I'd like to keep my time in the Optus shop to a minimum and prefer to order my handsets online. Can I order my new phone, then return my leased handset once the new one arrives, so I'm not without a phone in the interim?
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Sure. You have a few months past the 24 month date to organise to get it back. Note ordering the new plan and keeping the number should mean only one phone has an active plan (whichever one you put your SIM into)
Note you may have to pay a damage fee if your phone is a bit damaged.
Unfortunately being a leased phone you've spent $1000's renting it) only to have to hand it back now. You could ask what the buy out figure is. It might be quite cheap to keep the phone and just get a SIM only plan from Optus (or anywhere) and it will be substantially cheaper each month to run.
At least this time around you'll get to keep the phone after the 24 months is up.