Many readers email us to ask if smartphones are available to free government cell phone customers. In fact, so many readers ask that question that we decided it was time to survey all the top-ranking Lifeline Assistance companies.
We started by asking the USAC (the organization that governs the free government cell phone program) if companies are required to offer cell phones. After all, if one email to the USAC told us all companies are required to offer smartphones, we’d save many hours of research because we wouldn’t have to comb 20 companies’ websites and/or contact their customer service departments.
Alas, our query resulted in this disappointing answer from the USAC on February 29, 2016:
“As of right now, there are no requirements that Lifeline phone companies must offer smartphones. However, it is possible that this could change in the future. Please let me know if you have additional questions.”
So we set to work. It took many hours, but it’s worth the investment in time if it will help to answer our readers’ questions.
The bad news: Not all companies offer smartphones, but many of them do. In most cases, the cell phone a customer receives has been randomly selected. That is, you can request a smartphone, but that does not necessarily mean that you will receive one.
The good news: Most companies that do offer smartphones will allow you to upgrade to a smartphone for a small charge. That upgrade may cost you $30 or more, but it will often allow you to get smartphone.
A little more bad news: The smartphones that are available are usually refurbished older phones like, for example, an iPhone 4 or equivalent Android phone.
(NOTE: The Editor of FreeGovernmentCellPhones is still using his original iPhone 3. The screen and case are both cracked, but the phone works as well as it ever did and does everything he needs a phone to do. In other words, an iPhone 4 or equivalent Android phone should beautifully serve most people’s needs.)
What is a smartphone?
Lots of companies offer “smartphones,” but the real question that needs to be answered is, “What is a smartphone?”
We noted that many companies offered data plans and the editor of FreeGovernmentCellPhones asked our technical director for some clarification: “Would I be correct that if they offer a data plan that, by definition, means they must offer smartphones?”
Our tech guys responded by saying that is NOT correct.
Here’s the full answer:
“Feature phones (also called basic phones) have the ability to send pictures in texts, on to Facebook, and Twitter, and other such places. That requires a data plan. Without a data plan, one can send a text message, but not with a picture attached as that cannot go over the SMS (text message) network.
“So that led me to check the definition of a smartphone (once again). It seems a lot of feature phones are “smart” but not really smartphones. While there doesn’t seem to be a consistent definition, I think the proper definition is if a phone has a popular/powerful operating system (IOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry OS), and allows you to install apps not created by the phone maker, then it is a smartphone.
“Many of the feature phones can fool you into thinking they are smartphones (and I bet some of the Lifeline vendors stretch the definition of a smartphone) because they have touch screens, Facebook, photo galleries, etc.
“So, I bet that if a Lifeline vendor is not highlighting what type of phone is given out, even if they offer a data plan, they do not offer a smartphone.”
Which companies offer “smartphones?”
To summarize: Just because a Lifeline Assistance company says it offers smartphones does not necessarily mean those phones will provide you with the robust internet experience you are hoping for. It is incumbent upon you to inquire as to the capabilities of that “smartphone.”
Here are the results of our research. We’ll begin with Safelink Wireless, the biggest name in the Lifeline Assistance business, and work our way down through the smaller companies:
It took some detective work to figure out if Safelink offers smartphones. We found some copy buried in the company’s Terms & Conditions that seemed to indicate that it does, indeed, but we were determined to confirm that information.
After many phone calls and emails, we finally got the definitive word directly from a corporate spokesperson, who said:
“… only the state of California offers smart phones to the approved applicants, while all the other states offer regular phones. You can check further details about SafeLink California program on the link provided above. In addition, the Bring Your Own Phone (BYOP) program is not offered to our SafeLink customers yet.”
The simple answer? If you live in California, yes, you can get a smartphone from Safelink. If you live anywhere else, the answer is, unfortunately, no, you cannot get a smartphone.
Info on Safelink Wireless
We found the following information in the Assurance website’s Frequently Asked Questions:
Can I use an Android™ smartphone with my Assurance Wireless account?
– Only customers in select areas in California may use approved Android devices with an Assurance Wireless account.
Can I use an iPhone® with an Assurance Wireless account?
– No, the iPhone® data platform cannot be used with Assurance Wireless account.
Info on Assurance Wireless
Although Budget does not show any smartphones on its website, it is currently promoting a limited time offer of free Android smartphones for new customers. Our conclusion? Yes, Budget Mobile offers smartphones.
