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Do I need a TV licence? 20 things you need to know about the TV licence fee

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It's simple: if you watch live TV (at the time it's being broadcast on a TV channel), you must have a TV licence. Don't pay, and you face a £1,000 fine. But for some, you may be paying unnecessarily...

Whether you agree with the TV licence or not, until the law changes, you'll have to pay. However, there are ways you can save. Read our guide for some top tips and hints.

20+ things you need to know about the TV licence

01Watch TV as it's broadcast? You need a licence

If you watch or record shows as they're being broadcast on telly in the UK ("live TV"), you need to be covered by a TV licence. This includes TV on computers, mobile phones, DVD/video recorders and other devices.

You can buy or renew your TV licence online on the TV Licensing website.

Where does my money go?

The cash funds public broadcasting by the BBC, allowing it to run without the interruption of adverts. It makes up about 75% of the BBC's income.

The BBC contracts the collection and administration of the TV licence out to TV Licensing. According to the BBC, the money you pay is split between the following resources (based on 2012/2013 figures):

Licence Fee Costs

02 You only pay with 'live TV'

Everyone in the UK who watches or records "live TV" (content as it is broadcast) needs to be covered by a TV licence, regardless of what or how you're watching.

You do not need a TV licence if you only watch content after it's been shown on television. This includes TV programmes downloaded or streamed after broadcast using a catch-up service.

So, if you have a TV but only use it to watch DVDs, for gaming or for watching catch-up TV (eg, BBC iPlayer, 4oD), you don't need a licence.

What's 'live TV'?

When we talk about "live TV", confusingly it isn't necessarily a live episode of a programme, it could be pre-recorded.

"Live TV" is content at the time it's being broadcast on a TV channel.

This applies to all channels (including, say, +1 channels) on any main TV platform, including Freeview, Virgin or Sky.

Internet-only services such as YouTube or Netflix don’t count, though.

Here are a few examples to show what this means:

  • When watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory on your TV, on Channel 4, you DO need a TV licence.
  • When watching an episode ofThe Big Bang Theory via the Channel 4 online streaming service (4oD) at the same time as it's being shown on Channel 4, you DO need a TV licence.
  • When watching an epsiode of The Big Bang Theory online when it isn't being broadcast "live" on Channel 4, you DON'T need a TV licence.

Your TV licence covers your household, no matter how many TVs you have, but the rules differ for shared student accomodation (see below).

If you move house it's possible to simply update your contact details or get a refund for a complete unused quarter. See How to get a refund.

03 You need a licence to record live TV

You'll still need a TV licence if you record "live TV" content at the time of broadcast, using a digital recorder like Sky+ or TiVo (or even a good old-fashioned VHS recorder).

This is because you're recording them as they are being shown on a TV channel. It doesn't matter when you watch them, or how they were recorded, you still need a licence.

04 It isn't about whether you watch the BBC

It isn't about what you're watching, or not watching.

If you watch TV programmes when they're are broadcast you must be covered by a valid TV licence, regardless of:

  • Which channel you're watching
  • Which device you are using to watch
  • How you receive the content (terrestrial, satellite, cable, via the internet, etc).

You don't need a TV licence if you are watching catch-up services, such as the BBC iPlayer or 4oD. See Can I cancel my licence if I only watch catch-up TV?

05 Only watch catch-up? Cancel your licence

If you watch all your favourite programmes using catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer or 4oD, it may be possible to legally ditch your TV licence completely, thus saving £145.50 per year. This is because:

You only need a TV licence if you watch or record TV as it's being broadcast - only watch catch-up and you won't need a licence.

You can watch almost anything on catch-up: soaps, documentaries, dramas, comedies, cartoons and films. And because services such as the BBC iPlayer only take a few hours to update, you could watch the latest installment of EastEnders not long after it's been on BBC1.

It's important to remember that if you do cancel your TV licence, you're making the choice to never watch "live TV", as it's broadcast. Here's some inspiration from Twitter:

Thanks for the heads up about the TV licence. Just cancelled and got £172 refund too!

@alexandrat41 - April 2013

Is this legal?

Figures from TV Licensing show that less than 1% of people actually only watch catch-up TV. But if you are sure you will not watch or record television programmes as they’re being shown on TV, using any device, it asks that you let them know.

Once you do cancel your licence, TV Licensing may visit your home to check that no licence is required. TV Licencing said that on these inspections, it has found that almost one in eight households do still need a TV licence.

