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Do I need a TV licence?

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Nick | Edited by Steve N

Updated 19 May 2016

If you watch live as it's being broadcast, you must have a TV licence which currently costs £145.50 per year for a colour TV. Don't pay, and you face a £1,000 fine. But with changing viewing habits, some who watch online may be paying unnecessarily...

The Government's announced plans to extend the requirement for a TV licence to include those who watch catch-up on iPlayer from autumn this year, but for now, the rules are clear. Whether you're in love with Auntie Beeb or object to the licence on principle, this guide explains when you need to pay – and when you don’t.

If you watch TV as it's being broadcast you need a TV licence – on any device

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. (The Government recently announced those watching catch-up on iPlayer will also soon need a licence – 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. This includes TV programmes downloaded or streamed after broadcast using a catch-up service.

Warning – you will soon need a licence to watch iPlayer

The Government has announced that it's changing the rules soon – from autumn 2016 (exact date yet to be confirmed) you will need a licence to use BBC iPlayer, even if you're only watching catch-up TV. This'll only apply to iPlayer, not other catch-up services like ITV Hub or All 4 (formerly 4oD).

See the iPlayer catch-up to require TV licence MSE News story for more.

At the moment though, the rules are: if you have a TV but only use it to watch DVDs or catch-up TV or for gaming, you don't need a licence.

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

Quick question:

What counts as 'live TV'?

How many licences do I need?

Where does my money go?

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 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.

It isn't about whether you watch the BBC (yet)

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 BBC iPlayer or All 4 (formerly 4oD). However, as above, this will be changing from autumn as the Government's said it plans to make those watching catch-up on BBC iPlayer (but not other catch-up services) get a licence. If this happens, it'll be the first time a distinction's been made between the BBC and other networks in this regard.

For now though there's no difference, see How to watch TV and (legally) not pay.

MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis’ view...

"This is always going to be a contentious guide, as the BBC and its licence fee attracts strong feelings from both lovers and haters. Personally I support the licence fee, but this is a MoneySaving site and our job is to save people cash.

One way of doing that is not paying the licence fee if you don’t need to, or don’t value the ability to watch live television. Of course you may think these rules are ridiculous – fair dos, but they are the rules.

I suspect though as more people start to avoid the licence fee, and it gets more difficult in practice to differentiate between who should and who shouldn’t pay, the entire structure will need to change.

So, whether to do this is up to an individual’s own moral conscience. If you watch or listen to lots of BBC output, but don’t need to pay the licence fee, you may decide to pay it anyway as an act of support – or you may prefer the cash in your pocket."

How to watch TV and legally not pay

If you watch all your favourite programmes using catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer, 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 - if you only watch catch-up, you won't need a licence.

You can watch almost anything on catch-up: soaps, documentaries, dramas, cartoons and films. And because services such as BBC iPlayer only take a few hours to update, you could watch the latest installment of EastEnders not long after it's been on BBC 1.

Remember though, from next year you will need a licence to watch catch-up TV on BBC iPlayer too.

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 and are only watching on-demand or catch-up. 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.

Quick question:

What if I watch live TV online?

How will they know if I watch live TV online or not?

If I have a smart TV and only watch on catch-up do I need a licence?

Do I have to let TV Licensing into my 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.
- CW18

And one more from Twitter:

Thanks for the heads up about the TV licence. Just cancelled and got £172 refund too!
- alexandrat41

If you don't pay you could face a £1,000 fine

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.

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'.

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 £145.50 for the year. But...

It costs £96.50/year 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 0.5%).

Some are eligible for 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.

Quick questions:

Aged 75 and over? Is it free?

Blind or severely sight-impaired? What's the cost?

Living in a residential care home or sheltered accomodation? What's the cost?

Got a question that we haven't answered? Feed back and tell us what you want to know in the TV Licence discussion.

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 on a cashback credit card

Pay by cash payment scheme

New annual licences DON'T usually last a full year – so time it right

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.

You don't need a licence for Netflix, Lovefilm, YouTube and more

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.

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' 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

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

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.

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' in the UK.
  • 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 TV programmes as they’re being shown on TV 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.

Students need a TV licence in most cases. But don't forget summer refunds

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' won't cover you unless you only watch on a mobile, laptop or tablet that isn't plugged into the mains or an aerial at the time (more on this above).

  • 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.

Get a refund for summer

If you bought your TV licence at the start of the academic year (late September/early October) and it therefore has three months remaining on it by the time you leave for summer, you may be eligible for a refund of £36.37. You must be moving to a licensed address over the break.

It's available to any student who has already paid for the final quarter of their year's licence (whether annually or monthly in advance). 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 three months 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.

Using 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 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.

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.

You may need a separate licence if you have 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 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.