Info on Budget Mobile
Sometimes it takes a little detective work to determine if a company offers smartphones. For example, although Access Wireless doesn’t overtly mention smartphones on its website, it does show a wide selection of upgrade phones from ZTE, Motorola, Samsung, Alcatel, and other manufacturers.
Anissa from the Access Wireless Help Desk told us, “Usually the initial phone provided is a smartphone.”
Info on Access Wireless
The good folks at Life Wireless answered our inquiry with this message:
“We do offer smartphones, they are a a $45 charge.For further questions or concerns please contact our customer service department by dialing 1-888-543-3620. Our operating hours are to 8 am to 10pm Est Monday-Friday and 8 am to 8 pm weekends.”
Info on Life Wireless
Sorry Reachout customers, but the company seems to be on the way out.
Yes, True Wireless offers iPhone 4s and Vooz smartphones. You can see the entire selection of smartphones here.
Info on True Wireless
Q Link Wireless
Q Link Wireless skyrocketed in growth in the last year and is now one of the largest free government cell phone providers. It serves Lifeline customers in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
We assume that its smartphone policy is one of the primary reasons for its sudden success. Check out the Frequently Asked Question from its website:
What kind of phone will I get? Can I upgrade my phone?
The free phones Q Link Wireless provides depend upon availability, and models shipped may vary. Q Link Wireless is only shipping smartphones, so you’ll be able to take full advantage of the latest calling features, picture messaging, the ability to connect your phone to Wi-Fi, and any available data options!
Once we’ve approved your application and your order status changes to “shipped with tracking,” or if you’ve already received your phone, you can find your phone’s model number by logging into your My Q Link account.
If you are an existing customer with a basic phone, and you’d like to upgrade to a smartphone, you can upgrade for a small fee of $25 by clicking here. Or, call us toll-free at 1-855-754-6543 to place your order over the phone. You can pay over the phone or online with a debit or credit card in your name or with a prepaid gift card.
On another page, the company says:
Q Link Wireless differs from other Lifeline providers because we provide each new subscriber with a high-quality smartphone capable of connecting to Wi-Fi for internet access. Our customers can access email, download apps, play games, and surf the web. Plus we offer the MOST minutes and UNLIMITED texting.
Way to go, Q Link. Our readers wish other Lifeline Assistance companies would follow in your footsteps.
You can bring your own smartphone, and they do offer smartphones, but since phones are assigned randomly to customers, they cannot assure that you’ll receive a smartphone.
Info on Tag Mobile
A live online chat with a Terracom Wireless representative yielded this information:
Mark: Whenever you apply for the services first phone is always a random selected refurbished phone. We have upgrade options as well.
Customer: So it could be an older non-smartphone or a smartphone. Correct? Can I use my current smartphone as part of a Terracom plan?
Mark: Yes, it could be an older non-smartphone or a smartphone … you can use your own phone if it is compatible to our services.
Info on Terracom
Yes, Assist Wireless offers smartphones. We found the following information on the company’s website
Upgrade Your Cell Phone Today
You can upgrade your cell phone anytime you like. Looking for a data phone? We got it. Looking for a smartphone? We have one for you. Just choose the cell phone that best fits your needs and place it in the shopping cart. And remember, every one of these upgraded models with work with your Lifeline cell phone service plan.
Info on Assist Wireless
A Wide Range of Lifeline Cell Phones
Want to Upgrade Your Lifeline Cell Phones? We’ve Got You Covered.
Want to upgrade your cell phone to something with more functionality? No problem. Assist Wireless offers a range of brick phones, flip phones, data phones and smartphones. All of these phones will work with your Lifeline cell service plan. Just pick the one of the Lifeline cell phones that fits your needs.
(Now part of Terracom Wireless. See listing above.)
One of the things we love about writing about the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone program is that we learn something new every day. For example, when we asked our StandUp Wireless phone representative if the company offered smartphones, we learned (a) The company operates on several different national telephone networks (T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint, for example) and (b) they distribute different cell phones for each network.
Therefore, although the rep could confirm that new customers may receive smartphones, the assignment of phones is entirely random. So you may or may not receive a smart device. However, the phones are available to all customers as an upgrade. How much does that upgrade cost? Well, that also varies depending on the national network to which you are assigned. The example the rep gave was a $45 price for smartphone that’s compatible with the T-Mobile network. She also indicated that phones compatible with other networks vary in price.
Info on StandUp Wireless
The EnTouch website implies that the company offers smartphones to its Lifeline Assistance customers.
