You can watch movies and box sets for free with online film streaming sites. The big sites usually offer free trials, so you can sit back and watch unlimited films and TV series, such as Downton Abbey and Dexter, without spending a penny.
If you don't mind paying after a trial, you can subscribe from £5/month, and watch 100s of movies for less than the price of a bag of cinema popcorn. See our top movie site comparison.
This guide will take you through how to do it, the top providers, how to watch movies (legally) for free and what to watch out for.
In this guide:
A new release DVD costs £5-£15 to buy - not cheap, especially if you only watch it once. For example, a copy of new release After Earth on DVD costs £10ish. This sounds cheap, yet for £5 you could get an entire month of unlimited film streaming, including many new releases.
Streaming lets you watch films online instantly. You don't download the content, but play it live onto your device, such as a laptop or iPad.
Its main boon is you get instant access to huge catalogues of films. It's not for everyone, though - people who love to watch lots of specific new releases will be better off renting good old-fashioned DVDs.
Before you consider streaming, a word of warning: ensure your broadband connection is fast enough and you've a generous download limit. Otherwise you'll risk being hit with added costs and constant buffering. As a general rule:
You need a high (or unlimited) download limit, or you could be slapped with gargantuan charges.
If you're going to watch four 90-minute films a month, in standard definition, for example, you'll need a download allowance of at least 10GB. If you're going to be watching more films, it's worth considering a package with totally unlimited downloads, so there's no worry of exceeding your limit. See Cheap Broadband for more info on data limits.
Some broadband providers can charge up to £2/GB if you exceed your limit. Viewing just one 90min film will use around 1.5GB (more for HD films), so this could cost £4 in fines if you've exceeded your limit. For more info on this, see the Streaming Q&A below.
Can't decide if streaming is right for you? Look at these checklists for some help...
Watch films online
Sign up online and start streaming movies straightaway. Can watch on laptops, PCs, mobiles, games consoles, TVs, iPod Touch and tablets.
Instant access (no waiting for DVDs to arrive or trudging to a shop)
Requires a decent broadband connection and download limit
Cheaper way to watch unlimited films
Film choice can be patchy
Online DVD rental
Online DVD rental companies post you the films you want, then you send 'em back. There are usually restrictions on the number you can have per month though.
Wider choice of films, especially new releases
Cheaper for those who watch less than one film/month to pay as you go
No worries about broadband usage
Easier for non-techies
What if I already have Sky?
If you've got Sky TV and the Sky Movies package (£16 on top of the basic Sky subscription), you'll probably have more than enough films to watch. And even more movies if you've a Sky+HD box with Sky On Demand, as you can break away from the TV schedule and watch whenever you want.
If this is the case, a monthly subscription to an online movie streaming service may not be the most MoneySaving way to get more films. Sky Box Office charges £3.49 per film for new releases - the same price as new releases on Blinkbox and DVDs at Blockbuster.
You may be able to cut costs by haggling with Sky though (and if you haven't already got Sky Movies, you could blag a free trial). For full info, see Haggle with Sky. If you want to try streaming, browse the free online movie services before you sign up for anything.
Traditionally, streaming is done on a PC or laptop via the web, but it's now possible to watch on your telly, games console, and even your smartphone and tablet too. This section outlines some of the options for streaming, and how to get the most from your service:
Whether you have an older CRT TV or the latest flatscreen LCD model, connecting your TV to your laptop or PC lets you watch online movies on a big screen. It isn't too techy either! We've created a little tool to help you find the right cables for your connection.
Before you do anything, make sure you have:
- A compatible internet browser. When you sign up to an online streaming service, read what it needs you to have. Most won't play films unless you're using a compatible browser.
For example, Lovefilm suggests installing the latest version of either Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome or Apple Safari. You may also have to install the latest version of Microsoft Silverlight Player.
- A new-ish PC/laptop. You should be running either Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, or, if you've a Mac, OS 10.3+. Almost all recent laptops and PCs come with one of these, so it shouldn't be a problem.
First of all, you need to check what sort of connection you have on your laptop/PC:
If your TV and/or laptop have different connections to those shown above, ask for help on the Online Movie Streaming forum discussion, or in-store. It's likely the cables will be cheaper online than in-store though, so don't be pressured into buying anything there and then. Use the MegaShopBot to compare prices.
