How to choose a government cell phone vendor

If you qualify for a free cell phone from the government, and you are lucky enough to have more than one vendor in your state, you face a decision on which Lifeline company to select. Some states have all three big players available: Assurance Wireless, Safelink Wireless and ReachOut Wireless, and maybe even a small vendor or two, while others may leave you with only one choice.

If you do not have a preference of vendors based upon reviews or the experiences of friends and relatives, then it comes down to features, plans and terms of use. If you don’t ask about some of these, the information will not be provided to you. And some answers could be deal killers.

Let’s review some of the important questions you should ask:

The phone: What phone will they give you? Of course, you know that since this is a free program, you’re not going to get an iPhone or Android, but the phones are still decent. And a phone from one company may be better, or more to your liking, than another model another company offers. If you are not happy with any of the phones, ask about the cost of upgrading to another phone, for a one-time price.

Airtime minutes: While you hear the number 250 minutes mentioned quite often, not every company offers that. The big three all do, but some smaller vendors may offer as low as 68 minutes. Even the big companies might have more than one plan and the number of minutes could vary depending upon your text messaging needs, among other things. (See our write-ups on the Assurance Wireless Plans and Safelink Wireless Plans.)

All the vendors should have upgrades to buy higher minutes plans. Ask about the various options, if you have the money to afford them every month.

Rollover Minutes: You need to ask what happens with “rollover minutes” if any remain at the end of each billing period. With some plans, they are not carried forward into the next month. With other plans, they are.

Features: All vendors should provide call waiting, voicemail, and caller ID. But ask anyway. If there is another feature that is important to you, ask about it.

Text Messaging: This gets tricky. The various vendors handle text messaging differently. Some plans provide no text messaging, and charge extra for each text you send and receive. Some plans use some of your airtime towards the minutes; for example, one text message might use up one minute of your airtime, and once that is used up, you’ll have to pay extra for additional voice minutes and text messages. This is perhaps the most confusing aspect of the various plans, so understand it.

Long Distance: Each vendor also handles this in their own way. Ask about both national and international long distance.

Lost/stolen/damaged phone: Ask about their replacement policy. Some vendors will not replace a phone for free and some offer one free replacement phone. Judging from the number of queries we get from people in this subject a lot of phones are getting lost or stolen.

Deactivation for non-use: What happens if your phone is deactivated for non-use? Yes, they can and will do this after 60 days of not using it. We actually have an FAQ on this: Can my government phone be activated? which specifically explains the procedure for each major company.

Refilling your airtime: It’s easy to buy refills at various retail outlets for Safelink Wireless and Assurance Wireless phones, since they are the companies of Tracfone and Sprint’s Virgin Mobile, respectively. ReachOut Wireless does not have this advantage, however a company called AirFair will let you reload ReachOut Wireless’ and other smaller vendors’ phones at thousands of retail locations across the country. But regardless of this, you should be able to buy extra airtime reloads online from each vendor.

So, even though you should not have a problem buying reloads for your phone for any decent vendor, ask anyway about how you’ll go about it.

We suggest that you not rely solely on what the representative tells you on the phone or via email. There is really just one foolproof way to know exactly what to expect — that is to read the Terms of Service on the vendor’s website. You can usually find a link to this page in very small print at the bottom of the website. If you can’t find it search for [vendor name] Terms of Service (or Terms of Use). They each have such a page on their sites. The writing is all lawyered up, but it’s readable.

Choose wisely.


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    • says

      With the exception of dialing 611 (if your phone is working), there is no way to know the name of your company.

  1. Wylma Harmon says

    I just want to tell people that with most free government phones you do not get an owners manual. Also some companies do not have an easy customer service. I mean you have to wait a long time. The best thing to do is to use a landline phone, because you will use up alot of minutes on hold. Also if you use up your minutes before the month’s up, beware of how you can get more minutes..The only reliable on is Safelink in which you can buy top up card for TracPhone..