WHAT DO I GET?
We provide a free full featured, wireless cell phone. With the phone and Lifeline phone service you will be able to: call nationally, text photos, check email and go to websites. You can also bring a smartphone of your own choosing to our program.
That, however, was not enough for our intrepid investigators. They followed up with an email and EnTouch responded to our email enquiry by saying, “Typically you are signed up with a non smartphone. We do have a Bring Your Own Device program. Once you are signed up, we would be able to let you know the specifications.”
The company’s website clarifies that statement by saying, “A database check will determine if the mobile device is available for activation* on the network. This takes a minute or less.”
Please allow us to translate: If you have an inactive smartphone, you may be able to use it on an enTouch Lifeline free government cell phone account. But not all cell phones are compatible with the enTouch system. Your phone cannot be associated with an active wireless account and cell phones reported as stolen are not eligible.
Interestingly, here’s what a later email exchange said. “In regards to what phones are available, our website is not going to show what we have, Our inventory is constantly changing, so unfortunately we do not have a way to list what phones are available. In regards to California residents, some of them do get signed up with a smartphone. I hope that this information helpful.”
So it looks like some California customers may get smartphones from day one, but nothing is said about customers from other states.
Info on Entouch
We reached out to US Connect and it’s customer service department sent us an email that said, “Thank you for contacting US Connect, currently we do not offer smartphones.” So if you really want a smartphone, you need to look elsewhere on this list.
Info on US Connect
You really have to scour SafetyNet’s website to determine if it offers smartphones. We finally found the information buried deep its Terms & Conditions.”
Free handsets provided by SafetyNet Wireless may be refurbished and will be capable of texting as well as making voice calls. Free handsets are not data capable; however, customer may purchase and upgrade to a data capable handset. The free refurbished handsets provided by SafetyNet Wireless are industry standard grade “A/B”.
Interestingly, this upgrade information was found on SafetyNet’s California website, but is not included in the Terms & Conditions for any other states.
Info on SafetyNet Wireless
We can’t say that Cintex does not offer smartphones, but it certainly doesn’t offer many of them. In fact, it currently offers only one Huawei smartphone model. And it’s not cheap. Our Cintex phone representative couldn’t tell us which Huawei smart model it was, but did reveal that upgrading to that phone will set you back $75.99.
Info on Cintex Wireless
Wireless for Hope/Easy Wireless
Wireless for Hope, which does business as Easy Wireless, lists the following information on its website’s FAQs:
Can I use an Android™ -powered phone or an i-Phone™ with an Easy Wireless account?
– Yes! Easy Wireless offers both Android powered and iPhone handsets. Please see our phone section for a catalog of available phones.
Why did I get a different phone than my friend?/ Why did I get a different phone than the one pictured on the Easy Wireless website?
– Easy Wireless phone models are dependent upon availability, and models shipped could vary. Easy makes every effort to ensure each phone given to the customer is the best model available. Easy distributes used or refurbished A and B stock phones only. Pictures can be sent upon request. Easy Wireless also has New, Used, and Refurbished models for purchase.
Info on Easy Wireless
We dug deep into the TruConnect website and found this comment:
We offer a variety of mobile broadband devices and cheap mobile phones including Moxee and BLU prepaid phones, 4g lte smartphones, Novatel, Samsung, D-Link, Unimax 4g lte wifi hotspot.
Info on TruConnect
Let’s sum it all up
So there you have it — a complete breakdown of smartphone offerings by all the leading free government cell phone companies.
Here’s a convenient summary that should help when you’re shopping for a company that offers a plan that’s right for you:
Offers smartphones to all new customers: Q Link
Offer smartphones to some customers: Safelink Wireless, Assist Wireless, Assurance (California only), Budget Wireless, Access Wireless, Life Wireless, SafetyNet Wireless, True Wireless, Tag Wireless, Terracom Wireless, EnTouch Wireless (California only), Wireless For Hope (dba Easy Wireless), StandUp Wireless, Cintex Wireless
Does NOT offer smartphones: US Connect
In conclusion, it’s clear that all but one of the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone companies offer smartphones. Some of the companies make them randomly available to new customers, but all the companies that offer them make them available as upgrades for an additional charge.
Make sure you know what you’re getting into when you upgrade to a “smart” phone, because not all smartphones were created equal. Some have far more capabilities than others and it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re getting exactly the phone you need before you agree to pay for that upgrade.
One might even say that being an informed consumer is the “smart” thing to do.