It used to be you only needed a TV licence if you had a telly. Yet the internet age means the rules have exploded with complications, and until recently, those who only watched catch-up TV could get away without paying the £147 annual fee for a colour TV.
Now that's changed, and if you watch BBC iPlayer, you'll need a licence – but you won't for other catch-up sites. Confused? Don't be. This full guide will take you through whether you should be paying or not.
24 TV licensing tips, including...
If you watch or record shows as they're being shown on telly in the UK ('live TV'), you need to be covered by a TV licence. You now also need one if you use BBC iPlayer – see below.
What many may not realise is that this is the case regardless of the device you're watching on – according to research published by TV Licensing, over 31% of students don't know watching live TV on a mobile requires a licence (though in most cases you don't need two if you already have one).
So whether you're watching live TV on a television, computer, tablet, games console, smartphone or any other device, you'll need to pay the fee.
However you do not need a TV licence if you only watch content after it's been shown on television – UNLESS it's on iPlayer. TV programmes downloaded or streamed after broadcast on other catch-up services are fine without one though.
You can buy or renew your TV licence online on the TV Licensing website.
What counts as '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 of The Big Bang Theory via the Channel 4 online streaming service (All 4) at the same time as it's being shown on Channel 4, you DO need a TV licence.
- When watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory online when it isn't being broadcast "live" on Channel 4, you DON'T need a TV licence.
How many licences do I need?
Your TV licence covers your household, no matter how many TVs you have, but the rules differ for shared student accommodation.
Additionally, if you pay for a licence at home, it'll cover you on a mobile device outside of your home too (subject to certain conditions – 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.
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 (figures do not total 100% due to rounding):
- Television (58%)
- Radio (17%)
- BBC World Service (7%)
- Other services and production costs (7%)
- Online (6%)
- Licence fee collection and pension deficit costs (6%)
For a more detailed breakdown, see the BBC's latest Annual Report and Accounts 2015/2016 (p.4).
New rules that came into force in September 2016 mean you now need a licence to legally use BBC iPlayer, even if you're only watching catch-up TV. (Until recently, you only needed one if you watched live TV via it.)
This means whether you're streaming or downloading programmes on demand or watching live BBC channels, if it's on iPlayer you'll need to pay the fee – regardless of which device or network provider you're using.
The BBC also says you'll soon need to create an account to use iPlayer, though it hasn't yet set a date for when this will be.
This is an interesting move on behalf of the BBC and the Government.
Saying you only need a licence to watch BBC catch-up as opposed to that of other channels such as ITV is actually a revolutionary change. In the past, even though the BBC received the funds, the licence was always for watching 'any TV'.
Now for the first time we have a specific BBC watching rule; this is potentially opening the door for a future subscription service.
How will this be enforced?
TV Licensing told us it will continue to use the same methods as previously to enforce the new rule – including letters to unlicensed addresses outlining the change and visits from 'enquiry officers'.
Users of iPlayer will be shown a message informing them of the change, and will then have the option to confirm they own a licence, find out more information about the changes or buy a licence on the TV Licensing website.
The same penalties will apply as currently for not owning a licence and being caught watching live television – potential prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000.
How to watch non-BBC catch-up and legally not pay
If you never watch the BBC and only watch all your programmes using the catch-up services of other channels, it may be possible to legally ditch the TV licence and save yourself £147 per year. This is because:
You only need a TV licence if you watch or record TV as it's being broadcast or use BBC iPlayer – if you only use other catch-up sites, you don't need one.
You can watch almost anything on catch-up: soaps, documentaries, dramas, cartoons and films. And because services such as The ITV Hub only take a few hours to update, you could watch the latest installment of The X Factor not long after it's been on ITV 1.
How can I cancel? If you're absolutely sure you no longer need a licence, you can formally let TV licensing know. Although there's no legal obligation to do this, it says doing so will prevent an increasing number of letters coming your way.
- Cancel payment first. If you pay by direct debit you can cancel it by filling out TV Licensing's contact form. Tell it you no longer watch TV and confirm your current address. You'll also need to cancel your direct debit with your bank. If you pay with a TV Licensing payment card, you'll need to call 0300 555 0286.
- Then fill out the declaration. Everyone who no longer requires a TV licence – including those who pay in cash at certain stores or Post Offices, who don't need to do the above – can fill out a No Licence Needed declaration form. After this, keep your confirmation email from TV Licensing as proof.
- TV Licensing may visit. Once you've cancelled, you might find you get a visit from TV Licensing to check whether you actually do need a TV licence – it says these inspections find one in five households do. If you do need a licence, you'll need to pay the full licence fee, and you could risk prosecution plus a fine of up to £1,000 (or £500 if you live in Jersey, or £2,000 in Guernsey).