Once you're set up with the right cables, you'll be ready to watch. Just click the AV button on your remote (or 'input', as it's sometimes called), until you find the picture that's showing on your PC.
Watching via a games console?
All the newest games consoles are capable of streaming TV and films when connected to the internet (either over wi-fi or via an ethernet cable straight from your router).
The streaming services available to you will depend on your console:
|Which service can I use on my console?|
|Streaming service||PS3||Xbox 360||Wii|
It's important to note though, you may have to pay an extra subscription to access these services. For example, if you've an Xbox 360, you'll need the Xbox Live Gold membership, which costs £3.33/month, to use online Xbox services including gaming and streaming.
Combining this extra cost with a subscription service such as Now TV will mean your overall cost is higher. So watching via your console may not necessarily be the best route for you, unless you're already paying for these subscriptions for your online gaming.
If you're not that fussed about watching the latest blockbusters, several websites let you watch movies online for free - legally. You can get a free 30-day trial with Netflix, Lovefilm and Now TV and watch as much as you like in that month. But remember to cancel, or you'll start to pay.
Below are several free online streaming sites we've checked out. If you have any other suggestions, please add them to the Online Movie Streaming forum discussion.
If you're one of the 16 million people in the UK with a Tesco Clubcard, you'll get free unlimited access to new service Clubcard TV. It has a host of films and TV shows for all the family. Click for full info
Powered by its parent company Blinkbox, Clubcard TV offers hundreds of films and TV programmes which can be streamed instantly.
The service is completely free, but you'll have to watch ads in between each film and TV programme. Tesco says the ads will be personalised though, as they are tailored to what you buy when you use your Clubcard to shop.
For now, the service is only available on PCs/laptops. But there are plans to add it to more devices, including games consoles, tablets, TVs, Blu-ray players and set-top boxes.
Like a few of the other online streaming services, you'll need to download Silverlight Video Player to use the service.
How many films: 500+ films and 160+ programmes What to watch: The Shawshank Redemption, The Only Way Is Essex, Doc Martin, Man v. Food, Hell's Kitchen USA
Though it doesn't have any Hollywood blockbusters, Viewster has a host of free films and TV shows, spanning action, thriller, war, horror, comedy, Bollywood and world cinema, including films from Turkey and Russia. Click for full info
No registration is needed to watch the free movies. You'll be subjected to around eight minutes of adverts per 2hr film.
Viewster says it updates its service with new titles "all the time". It does offer HD content but this is a subscription paid-for service.
How many films: 150+ What to watch: Laurel & Hardy, Superman, The Wanted, Ultimate Force (series 1)
If you're looking for free action, crime, horror or sci-fi films, check out American service Crackle. Owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment, it has 290+ movies and 70 TV shows. Click for full info
The service is available online, as well as via a number of platforms, including:
- Android mobiles
- Android tablets
- Nook tablets
- Kindle Fire
- Windows phones
- Xbox 360
- Samsung, Sony, LG, Toshiba and Vizio smart TVs
- Internet-connected media players Roku and Google TV
If you're watching online, you'll need either Internet Explorer 7.0 or above or Firefox 3 or above, or Chrome.
Crackle says its service is supported by advertising, and in an average 2hr film, you can expect to see between 4-6mins of adverts.
There are no HD films on the service yet, but Crackle says it adds new content each month, so it won't be long before high-definition content is available. It also has its own movie insider show Why It Crackles.
How many films: 200+ & 40+ TV shows What to watch: Kurt & Courtney, Bad Lieutenant, Superhero Me
If you have any other suggestions, share them in the Online Movie Streaming forum discussion
The streaming service that's right for you will depend on a number of things, such as how you're planning to watch, whether you want the latest releases or a library of older films, and of course, how much you want to pay. Here's a quick comparison table to help you decide:
|Online streaming services compared|
£8.99/mth for the first three months, then £15/mth
Pay-per-view, films from 99p
|HD titles available?||
Yes, but only on PS3 and Xbox
|How many titles available?||
|Can I watch new movie releases?||
Not included in package, £3.49 pay-per-view per film
Yes, up to 4 new movies added every Friday
Not included in package, £3.49 pay-per-view per film
|Which games consoles can I watch on?||
Wii, Xbox 360, PS3
Wii, Xbox 360, PS3
Xbox 360, PS3
Xbox 360, PS3
Below is a bit more information about each of the services, including what you can watch on each, how much it'll cost you, plus any current deals for signing up. Don't forget, you may be able to get cashback on top.