If during the visit TV Licensing find that you do in fact need a licence, you'll need to pay the full licence fee, and you could risk prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000.

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06 Don't PAY, AND GET FINED UP TO £1,000

Watching "live TV" without a licence is against the law. TV Licensing has enforcement officers that carry out checks. Fee dodgers can face prosecution plus a fine of up to £1,000 if they're found to be watching "live TV" without a licence.

You cannot be imprisoned for TV licence evasion in itself, although you can be imprisoned for non-payment of a fine imposed by the court.

07IF YOU HAVE a tv, BUT DON'T WATCH it, you DON'T NEED A LICENCE

Many wrongly believe that you'll need to be covered by a TV licence if you have the ability to watch "live TV", this is even if you don't watch it.

This is an urban myth: just because you have the ability to watch "live TV" doesn't neccessarily mean you need a licence. You'll only need a licence if you actually watch "live TV".

So, if you've got an aerial on your roof/satellite dish/TV with built-in Freeview etc, but you don't actually watch "live TV", you don't need a licence.

08 colour costs - black & White saves big

The government sets the price of the licence. Currently, a colour TV licence will set you back £145.50 for the year. But...

Save £96.50/year by only watching telly in black & white.

The fees are frozen until the end of the BBC's current charter, in 2016. After this, they could increase.

09 Can you get a cheaper licence?

Depending on your circumstances, it may be possible to get a discount on your TV licence.

Take a look at the info below to see if any of these apply to you. If they do, get in touch with TV Licensing to see if you're eligible for a refund.

10 Don't pay by quarterly direct debit

You can pay by credit card, debit card, bank transfer, online and by TV Licensing's own savings scheme. However, some payment methods charge more than others. Here are some handy tips:

  • DON'T pay by quarterly direct debit. Pay by quarterly direct debit and you'll pay a premium of £1.25 per quarter (£5/year) more than paying by monthly direct debit, using its saving scheme or just paying in one lump sum.
  • Pay on a cashback credit card. You don't get charged extra for paying by credit card, so if you've got a cashback credit card, use it (providing you pay off in full at the end of the month) to pay over the phone or online, and get a slice of cash back.

    Currently you can't pay for your licence with Amex, usually the top cashback card. But for the best non-Amex alternatives, read the Best Cashback Cards guide.
  • Pay by cash payment scheme. You can make small weekly, fortnightly or monthly payments at Paypoint outlets (usually local newsagents and shops). You can also pay over the phone.

    The advantage of this is you don’t have to pay in one lump sum or by direct debit. But you will end up paying for the first year's licence in six months. Once that’s done (meaning you’re six months ahead), you will then have 12 months to pay for your next licence

11 You don't need a licence for Netflix, Lovefilm & Youtube

If catch-up TV isn't enough, and you want movies too, sign up for a subscription to an online film service like Netflix or Lovefilm, or watch for free on YouTube.

You don't need a licence for these as they don't appear on a TV channel at the same time as you're watching.

There are lots of packages and options available, with 1,000s of titles to stream. See our Watch Movies Online guide for full info.

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12 if you don't pay, TV licensing can check

In February 2013, TV Licensing revealed more than 400,000 people had been caught watching TV without a licence in 2012.

It's database of more than 30 million addresses is the main tool for catching evaders.

If TV Licensing believes you're watching "live TV" without a licence, enquiry officers may visit. They can't enter your home without permission, but can apply for a search warrant to do so.

They may also use detection equipment such as vans and hi-tech handheld detectors. However, TV Licensing won't go into exactly how its detection methods work. "We would not want to reveal information useful to potential evaders", it says.

13 The licence covers you outside your home

Nowadays, you can watch TV on a whole plethora of devices, whenever it suits you. So your it doesn’t just cover you watching TV at home, but also to watch or record shows as they're being broadcast on TV, through all of these devices:

  • Computers, including laptops and tablets
  • Mobile phones
  • Games consoles
  • Digital boxes, including Freeview, Sky, Virgin and BT Vision
  • DVD / VHS / Blu-ray recorders

As long as the address where you live is licensed, you’re also covered to watch TV outside your home using any device powered solely by its own internal batteries. This includes your mobile phone, laptop and tablet.

14 Even if you pay Sky or Virgin, you still need to cough up

It's the law. Under the Communications Act 2003, and the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004, you need a TV licence, no matter how you receive the programmes.

So even though you're paying to receive TV with Sky, Virgin Media, TalkTalk or BT, you'll still need to cough up for a TV licence as well.

