Now that there are a full three operators at the iPhone table, you'd presume that getting an Apple handset on the cheap was easy. Think again. Speak to any of the operators - and we have - and you'll hear the same frustrated line from the sale staff that they're unable to cut you any deals because Apple controls the price so carefully. In actual fact, that's an understatement. After spending the day trawling the web for alternative offers, the phrase "wrapped up tighter than a mummy" springs to mind.

Before we began our investigations, our optimism had isolated three other distinct markets where we could save the pennies. This is what we discovered.

We weren't expecting bags of joy here but type "SIM free iPhone" into Google and you'll get plenty of results. Naturally, as Apple has such a tight reign on all first hand resale, the prices are nicely fixed in such a way that you basically make no saving whatsoever buying from one place or another. Like we say, as expected.

£349, £449 and £549 are the best you're going to get when stuck to one network or another and £746 or £820 for the unlocked versions on the 16GB and 32GB 3GS respectively. After you've factored in your monthly bill though, those unlocked options become fairly pointless. Apple 1 PL 0

This section was the big hope. We know it's possible. People have bought refurbished iPhones in the past with the evidence on the web pointing towards both O2 and Apple as well as a handful of 3rd party e-tailers. Again, punch the right words into Google and you'll get plenty of results; lenghty forum chats about people who got sold one free by O2 on a £25 a month tariff but no mention of what number or web page they went to get it in the first place.

It's a similar story for the product pages for these mystical handsets too. Every one of them's a dead end. The pictures, pricing a details are all there but each time it's out of stock. So, we called up Apple and it seems they haven't sold these seconds for over a year now on the website but they'll do them in the actual Apple stores. So we called the Apple stores. "No sir, we don't sell them. Try the local Apple retailers," but it seems they don't do them either.

Next we tried O2. The website indicates that the network sells refurbished iPhones on both contract and PAYG but no product pages anywhere. So, we called up the sales team. It's their job to cut deals. We called once. "I've heard we sell reconditioned iPhones but we don't do them in this department, try customer services." "No, we don't do them here," says customer services, "they're only sold in-store. Try the O2 shops." It was beginning to feel trying to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or tracking down Osama Bin Laden. You almost felt that people knew were to get them but didn't want to tell you.

The O2 stores were next on the list. No refurbished iPhones sold there either. Apparently, we'd been misinformed. Somehow we weren't too surprised. Finally, one of the sale staff at an unnamed branch recommended an independent mobile phone shop that does do reconditioned iPhones. You know the type. The ones with flashing lights outside and a big sign reading "unlocking service". Out of desperation, we even called them. "No, we don't have any iPhones at the moment."

"Have you ever had them?" we asked.

"Um, no."

Our final shot was to give Orange a try. There'd been a post on a forum saying that the network was planning on selling refurbs. They do them for every other make of handset but not iPhones it turned out. Not yet.

The rub seems to be with this category that they do exist and from time to time a network will release a batch of them when enough faulty ones come back and have their parts changed or repaired but you've got to be in the right place at the right time to catch them. That time, is not now. Apple 2 PL 0

We didn't want it to come down to this but, sadly, the only way to get a dirt cheap iPhone right now is to take pot luck with private sellers and their random letter and number combo user names. Fifty quid off was about the best you could find from more trusted users on Amazon with the odd good looking deal such as this unlocked iPhone 3G for £320 if you're happy to put your faith in a new user.

You can grab an apparently new unlocked 32GB iPhone 3GS for £520 - £300 less than the equivalent on That has to be the pick of the crop so far but if you want to knock that down even further, you can pick a "used-very good" model from an established seller for £440. Not bad going but still only about the same as picking a PAYG from Tescos.

Probably the only one that makes it cash efficient is this SIM-free second hand 16GB iPhone 3GS on which you can pick up for £100 less than the equivalent with Tesco. But the condition is only described as "Average". None too appealing.

There's little joy to be had on eBay with the majority of auctions finishing roughly where the Buy-it-Now products are priced anyway but if you're really committed to getting a Jesus phone on the super cheap, then it's Gumtree for you. There's the odd brand new and boxed 32GB 3GS for £400 and host of others, mostly used for around the £250 mark - some with apps included. The issues here though are whether it's a scam or whether the previous owner was mugged for the privilege. Your call and have no illusions that you're taking some chances. Apple 2 PL 1 Crooks 1

It is possible to get these phones cheaper than the networks or Apple knock them out at but at the moment, bargains are like gold dust. The best bet by far is the reconditioned handsets but your chances of timing it right with them are slim to none unless you're monitoring the forums like a hawk and calling up O2 every day.

So, as it stands, Jobs Inc still very much has it how it wants things to be. Good luck, and let us know in the comments if you happen to strike it lucky.