Lovefilm - Unlimited movies for £5.99/mthGet a free 30-day trial, then just £5.99/MTH for unlimited films
- How much? Unlimited streaming from £5.99/mth
- New releases? No at the moment (full info on website)
- How many? Thousands of films and TV series, incl some HD
- Min broadband speed required? 2Mb
- How can I watch? Laptop/PC, smart (internet-connected) TVs, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Wii U, Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD, iPad, or on your TV (connect device to TV).
Amazon-owned movie service Lovefilm* has thousands of films and TV shows for you to stream instantly to your device.
If you'd like to rent physical DVDs as well, Lovefilm also offers DVD rental and streaming packages, eg, £7.99/month streaming and unlimited DVDs (one at home at a time) - see Cheap DVD Rental for more info.
Free 1-month trial: New customers who sign up online can get a free 30-day trial of Lovefilm Instant. Just cancel over the phone before the 30 days is up if you don't want to continue - otherwise you'll be charged £5.99/month. This offer is ongoing.
How good is Lovefilm? The selection of films included in the package is only a fraction of what Lovefilm offers on DVD. So if you're looking for a vast library of movies, a combined streaming and DVD package may be best for you.
A taste of what's on offer: Included in the £5.99 package: Friends with Benefits, The Smurfs, Top Gear, The Sweeney, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dexter, The West Wing, The Walking Dead, and Vikings.
Feedback: Discuss Lovefilm
Netflix - Unlimited HD films, but smaller selectionUnlimited movies, one-month free trial then £5.99/mth
- How much? Unlimited streaming for £5.99/month
- New releases? No
- How many? Over 2,000 titles, incl some HD
- Min broadband speed required? 0.5Mb
- How can I watch? Laptop/PC, smart (internet-connected) TV, Wii, Xbox 360, PS3, Android/Windows/Apple tablets or smartphones, or on your TV (connect device to TV)
Already hugely popular in the US, online film site Netflix* launched in the UK in 2012. For £5.99/month, you can access around 2,000 films and TV shows instantly.
How much: You pay a flat fee of £5.99/month to watch as many films and TV shows as you like. However, Netflix currently only features around 2,000 films and TV shows, compared to Lovefilm's package (which has "thousands").
Free one-month trial: New customers who sign up online can get a free 30-day trial of Netflix. Just cancel online before the 30 days is up if you don't want to continue - otherwise you'll be charged £5.99/month. This offer is scheduled as ongoing.
The offer involves setting up a recurring payment, where you agree to let money be taken regularly from your credit/debit card. This isn't as easy to cancel as a direct debit if the company plays games. It hopefully won't be an issue in this case, but do double-check your bank statement (see Regular Payments for a full guide).
How good is Netflix? The selection of films on Netflix is quite limited at the moment, but its back catalogue of TV shows is impressive.
Netflix works on some Apple and Android mobile devices too, so if you're using wi-fi, you can watch what you want while on-the-go. Be warned though, if using 3G this could eat heavily into your download limit - check with your mobile provider first if you're unsure, and read our FAQs for more info.
A taste of what's on offer: The Office, Alan Partridge, That Mitchell & Webb Look, The Hunger Games, The Cabin In The Woods, Breaking Bad.
Feedback: Discuss Netflix
Now TV - Watch Sky Movies without having SkyFree trial, then £9/Mth for three months, £15/mth Thereafter.
- How much? Unlimited streaming free trial then £9/mth for the first three months, £15/mth thereafter
- How many films included? Around 700 films at any one time, though no HD films
- New releases? Yes, included
- Min broadband speed required? 2Mb
- How can I watch? Laptop/PC, selected Android phones, iPhones, iPads, Xbox 360, YouView boxes, Roku boxes, Now TV box.
In 2012, satellite TV giant Sky launched Now TV* - an online movie streaming service to rival Lovefilm and Netflix. The service is effectively the Sky Movies and On Demand channels (not pay-per-view), available to watch instantly, without a Sky subscription.
Now TV also offers pay-per-view Sky Sports - full info in Cheapest Football On TV.