Is this legal? Yes, you don't need a licence so long as you are not watching live TV or using BBC iPlayer and are only watching on-demand or catch-up on other services. However, TV Licensing says its figures show less than 2% of people only watch catch-up TV – so don't cancel your licence unless you are absolutely sure you don't need it.
What if I watch live TV online?
The rule is if you are watching live TV or using BBC iPlayer you'll need a licence. It makes no difference whether you're watching on a mobile, tablet, laptop or good old fashioned set in the corner of your living room.
How will they know if I watch live TV or BBC iPlayer online or not?
It's a very good question, and indeed there are some who believe the BBC is trapped in a corner by this. If it were to start charging people who watch the odd bit of iPlayer online, it would be like the record companies who prosecute 14-year-olds for a few illegally downloaded tracks.
If I have a smart TV and only watch on catch-up do I need a licence?
Yes if you're watching BBC iPlayer, but technically no if you only use other catch-up services. But proving it will be nightmarish, especially if your TV is connected to an aerial or satellite dish and is capable of receiving a signal. So you may find yourself in a tricky situation.
Do I have to let TV Licensing into my home?
Enquiry officers do not have any legal powers to come into your home unless they have a search warrant from a magistrate, or sheriff if you are in Scotland. They have an implied right under common law to come to your front door and let you know they are there.
If you refuse them entry they will have to leave, but TV Licensing may then use other methods such as a warrant from court, or detection equipment, which can find if there is TV receiving equipment at a home.
Here's some inspiration from our forum:
I used the online form to cancel my licence (the refund arrived back in my bank promptly). I've never had a problem with harassment, just a quick letter when I purchased a new TV and another 2 years later which is what they say will happen.
And one more from Twitter:
Thanks for the heads up about the TV licence. Just cancelled and got £172 refund too!
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 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.
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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 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, nor are they the BBC's iPlayer.
You also don't need a license for Amazon Prime Video, unless you choose to pay extra for its live add-on service Amazon Channels.
There are lots of packages and options available, with 1,000s of titles to stream. See our Watch Movies Online guide for full info.
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 (£2,000 if you live in Guernsey) 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.
You can download programmes while you're in the UK to watch abroad at a later date (as long as it's within 30 days of airing), but you'll have to wait until you're back in the country to watch anything more.
We asked the BBC if it had any plans to change this in future, and it told us:
We are interested in being able to allow UK licence-fee payers to access BBC iPlayer while they are on holiday in the EU. The BBC is still looking at the technical and legal implications of doing this and it will be dependent on what legislation comes into effect in the future.
If you have a TV, but don't watch it, you don't need a licence
Many wrongly believe you need to be covered by a TV licence if you have the ability to watch 'live TV', even if you don't watch it. You only need a licence if you actually watch 'live TV' or use BBC iPlayer.
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.
Colour costs more
The Government sets the price of the licence. Currently, a colour TV licence will set you back £147 for the year. But...
It costs £49.50/year, £97.50 LESS, if you only watch telly in black & white.
The fees have been frozen since 2010, however under the incoming changes announced recently, the cost of a TV licence will increase in line with inflation (which currently stands at 2.3%).
Trick for students to watch live telly and use iPlayer without a licence
In some circumstances you won't need to get your own licence, even if you've moved into your own digs.
It's a bizarre rule, but the TV Licensing website says:
Students... won't be covered by their parents' licence, unless they only ever use devices that are powered solely by their own internal batteries, and aren't plugged into an aerial or the mains.
This means students whose parents have a TV licence are fine to use BBC iPlayer and/or watch live television on a tablet, smartphone or laptop that's not charging at the time, without having to pay for their own licence (as long as that's your usual place of residence outside term time).
However, if you're watching live TV or using BBC iPlayer on a desktop computer, games console or television/digital box, you will need a licence. Depending on your accommodation...
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 accommodation. 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.
Remember, if you're only watching non-BBC catch-up, you don't need a licence regardless of where you live.
If you do pay for a licence, as a student you can also get a refund for the summer.
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:
- If you're moving in with someone who already has a TV licence or moving somewhere where you won't watch 'live TV' or use BBC iPlayer.
- If the TV licence holder has died, a refund may be due to the estate.
- If you have a licence, but will not watch or record programmes as they're being shown on TV or use BBC iPlayer before your licence expires.
- If you've changed the type of licence to a cheaper one you may be due a partial refund.
You can apply online for a refund 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.
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.
Aged 75 and over? Is it free?
