If you're looking to buy a smartphone, then there are some great deals to be had on contract. Ones that give you a free handset and also a decent amount of free minutes, texts, MMS and data usage. However phone contracts require customers to sign up with a mobile phone network for 12 months or more, if you are unprepared to do this then there are still a number of ways to buy a smartphone without having to sign up to a lengthy contract. But first you need to decide what handset is right for you.

What phone should I get?

The good thing about smartphones is that there are plenty of them out there, which means there's a pretty good change that you will be able to find one that takes your fancy. So what you need to ask yourself before you buy a smartphone is "what do I want to be able to do with my phone?".

Social Media: Pretty much every smartphone has excellent social media apps and features. So if you're getting a smartphone primarily to use Facebook or Twitter, then you should consider looking for a cheaper handset, like a Sony Ericsson Xperia X8, which is available from £70-£149. Most manufacturer's websites will contain a detailed Features & Specifications page for each its phones, here you can check if a smartphone you like the look of has the social media capabilities that you require.

Camera: It's difficult to say which phone has the best inbuilt camera, as it's not just the amount of megapixels that a device boasts that counts. There are lots of things that have to combine together to be able to take a great picture and while having a high number of megapixels is good, a camera also has to have a good lens, zoom, sensor and flash - all these things effect the ultimate quality of a photo. However we've experienced good results with the cameras on the Samsung Pixon 12, Apple iPhone 4 and 4S, Nokia N8 and HTC Desire handsets.

Internet browsing: The performances of smartphone's internet browsers are pretty varied. BlackBerry for example have a relatively poor reputation for their device's web browsing speed, whereas the HTC's internet browser is quick, versatile and comes with a highly sought after Flash player. The iPhone's browser is fast and fluid also, but if you require a smartphone with a web browser than can handle Flash then you should look at getting a recent HTC handset.

Apps: If you're looking for a smartphone that you can download a lot of apps for then there are really only two choices for you; an iPhone or an Android supported phone. The rest of the market including BlackBerry and Nokia have failed to capture app developers imagination and as a result have significantly less apps available.

Email: When you're looking for a smartphone's email capabilities you want to check its 'push' credentials. Push email is a service that basically 'pushes' emails to your smartphone, which ensures that your smartphone is constantly up-to-date with your email account. Smartphones offer slightly different variations of push email services, so it's important that you check your email provider e.g. Hotmail or Yahoo is supported by the smartphone you want. Broadly speaking BlackBerry devices are the best smartphones for handling emails.

Complete Smartphone: If you just want the complete up-to-date smartphone; one that can handle email, social media, internet browsing, has good apps and will take good photos, but just don't want a lengthy contract, then you're going to have to be prepared to pay around £400 up front. If you're happy to do this, then we suggest you take look at our up-to-date 'Group test: what's the best smartphone?'.

If you're a complete novice when it comes to phones and smartphone jargon then we suggest reading our 'Ultimate guide to smartphone specs'.

Where can I find the best smartphone deals?

When buying a smartphone without a contract you should check whether the device you want to purchase will work with the phone network you are looking to use it with. For example, some smartphones will be set-up only to work on the Vodafone network, which means if you want to use an Orange pay as you go SIM card, then your phone won't work. This won't be a probklem if you buy directly from the phone network you intend to use, but can be an issue if you buy a smartphone from other outlets. You can of course get your phone unlocked on the high-street, but this can sometimes be risky and negate any warranty your phone might be under.

Phone Networks: The first place that we recommend you begin your search is with all the major mobile networks, with these companies you can buy a phone in store or online and usually at a competitive price. At the time of writing (7th November, 2011) for example, you can get an 8GB Apple iPhone 4 for £415 on Vodafone whereas O2 would charge you £430 for the same phone. That said, it's important to make sure you research the pay as you go deals offered by each network as you may soon end up paying more for the cheaper phone due to expensive call and text costs - as mentioned above, the phone may also come locked to a certain network, which means swapping pay as you go networks can sometimes be hard word.

Comparison sites: If you've got a specific handset in mind, then another good place to look is price comparison sites such as pricerunner.co.uk or Google Shopping. With these sites you can enter the model of smartphone you are looking to buy and the website will search a wide-range of different websites and neatly display each websites price for you. For example, we ran a search for a BlackBerry Curve 3G 9300 and got back ten different prices ranges from £134 to £345. If you see a price you like on this site from a retailer you don't recognise, then it is always worth running a separate search on the site's previous customer feedback as comaprison sites are not usually responsible for the retailers advertised.

Phone shops: Finally, dedicated phone shops like Carphone Warehouse and Phones 4U are a good place to search also. Like with the major mobile networks you can buy your handset either in store, or online. We'd strongly recommend having a look on their websites before you buy a smartphone instore as they often have good online deals. It's also a good idea to use dedicated phone sites like CarphoneWarehouse.com for their excellent up-to-date network comparison facilities. These pages offer you an easy to digest web page, that will quickly help you decide which network and or smartphone is right for you.