The service has 700+ films to choose from - a decent chunk of which were in cinemas within the last year. Currently it includes The Dictator, Brave, Cassadaga and more, with 20 new premieres a month. For lovers of newer films, it's by far the most impressive of all the streaming services, so it's no surprise the long-term cost is more.
How much? Now TV costs £8.99/month for the first three months, then £15/month thereafter. You'll get unlimited streaming from a choice of over 700 films, many of which are new releases and not available on Lovefilm or Netflix yet.
Free one-month trial: New customers who sign up online can get a free 30-day trial.
How good is Now TV? It's got the broadest range of films of all the streaming services, and mirrors what's showing on Sky Movies and available on Sky On Demand.
Because of this, if you already have a Sky Movie subscription, it's probably not worth paying extra for Now TV.
A taste of what's on offer: Included in the £8.99/mth package: Skyfall, Ted, Project X, Marley, The Dictator, The Dark Knight Rises, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Feedback: Discuss Now TV
To watch latest films on a pay-per-view basis, these sites are much of a muchness pricewise.
For example, a big release like Lincoln is £3.49 on Blinkbox, iTunes, YouTube and Google Play. So if you're after a specific flick, quickly check 'em all. Here's the lowdown on the sites we checked out.
Blinkbox - For pay-per-view recent releasesPay-per-view TV and movies from 99p PLUS get £4 free account credit
- How much? On a pay-per-view basis, prices start from 99p
- New releases? Yes, £3.49 per film
- How many? Over 10,000 titles
- Min broadband speed required? 2.25Mb
- How can I watch? Laptop/PC, Xbox 360, PS3, iPad, or on your TV (connect device to TV)
A good option for light movie watchers, Tesco-owned streaming site Blinkbox* has no monthly contract. Just pay for programmes as you watch them. You can also buy titles too, as you can with iTunes. Blinkbox also powers the recently launched Clubcard TV.
How much: All content on Blinkbox is pay-per-view, and most recent releases cost £3.49. Older movies start from a competitive 99p.
How good: If you only want to watch the occasional film online, Blinkbox is competitive for pay-as-you-go films. However, if you want to watch more than one specific film a month, especially new releases, a Cheap DVD Rental subscription is probably more MoneySaving.
Unlike the other services mentioned above, Blinkbox also gives you the option to download the film to your PC so you can watch it offline later. You'll need to download the Blinkbox download manager if you want to do this.
Once the movie's finished downloading, you can watch it in Windows Media Player. You will be asked to enter your Blinkbox login details before you view the movie/TV episode.
A taste of what's on offer: Iron Man 3 (£3.49), Flightplan (£2.49), The Impossible (£2.49), The Invasion (£2.49), Milk (£2.49), Game Of Thrones (to buy, £1.79 per episode).
Feedback: Discuss Blinkbox
iTunes Pay-per-view TV and movies from 99p
- How much? £3-£5 for major new releases
- New releases? Yes
- Min broadband speed required? No
- What's available? 45,000 movies and 190,000 TV episodes
- How can I watch? Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad and iPod touch or on your HD TV using Apple TV
ITunes offers a massive range of 45,000 films, but you'll need to download its software and set up an account to stream films. There's no charge for this. Big releases like After Earth, Insidious and Much Ado About Nothing are available for £3.49-£4.49.
Films are available in HD and no minimum broadband speed is required.
It's often possible to grab extra cashback on top when you sign up for an online streaming package. Yet to get it you need to sign up via a specialist cashback website rather than via the streaming service directly - this means you may not get the same incentives (vouchers, free trials, etc) though.
Cashback websites use affiliate links to generate revenue, so if they get paid when you sign up, you'll get paid too. Unfortunately this cash is never guaranteed, as sometimes cashback sites don't "track" deals in progress. Therefore it's generally best to pick the right streaming service first, and view any cashback as an added extra.
To find out more about how these sites can pay you, and how you can make the most of them, read the full Cashback Sites guide.
Here's a list of commonly asked questions. If you've other queries, please add them to the Watching Movies Online forum discussion.
Why does my film keep stopping and starting (buffering)?
When streaming a movie, the data is sent to you bit by bit. As each bit arrives, it is processed by your PC (or other device).
The provider will try to send the data to your device as smoothly as possible, but if your broadband connection isn't fast enough to process it, the film will keep pausing while the connection waits for the next bit of data to be sent. This is known as 'buffering'.