Yes. Over-75s get a free TV licence. If you're over 74 and your licence will run out before you turn 75, you're entitled to a short-term licence covering you until you reach 75.
If you've got a short-term licence, you should receive the free one automatically as soon as you reach 75. If not, get in touch with TV Licensing. Full info's available on the TV Licensing website.
Blind or severely sight-impaired? What's the cost?
If you or someone you live with is blind or severely sight-impaired, you'll get 50% off the cost of a TV licence. So it's £73.50 for a colour set or £24.75 for a black and white one.
You must provide TV Licensing with a photocopy of one of these documents to confirm you're certified as either blind or severely sight-impaired:
- A copy of the certificate or document issued by or on behalf of your local authority.
- A copy of the certificate from your ophthalmologist.
If you're only partially sighted or sight-impaired, you won't qualify for the concession. Details on how to apply for the discount are available on the TV Licensing website.
Living in a residential care home or sheltered accommodation? What's the cost?
If you live in a residential care home or sheltered accommodation and watch TV in your own room or flat, then you need a licence. You may be able to apply for an Accommodation for Residential Care (ARC) Concessionary TV Licence though, if you qualify.
This costs £7.50 per room, flat or bungalow. Both you and your accommodation must qualify. Check the TV Licensing website to see if you are eligible, and speak to your care home manager to apply, as they are responsible for arranging this type of licence.
If your home doesn't qualify, you'll have to pay the full £147 licence fee.
Got a question that we haven't answered? Feed back and tell us what you want to know in the TV Licence discussion.
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
You'd think a new annual licence would last a year, yet for many they won't. That's because when you get a new licence it expires the following year at the end of the month prior to the one you purchased it in, NOT exactly a year after you bought it.
So if you bought a licence on 15 May 2016, it would run for the remainder of that month and for the following 11 months, until the end of April 2017.
The only way you can be sure to get the full 12 months is to buy at the start of the month, so make sure you do this (or as near as you can to then so you're not without a licence when you need one) to get the maximum value.
TV Licensing says setting end-of-month expiry dates keeps its costs down and means more can be invested in BBC programmes and services, though it seems a bit cheeky to us. Of course, if you're renewing, you'll be renewing at the start of the month anyway so it shouldn't be a problem.
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If you don't pay, TV Licensing can check
TV Licensing officers catch about 900 people every day who have tried to avoid paying for a licence.
Its database of more than 31 million addresses is the main tool for catching evaders.
If TV Licensing believes you're watching 'live TV' or using BBC iPlayer 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.
Your licence covers you outside your home for a mobile device
Your licence doesn't just cover you watching TV at home, but also watching or recording shows as they're being broadcast on TV or using BBC iPlayer, on any 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 and not connected to an aerial or plugged into the mains. This includes your mobile phone, laptop and tablet.
This rule would also apply to students living away from home – they'll be covered by their parents' licence as long as that's their usual place of residence outside term time (and their device isn't plugged into an aerial or the mains at the time).
If you have a second home, your licence registered at one property won't apply to the other though – you'll need to pay for two. See You may need a separate licence below for more info.
Even if you pay Sky or Virgin, you still need to cough up
Sorry, but 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.
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 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 to watch it being broadcast at a specific time, you will need a licence.
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Students with a licence can get a refund for the summer
If you're a student and bought your TV licence during the academic year and are going home over the summer, you may be eligible for a refund of £12.13 for each remaining month of your licence when you leave (it used to be a minimum of three months, but this changed in April 2017).
It's available to any student who has already paid for the final months of their year's licence (whether annually or monthly in advance), and is moving to a licensed address over the break. If you pay via a quarterly payment scheme, you can cancel by or before the ninth month to avoid paying for the final quarter.
If you're moving straight into new digs that aren't licensed (rather than going back to your folks' place, for instance) you won't be able to claim a refund. But you can take your existing TV licence with you by changing your address.
Diarise to cancel to at least a month before your licence expires to make sure you're eligible. Details on how to get the refund, and other info for students, are available on the TV Licensing website.
You need a TV licence if you watch or record 'live TV' or use BBC iPlayer. If you don't do any of these, you don't need a licence.
So you don't need a licence to read anything on the BBC website, or if you watch clips on the BBC Sport app or website (though if it's a live stream, you will need one).
But if you watch content on the BBC iPlayer website, you will need a licence. Since 1 September this includes catch-up services on the site, as well as live TV.
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, or use BBC iPlayer.
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.
You need to be covered by a separate TV licence if you watch or record television programmes as they're being shown on TV, or use BBC iPlayer, in a 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 home. In this case you won't need a second TV licence but 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.
Listening 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.
Watching 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.