15 You need a licence for pay-per-view content too

If you're paying to watch a programme and are watching it at the same time as everyone else who's paying to watch it, then yes you will need a licence, regardless of the fact that you've already paid to watch it.

For example, if you buy the movie The Hobbit on Sky Movies Store which is being shown at 8pm, you will need a licence.

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16 You don't need a licence to watch programmes online first

Although the online broadcast is technically the first showing of the programme, you don't need a licence because it's not being shown online at the same time as it's being shown "live" on telly.

17 Check if you're due a refund

It may be possible to get a refund on your TV licence, if one of the following applies:

  • You're moving house. If you're moving in with someone who already has a TV licence, moving abroad, or moving into a new house where you won't watch "live TV".
  • The TV licence holder has died. If the TV licence is no longer needed because the licence holder has died, a refund may be due to the estate.
  • You don't watch "live TV". If you currently have a TV licence, but will not watch or record television programmes as they’re being shown on TV again before your licence expires, you may be eligible for a partial refund.
  • You’d like to cancel only your current payment scheme. If you still need your TV licence but want to cancel your current payment method (direct debits and payment cards), you may be due some money.

    This would only apply if you were ahead on your payments and intended to buy a new licence by paying the full fee upfront. Advance payments would be returned.
  • You’ve an extra licence at the same address. If you've paid the licence fee twice for the same address or changed the type of licence – for example from black and white to colour, or full fee to the free over-75 licence – you may be due a refund.

You can apply online up to two years after the expiry date of your licence. You may have to print the refund form and supply evidence. There's full information on the TV Licensing website, with details on how to cancel and the online refund form.

18 Students: Do You need a separate licence? Can you get a refund?

Whether you need a licence or not depends if you're living at home while you study, or if you've moved away.

If you've moved, in most cases, you will need to buy a licence, because your parents' TV licence won't cover you unless your permanent registered address is with them.

  • Halls of residence. If you're in halls of residence you'll probably be covered for communal areas but not your own room. Check with your university.
  • Private accomodation. If you're living out of halls in a shared house and have signed a joint tenancy agreement, you'll need only one licence for the household. However, if you have separate agreements you'll need one for your room.

Get a refund, NOW! If you've just finished your exams and are packing up, ready to head home for the summer, you may be able to get a refund on your TV licence.

Students who, at the end of the academic year, have a full three months left on their licence can get a refund on the remaining months - though only if they won't be using their licence during these months.

It’s not an automatic process and you will need to apply for the refund. On an unused quarter you should get £36. Details on how to get it, and other info for students are available on the TV Licensing website.

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19using the bbc website doesn't require a licence

You need a TV licence if you watch or record "live TV". If you don't do either of these, you don't need a licence.

So you don't need a licence to read anything on the BBC website.

But if you watch content on the BBC iPlayer, and you don't have a licence, make sure it's not "live TV". If you do stream "live TV" (content shown online at the same time it's broadcast on a TV channel), you will need a licence.

20 Renters need a licence, lodgers don't

If you rent a property, either a whole property or a room in a shared home, you must be covered by a valid TV licence to watch or record television programmes as they're being shown on TV.

Usually you'll have to organise this yourself (or between yourselves if in a shared house). But speak to the landlord first, as they may already have a licence for the property.

If you live in self-contained accommodation such as a separate flat or annexe, then you need your own TV licence.

If you’re a lodger and/or have a relationship with the homeowner (a family member, partner, a nanny, an au pair, housekeeper, etc), you'll be covered by the homeowner’s TV licence, provided you live in the same building.

For more info if you're renting, see the TV Licensing website.

21 You may need a separate licence for a second home

You need to be covered by a separate TV licence if you watch or record television programmes as they're being shown on TV in your second home.

The only exception is if your second home is a static caravan, but only if the TV won't be used at the same time as ones in your main residence. In this case you won't need a second TV licence (you'll need to sign a declaration stating this).

If your second home is a touring caravan or vehicle, you won't need a separate licence. There's full info on the TV Licensing website.

22listening to the radio doesn't require a licence

If you had a radio, but not a television, until 1971 you had to pay for a radio licence.

These days, you don't need a licence to listen to the radio (including BBC stations). This applies however you listen, even if you listen using television equipment.

23Watching foreign tv IN THE uk DOES REQUIRE A LICENCE

If you watch "live TV" from a channel that isn't broadcast in the UK (including those picked up via satellite or online), you need to be covered by a valid TV licence.

This is regardless of the country of origin or the language of the broadcast.

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