Apple has begun selling unlocked iPhone 5 handsets through its U.S. online store, allowing prospective owners to purchase the phone without signing a lengthy and expensive contract. This hasn’t come as a complete surprise, as unlocked versions of the phone were discovered hidden away on Apple’s site yesterday, indicating a release was imminent.

Choosing an unlocked, SIM-free phone is an excellent way to avoid being tied down to a contract, neatly avoiding the disappointment of not being able to indulge in the annual product refresh due to being locked into a 24-month contract. This also means the cost of ownership may fall, as you won’t be limited to certain plans, and can leave if an improved option arrives with another carrier. This contract-free heaven comes at a price though, and it’s by no means cheap.

The 16GB iPhone 5 is yours for $650, rising to $750 for the 32GB, and a heady $850 for the top-of-the-range 64GB model. These are GSM phones, so you’ll need to select a relevant carrier – AT&T and T-Mobile being the obvious choices, but there are others out there – and are happy to work with international networks too, another benefit of owning an unlocked phone.

Apple is well known for ignoring international currency exchange rates when it comes to pricing its products, and the unlocked iPhone 5 is no exception. In the UK, a 16GB phone costs £530, while in Germany it’s 680 euros, these equate to $850 and $880 respectively. Canada is one of the lucky ones, as its 16GB iPhone 5 is $699CAD unlocked, or a touch over $700USD.

Both black and white iPhone 5 handsets are available through the online Apple Store, and they both have shipping dates of one week. It’s expected that unlocked iPhones should filter through to Apple retail stores soon too. According to Apple analyst Gene Munster, stock levels of the iPhone 5 in stores have stabilized, and he told investors this week “the iPhone 5 has finally reached a point where consumers can walk into an Apple Store and walk out with a phone.”