Knowing how to get a free government cell phone is vital to a lot of Californians. Because the state has far more than its fair share of low income residents.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune1, “34% of the nation’s welfare recipients live in California but only 12% of the U.S. population resides here.”
As shocking as that statistic is, you would think that California would have been an early, enthusiastic supporter of the Lifeline Assistance program, but that wasn’t the case. Luckily, former Golden State seems to have realized that it is late to the free government cell phone party and now it’s attempting to make up for lost time.
Step One: Who are California’s Lifeline Assistance providers?
That is an excellent question and one that is apparently difficult to answer.
Although the program got rolling in other states way back in 2008, the free government cell phone business didn’t get rolling in California until ReachOut Wireless opened up shop in 2012.
The FCC now identifies four companies competing in California — Assurance Wireless, Budget Mobile, ReachOut and Truconnect. When we attempted to double check that list with the California Public Utility Commission, they gave us a different list of providers — Assurance, Budget, enTouch, and TruConnect.
Despite being omitted from the PUC’s list, the Assurance Wireless confirms that it’s one of the California Lifeline providers. enTouch Wireless was on the PUC’s list, but California is not listed on the company’s website. And just to confuse things even further, ReachOut Wireless says that it is a California Lifeline provider, but it was not on the list of companies provided by the PUC.
Another company, Sage Telecom, also offers steep discounts on monthly cell phone programs.
Here’s how we interpret all the confusing and contradictory information: Check out all the companies, because California’s poverty rate is so high that these and other companies are sure to be setting up shop in the Golden State very soon (perhaps even by the time you read this article). Check our California Lifeline page before you sign up with any company to make sure you know who all the competitors are.
Step Two: Find out if you’re eligible.
There are two ways to qualify for a free government cell phone in California. You may qualify if you’re already participating in another government assistance program OR if your total household income if low enough.
To qualify under the Program-Based method, you or another person in your household must already be participating in at least one of the following public-assistance programs.
- Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance or Section 8
- CalFresh, Food Stamps or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC)
- National School Lunch Program (NSL)
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — including California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs), Stanislaus County Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (StanWORKs), Welfare-to-Work (WTW) or Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN)
- Tribal TANF
- Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
- Head Start Income Eligible (Tribal Only)
- Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
To qualify under the Income-Based method, your annual total household income must be no more than 135% of the Federal Poverty Guideline for California. Please allow us to simplify that confusing governmentese.
If there are one or two people living in your house, you qualify for a free government phone if the household income does not exceed $25,500. If there are three people living in your house, your household income cannot exceed $29,700. Four people? Your household income cannot exceed $35,900. And for each additional resident in your home, add another $6,200 to determine your allowable annual income.
Step Three: Check out the deals offered by each company.
The plans offered by each company are likely to vary in details. Some allow more minutes, some allow more texts, some offer more free services such as voicemail and caller ID, and some offer really good deals on adding more minutes to your account. And keep in mind that each company may cover different geographic areas within California.
Go to the California page and check out the plans and coverage offered by each of the companies. We provide convenient links to pages dedicated to each company. Click around. Read each of them and see what they have to offer. Find the company that’s right for you.
The companies offering free government cell phones in California are:
- Assurance Wireless
- Budget Mobile
- enTouch Wireless (do they really serve California?)
- ReachOut Wireless
- Sage Telecom (discounted, but not free)
Please be aware that company plans, special promotions and bonus programs are constantly changing. You may discover that you have to contact individual companies to find out what their best deals are at the time you’re ready to sign up for Lifeline Assistance.
Step Four: Apply to the company that’s right for you
Now that you’ve looked at all the free government cell phone companies serving the state and chosen the one that’s right for you, fill out a convenient online application. Assuming that all your paperwork is in order, you’ll soon be approved for a free government cell phone courtesy of Lifeline Assistance and the phone company you’ve selected.
One more thing to know: The California Lifeline plan is more generous
In most states, free government cell phone companies offer their customers a free cell phone plus 250 free voice minutes and 250 texts every month. But it looks like California decided to make up for entering the program so late by insisting that California residents be given much more.
California Lifeline companies can make that same 250/250 offer, but California profitable for them to offer more. Here’s how that works:
If a company offers California residents less than 500 minutes per month, it will earn the standard $9.25 federal fee per customer per month. If they offer 501-999 minutes per month, the state will pay those companies an additional $6.25 per customer per month. And if they offer more than 1000 minutes per month, the state will pay them an additional $13.25 per month.
That means California residents can score some outstanding deals to go along with their free government cell phones. Some of the best deals in the country, in fact.
California free cell phones are better, too
A complaint common among free government cell phone customers is, “My cell phone fell apart” or “My cell phone stopped working.” In many cases, this is because the cell phone company offers older refurbished models that just don’t have much life left in them. The cell phone companies are working on very narrow profit margins and, understandably, cut corners where they can. But phones that fall apart help neither the customers nor the companies long-term.
So the California Public Utilities Commission, the organization tasked with regulating telephone companies, wisely decided that LifeLine companies must offer LifeLine customers all handsets offered to non-LifeLine subscribers. In other words, no cheap, soon-to-be obsolescent cell phones for California Lifeline customers.
A few closing words
In closing, we’d like to congratulate the California PUC for being so generous with state dollars. This higher levels of compensation available to free government cell phone will undoubtedly lead to higher levels of service. Better cell phones will lead to more satisfied customers.
And a strong, healthy Lifeline Assistance program in California will undoubtedly lead to higher employment rates among California’s financially struggling residents.
That’s what’s called a win-win-win situation.
To learn more about the California Lifeline program, please click here.