It's a truth universally acknowledged that everyone loves getting stuff for free. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a free smartphone, no matter how alluring that $0 handset repayment fee is. This is made abundantly clear when you compare a SIM-only plan to a 24-month contract, even before you factor in any handset repayments.
However, we tend to see the first plan where a carrier drops the handset repayment fee as a sort of tipping point. If you're paying a handset fee there's a chance you're paying too much for your phone. If you're paying $0 for the phone, you could be paying too much for data. Sometimes those first $0 handset repayment plans can be 'just right' if you're looking for the best value option.
For example, an OPPO R11 with Virgin Mobile on the 5GB $55 plan would cost $1,320 over the two year contract. If you bought the phone upfront and got a 5GB SIM-only plan, you'd spend $1,369 over the same period of time and be $49 worse off. This reverses when you look at higher inclusion plans for the R11. Getting the same phone on a Virgin Mobile $100 24GB plan would cost $2,400 over a 24-month contract, but $2,089 if you bought the phone outright and took up a 22GB SIM-only plan. You could probably swallow the 2GB per month difference for the $311 saving.
This isn't a hard and fast rule - especially because the rising price of smartphones means some devices simply aren't available with a $0 repayment - but it can nonetheless be useful to keep in mind when looking for a new phone.
For the purposes of this story, we've solely looked at plans where you own the phone, rather than lease it. We've also broken this up into cheaper plans with smaller inclusions, and pricier plans that come with a "free" flagship and more data.
Smaller inclusion plans
If you're looking to save money, there are a couple of phones that regularly show up with $0 handset repayment fees on lower end plans: the iPhone SE, last year's Samsung Galaxy S7, and the OPPO R11.
Our pick for bang-for-buck is Virgin's $40 iPhone SE plan, but the above are all solid value choices.
Larger inclusion plans
One of the best "free phone" deals around right now is an $85 Optus plan with a "free" Galaxy S8. On top of the brand new phone, you'll get 14GB of data and an Optus Sport subscription.
Optus' $100 per month option tends to be the first plan where the telco starts to offer other flagships with $0 handset repayment fees. Two that caught our eye were the HTC U11 and Huawei P10. These also come with 30GB of data, an Optus Sport subscription, unlimited talk and text when roaming in "zone one" countries, and 1GB of roaming data to use per month.
If you're looking for the latest and greatest flagships with $0 repayment fees, Telstra is currently discounting its $149 "XXL" 60GB plan to $129 per month until October 27. On top of the massive data allowance, you'll get a year's subscription to three Foxtel Now starter packs, unlimited talk and text when roaming, and 2GB of roaming data to use per month.
The priciest phones you can nab for "free" on this plan are the 64GB iPhone 8 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.