Most services recommend a connection speed of around 2Mb to prevent buffering (check your speed with a Broadband Speed Test. If you find your broadband can't handle streaming a film, there are a few things you can do to help speed up your connection:
- If you pause the film, it will continue to be streamed. This will queue up more of the film, so when you hit play, it should run more smoothly.
- Try switching from HD to standard definition (or 'normal resolution'). Streaming in HD requires more bandwidth, so will slow down the connection, causing buffering.
Turn off any other applications, such as Skype or iTunes, that could be running in the background - these use up vital bandwidth.
Also, if you (or someone else in your house) are downloading anything else, playing games, etc, this will slow your connection speed and cause the film to buffer.
If you're watching on a computer that's using a wireless signal, connecting it straight to your router with an ethernet cable will make a big difference.
Because wireless signals travel through the air, they can weaken when they have to go through walls and furniture. So, if you're watching a film upstairs but your router is downstairs, the signal could be intermittent, causing the film to buffer.
It may also be worth talking to your internet provider to see if your connection speed is being reduced at all. Your provider can reduce your connection for streaming at certain times of the day or on certain days of the week.
If your broadband is still too slow to stream a film without it buffering, consider switching to another provider with a faster service. Full info in Cheap Broadband.
How much of my download allowance will a film use?
Your broadband download allowance is a limit on the amount of data that can be transferred over your broadband connection.
Any internet use counts towards your total usage, whether you're actually downloading something or not. Even casual surfing or Facebook-ing will use up some of your allowance.
So, although you're not actually downloading a film when you stream, it will still use a large chunk of data. As a general rule:
- A standard definition (SD) film of about 90mins will use about 1.5GB of data
- A high-definition (HD) film of about 90mins will use about 3.5GB of data
It's important you keep tabs on how much you're using, as unless you have a totally unlimited broadband package, you may be hit with gargantuan charges for going over your limit.
Likewise, if you're routinely watching Netflix or Lovefilm on a 3G mobile device, like an iPhone or iPad, and not using wi-fi, you run the risk of exceeding your mobile provider's data allowance.
Is streaming movies safe and legit?
All the streaming sites listed in this guide are 100% legal - even the free ones. But there are plenty of websites online that offer "free movie streaming" which aren't legal, and could put your PC/laptop at risk of viruses, malware and trojans.
So it's important you know how to protect yourself, both from the security threats and the fine and/or prison sentence you could face for streaming an illegal movie.
We spoke to online security expert Graham Cluley to get his advice on online streaming:
Am I breaking the law if I stream movies online? "It's not breaking the law if the site has permission to stream the movie! It's all to do with whether the site has struck a deal with the movie company to reproduce their movie in streaming form," says Cluley.
There's a plethora of free streaming sites available, and many are illegal, so it's important you know what to look out for when choosing one.
What should I be looking out for when choosing a site to stream online content? Cluley says: "You're obviously going to feel more comfortable when visiting a site which has a well-established brand."
Sites like Netflix and Lovefilm offer trusted, secure streaming services. A quick Google for "free online movie streaming" brings up a host of illegal sites - nine times out of 10, if it is offering the latest releases for free, it's not legit. It'll be a bootleg site which is streaming an illegal copy.
This could make you susceptible to viruses and other malware. Cluley's advice: "Go with a well-established name."
What about viruses/malware? Is streaming safe? If you're using a big name service, like Lovefilm, it will be safe. But be vigilant and look out for phonies. "Hackers have in the past created websites which attempt to trick you into installing malware (on the pretext of being a video plugin)," says Cluley.
"You should always run up-to-date antivirus software, and only download a Flash plugin, for instance, from Adobe's real website." The Flash site will tell you what version you have here.
What about pop-up blockers? "A site may ask you to disable pop-up blockers because it might prevent the playing of the video or because they plan to pop up adverts," says Cluley. "Either way, my advice would be to be wary of disabling such blockers."
So, will I be safe while streaming movies online? It's unlikely a big-name streaming site such as Netflix or Lovefilm will pose a security risk, but you can never be too careful. Cluley suggests: "Of course, any website (including legitimate) ones can be hacked - and have malware planted on them. Up-to-date antivirus software and security patches can protect you."
For more info about protecting your PC/laptop, see the Free Antivirus Software guide.