Can I use a different cell phone in place of my free government cell phone?
Readers ask us this question (or variations of it) every single day. They don’t like the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone they were given or it’s broken or someone gave them a new phone. Whatever the reason, a lot of people ask if it’s possible to switch.
There are lots of factors that always lead us to our standard answer: Maybe.
In addition to that we also say, “Not all cell phones are compatible with all cell phone networks, so you’ll need to ask your service provider’s customer service team if the phone you want to use is compatible with its network.”
So we thought we’d take a whack a explaining what the second part of that answer means and maybe even make it possible for you to figure out if that other cell phone is compatible with your free government cell phone company’s national cell network. And we’ll try to do it without getting neck deep in technological jibber jabber.
Step One: CDMA vs GSM
The first thing you need to know is that there are two different cell phone technologies — CDMA and GSM. When we say “Not all cell phones are compatible with all cell networks,” that means that CDMA cell phones won’t work on a GSM network. And vice versa. CDMA cell phones only work on CDMA networks and GSM cell phones only work on GSM networks.
CDMA is an acronym that’s short for Code Division Multiple Access and GSM stands for Global System for Mobiles.
In the United States, the five major cell phone networks break down like this:
CDMA = Sprint, Verizon and U.S. Cellular
GSM = AT&T and T-Mobile
Most of the rest of the world uses GSM, but that is neither here nor there so we won’t bore you with an explanation of how that came about.
Which free government cell phone companies use which networks?
There are major changes afoot in the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone industry — mergers, acquisitions and consolidation — that will reduce the number of companies you can choose from. But at this point in time, here are the leading companies (as taken from our The 2016 List of Leaders: Who’s who in the free government cell phone business?“):
Here are the leading Lifeline Assistance companies and the cell networks on which they work. Find your service provider and you’ll quickly see which technology it uses.
- Safelink Wireless – AT&T GSM, T-Mobile GSM, Sprint CDMA, Verizon CDMA, U.S. Cellular CDMA. Depends on geographic location.
- Assurance Wireless – Sprint CDMA
- Access Wireless – Sprint CDMA
- Budget Mobile – Sprint CDMA, Verizon CDMA (NOTE: Hearing aid-compatible phones are both CDMA GMS-compatible) Boomerang, which has taken over the accounts of many Budget customers is currently negotiating a contract with a national GSM provider.
- Life Wireless – AT&T GSM
- Assist Wireless – Sprint CDMA, Verizon CDMA
- Q Link Wireless – Sprint CDMA
- TruConnect Mobile – Sprint CDMA
- Total Call Mobile – Sprint CDMA
- Blue Jay Wireless – Sprint CDMA, Verizon CDMA
- Terracom Wireless – Sprint CDMA, Verizon CDMA
- True Wireless – Sprint CDMA, Verizon CDMA
- Tag Mobile – Sprint CDMA, Verizon CDMA, T-Mobile GSM
- StandUp Wireless – Sprint CDMA
- YourTel – Sprint CDMA, Verizon CDMA
What the difference means to you
Uh-oh. We better start explaining what all this means to you, because we can already see your eyes starting to glaze over.
The simple fact is, it’s much easier to switch phones if your free government cell phone company uses a GSM network. Here’s how PCMag.com explains it:
It’s much easier to swap phones on GSM networks, because GSM carriers put customer information on a removable SIM card. Take the card out, put it in a different phone, and the new phone now has your number. What’s more, to be considered GSM, a carrier must accept any GSM-compliant phone. So the GSM carriers don’t have total control of the phone you’re using.
That’s not the case with CDMA. In the U.S., CDMA carriers use network-based white lists to verify their subscribers. That means you can only switch phones with your carrier’s permission, and a carrier doesn’t have to accept any particular phone onto its network. It could, but typically, U.S. carriers choose not to.
Many Sprint and Verizon phones now have SIM cards, but that isn’t because of CDMA. The SIM cards are generally there for Sprint’s and Verizon’s 4G LTE networks, because the LTE standard also uses SIM cards. The phones may also have SIM slots to support foreign GSM networks as “world phones.” But those carriers still use CDMA to authenticate their phones on their own home networks.
What about LTE?
Now that you know about the the differences between CDMA vs. GSM, you should also know that those differences will eventually disappear. Why? Because all cell phone carriers are moving to a new technology called 4G LTE. It’s a new, globally-accepted wireless standard.
“Does that mean,” we hear you saying, “that every cell phone will be LTE-compatible and that I can use whatever phone I happen to own in place of my free government cell phone?”
In a word, no.
Here we go running the risk of getting too technical again:
Turns out that different cell phone carriers are using different frequency bands, with different 3G backup systems. And there are very few cell phones that will work will all the different LTE bands.
In one extreme example, Sprint’s new Spark network employs an esoteric LTE variant that doesn’t work with any other U.S. carrier’s phones. Genius, huh? But Sprint is not alone. Turns out that very few phones support all of the different LTE bands.
Let’s turn this over to PCMag.com for another of their excellent explanations:
A growing number of phones support all of these standards, but it can be hard to tell which ones. The iPhone 6, the iPhone 6 Plus and the Google Nexus 6 are the most flexible. iPhone 6 and 6 Plus units from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon can all be used on all three carriers, but they lack Sprint’s special LTE bands. Sprint iPhones have all the bands, but Sprint has strict unlocking policies. Nexus 6 phones will technically work on all four carriers, but Sprint only allows phones purchased from Google or Sprint on its network.
HTC One (M8) and Samsung Galaxy S5 phones from Verizon will work somewhat on AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks, albeit with limited coverage because while they have CDMA, GSM and LTE, they don’t have all the frequency bands AT&T and T-Mobile use. Variants of those same models sold by AT&T and T-Mobile won’t work on Verizon at all, because they lack the CDMA radio needed for Verizon. It’s a mess.
As clear as mud?
Please allow us to make a bit of sense out of all of this because even after this incredibly detailed explanation, the answer to the question “Can I switch my free government cell phone for another phone I own?” is still the same.
If you have a GSM phone, you may well be able to switch SIM cards from one phone to another. If your free government cell phone is a CDMA model, your “other” phone will must also be CDMA-compatible. And even then it may not work.
And none of this may matter because we’re rapidly moving to an LTE-centric world.
You’re welcome. We’re glad we could help.