hard for and resent giving a jot of to the indigent– wouldn’t you sleep better knowing that in a medical emergency your family members could call 911? Or give a phone number to a potential employer in case of a job offer? Or if your house was burning down and you were not home that someone you might not even know could call the fire apartment on your behalf? Since pay phones have disappeared from our streets, the cell phone has been a necessity for so many people.
        Corporate welfare became government policy beginning with Ronnie’s administration. Your resentment–so common now– of those who have fared badly under corporatism has replaced any consideration of the common good, and your anger will eventually kill you.

        [this part removed due to lack of civility]

        Perhaps the log in your eye is too large for you to remove without professional help?

        • Karin says

          Do people not realize even if you do not have landline phone service you can still call 911 from your landline? In all the steas. Also these Obama phones are a joke. My drug addict brother and sister in law ( who choose to be homeless most of the time cuz they don’t want to work) they each have 3 Obama phones. Yes I said 3.. OBAMA PHONES ARE A JOKE..

          • Grace says

            Did you not read the article, or are you incapable of understanding what it was you thought you read? The program came into existence in 1996 under Clinton, and then 8 years under Bush. Obama was elected in November of 2008, but didn’t take office until January of 2009. So, call it an Obamaphone if you want, but the guy wasn’t even in office.

      • Patty says

        Don’t take a worthy program that has helped many, and given families with those aging adult members and disabled living alone some peace of mind over their safety – or does shafting them make YOU get even more kicks? Believe me, your overall tax dollars benefit many MUCH wealthier than you (individuals, politicians, “corporate welfare”) far more. .. but you don’t mind your money subsidizing THEM (and getting richer at your expense) ??? The fact is, those who will take advantage in some manner and at any level, will do so, whatever their life is – whether its your bum who wants a bottle of wine and a phone too (OH NO!), or the unpoor vacationers who always steal those hotel bathmats etc. Greedy thieves are everywhere from THE TOP on down, they hide how they do it and the perks they get (mass tax evasion as only the top can do), and more cunning (could this be you in some way?) . Our culture actually rewards that more than we will take the time to raise children with good self esteem and well-earned and developed pride. Sit on it and ponder for awhile :D

        • Doug N. says

          I still try reminding myself ,Doug the next RIGHT THING,
          My folks are and were as close as norm can get ;every family is a bit loppy at times and as parents learned from experience in my own deceiving ways that we must but diligent, not giving in when we are strongly confident in our parental judgements….I connived my loving folks blindly and the remorse I deal with daily or so.teens will do what it takes to be accepted by their peers.
          we are not to be their best friends , maybe when they reach adulthood but we are to be tough loving as painfully as it might be. Our children will not hate us, they may state this loudly, repeatedly but they will someday thank you hopefully.

      • Doug N. says

        I think mandatory drug testing is the answer to sort out a lot of the system milkers;not all but many.
        My wife and I are struggling as I was injured and she is dealing with a surgery coming up so the fact that I have been working since 12 on the books since 16,should my character be judged as a sluggard?

        • Kathy says

          Doug N, I totally agree with you. I think everyone who gets state or federal assistance should be drug tested on an ongoing basis. Most jobs have their employees tested, why not medicaid recipients? I am on disability, I get help with my medicare part b payment, and with medicare part c. I have medicaid as a secondary to medicare. I would be happy to be drug tested every month if needed.

    • shane says

      your handicapped child doesn’t need a cell phone. You don’t need a cell phone. I don’t need a cell phone.

      You need a job to support YOUR child.

      When you are thinking of having a child, you should think “can I afford a kid?” if the answer is yes, then you should think, “what if he is handicapped?” if that answer is no, then what? Take that chance?

      Your life, your problem. The gov, nor the people should be forced to support others. Its my money to do with what I want not anyone else’s.

      • Aaron White says

        And how do you get a job without a phone? A Cell phone costs just as much as a landline in most areas and is a lot more useful.
        But, maybe we can just ask people to have potential employers offer them jobs via pigeon. I hear they’re still pretty accurate.

      • Joel says

        Wow… the empathy is overwhelming here. Yes, I believe in personal responsibility. But, stuff happens. The guy you are replying to is talking about the lowlife bums. Not the ones who life dealt a bad hand. I would go a step further, and say, I’m not against giving someone a helping hand who is trying to turn their life around after having made poor choices. We have lost our way. Community people. People used to give of their time to help others out. When someone was in trouble, back in the day it wasn’t anything for most of a town (small town, granted) to take off, and pitch in help. What has happened to us??

        • Johnny says

          I was robbed by someone with an Obama phone, and police are not capable of tracking it or pulling information as it’s privately listed.
          BS, they are handing out phones to border crossers who are not legal citizens on our dime.


          • Mike Aaron says

            What are you talking about? tracking a robber by their safelink phone? illegal immigrants? where have you found evidence of this? I think that these phones are potential lifelines to the needy, they could be used for emergency or to return a call to potential employers. This country needs to empower its’ impoverished, to educate and train, every person we help makes us stronger as a whole. Imagine we’re upset about low skill jobs being shipped overseas, we could educate the masses and have no use for those jobs in our economy, we should be inventors,scientists, and innovators, not laborers. This country is going down the tubes and we need to start looking out for one and other, stopping the greed hatred, and ignorance.

          • Bill says

            How do you know the robber had an Obama Phone (which I find it amusing people still call it even after the explanation on this page). Did it have a big picture of him on the phone? Did he stop to take a call and say “give me a minute while I take a call on my Obama Phone”? Did it double as a weapon?

            BTW are you saying they give them to each person who illegally crosses the border into the US? Does that happen as soon as they get here? Or do they get a coupon that they have to mail in?

      • ShutUpShane says

        Two things. First of all, yes, they DO need phones. Try living without one for a while, being homeless or job hunting. I dare you.

        Second, no, it’s not “your” money. It is our money. Taxes are paid by all of us, not just you, in order to fund public projects and programs.

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