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5 August 2020
You used to need a TV licence merely for having a telly, but now those who only watch certain channels on catch-up can get away without paying the £157.50 annual fee. If you watch BBC iPlayer, you'll need a licence, but you won't for other channels' catch-up services. Confused? Don't be – this full guide will take you through whether you should be paying or not.
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 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 phone 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.
You can buy or renew your TV licence online on the TV Licensing website.
The TV Licensing website says you DO need a TV licence if:
This applies to all channels (including, say, +1 channels) on any mainstream TV platform, including Freeview, Virgin or Sky.
It also applies to watching 'live TV' via internet-only services such as Amazon Prime Video and Now TV, but only if you watch content that's simultaneously being shown on a TV channel or is actually being broadcast live, eg, a Premier League football match.
But if you only use online services to watch content on demand, such as cat videos on YouTube or The Witcher on Netflix, 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 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.
The cash funds public broadcasting by the BBC, allowing it to run without the interruption of adverts. It makes up about 76% 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 as follows:
For a more detailed breakdown, see the BBC's Annual Report and Accounts 2018/2019 (p.90).
You only need a TV licence if you watch or record TV as it's being broadcast or use iPlayer – if you only use other catch-up sites, you don't need one.
A rule that came into force in September 2016 means you need a licence to legally use BBC iPlayer, even if you're only watching catch-up TV. But that doesn't apply to other catch-up services, so the ITV Hub, All 4 and My5 are legal to use without a licence as long as you're not using them to watch live TV.
You can watch almost anything on these catch-up services: soaps, documentaries, dramas, cartoons, comedy, sport and films. And because services such as the ITV Hub only take a few hours to update, you can watch the latest instalment of Coronation Street not long after it's been broadcast live on ITV 1.
How can I cancel? If you're 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.
Is this legal? Yes. You don't need a licence as 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 fewer than 2% of people only watch catch-up TV – so don't cancel your licence unless you are sure you don't need it.
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 telly box in the corner of your living room.
TV Licensing told us its enforcement methods are much the same as they've always been, including letters to unlicensed addresses and visits from 'enquiry officers'.
Users of iPlayer are shown a message asking them if they have a licence, and are given the option to confirm that they do, to find out more or to buy a licence on the TV Licensing website.
If you're caught watching iPlayer without a licence the same penalties apply as if you were caught watching live television without one – potential prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000.
It's a good question, and there are some who believe the BBC has backed itself into a corner. If it were to start prosecuting people who watch the odd bit of iPlayer online, it would be like the record companies that take 14-year-olds to court over a few illegally downloaded tracks.
Yes if you're watching BBC iPlayer, but technically no if you only use other catch-up services. But proving it will be difficult, especially if your TV is connected to an aerial or satellite dish and is capable of receiving a signal. So it's possible you could find yourself in a tricky situation.
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.
You have the right to refuse entry, 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 in your home.
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 two years later which is what they say will happen.
And 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 it as it's being shown on a TV channel. It doesn't matter when you watch it, or how it was recorded – you still need a licence.
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As well as catch-up TV (apart from the BBC's iPlayer) you can also watch programmes and films online without needing a TV licence – as long as it's not something that's being broadcast live or appearing on a TV channel at the same time as you're watching.
For example, you don't need a licence for Netflix as all its content is on-demand, and you don't need a licence for Amazon Prime Video, unless you choose to watch live sports or pay extra for one of its live add-on Amazon Channels.
For full info on the options available for watching online, see our Watch Movies & TV Online guide.
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 or £500 in Jersey) 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.
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.
The Government sets the price of the licence. Currently, a colour TV licence will set you back £157.50, but...
It costs £53/year, over £100 LESS, if you only watch telly in black and white.
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 you may be covered by your parents’ licence if:
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. Whether you need to get one yourself will depend on your accommodation though:
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 catch-up outside of BBC iPlayer, 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.
It may be possible to get a refund on your TV licence, if one of the following applies:
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 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.
Until recently over-75s got a free TV licence, but the rules have changed and free licences are now only available to over-75s who receive the pension credit benefit – see the BBC to end free TV licences for over-75s MSE News story for full info.
If you're aged 75 or over, you don't have to do anything until you receive a letter from TV Licensing, whether you're still eligible for a free licence or now have to pay – letters were expected to start arriving from Wed 5 Aug. For full details, see the TV Licensing website or call its over-75s information line free on 0800 232 1382.
TV Licensing says that no decisions have yet been made on how this will affect older people in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, and that it will contact customers in good time if any changes are planned.
At the moment, over-75s living on the Isle of Man don't automatically get a free TV licence – instead they have to apply to claim back the full cost of their licence. Those who have reached state pension age and receive certain benefits are also eligible for refunds.
The Channel Islands also have their own rules:
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 £78.75 for a colour set or £26.50 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:
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.
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 £157.50 licence fee.
You can pay by credit card, debit card, bank transfer, online and through TV Licensing's own savings scheme. However, some payment methods charge more than others.
Here are some handy tips:
Pay by quarterly direct debit and you'll pay a premium of £1.25 per quarter (£5/yr) more than paying by monthly direct debit, using TV Licensing's savings scheme or paying in one lump sum.
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 it off in full at the end of the month) to pay over the phone or online, and get a slice of your cash back.
Currently you can't pay for your licence with Amex, usually the top cashback card. For the best non-Amex alternatives, read the Credit Card Rewards guide.
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, it would run for the remainder of that month and for the following 11 months, until 30 Apr the following year.
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 then.
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TV Licensing officers caught over 216,000 people watching TV without a licence in 2018/19.
Its database of more than 30 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 pay you a 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 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:
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 Separate licences for second homes below for more info.
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.
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, you will need a licence – even if you don't watch any other live TV and regardless of the fact that you've already paid to watch the programme.
For example, if you pay to watch a boxing match on Sky Sports Box Office, you will need a licence to watch it as it will be broadcast live at a specific time.
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If you're a student who bought your TV licence during the academic year, and you're going home over the summer or because you're finishing your studies, you may be eligible for a refund when you leave your uni digs, if you've already paid for the period you won't be there.
If you pay monthly, simply contact TV Licensing to let it know you no longer need the licence and ask it to stop your payments.
You can only claim for full calendar months while not living at your student accommodation. So say you went home on 15 June and your licence ran till 2 September, you could claim the cost back for the whole of July and August only. And if the licence is till 28 August, you could only claim for the whole of July.
You can claim up to 11 months back and have two years after your licence expires to make a claim.
You get back what you paid, which tends to be just over £13.12/month – depending on your method of payment.
The refund is only available if you're moving to a licensed address over the break, such as your parents' home. If you're moving straight into a new gaff that isn't licensed you won't be able to claim a refund. But you can take your existing TV licence with you by changing your address.
You need to complete the online refund form. You may need to provide supporting evidence, in which case you'll have to print out your request and send it off by post. See full details on the how to get the refund, plus other info for students, on the TV Licensing website.
Yes, the good news is you can claim retrospectively for any complete months you no longer needed the licence provided less than two years have passed since it expired.
So for example, if you moved out of your student digs in May 2019 and your licence expired in July 2019, you could still claim for June 2019 up to two years later.
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 or app, you will need a licence. Since 2016, 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 as it's being shown on TV, or use BBC iPlayer.
Usually you'll have to organise this yourself (or between yourselves if in a shared house). Speak to the landlord first though, 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 (family member, partner, nanny, au pair, housekeeper etc), you'll be covered by the homeowner's licence, provided you live in the same building.
If you have a second home and while there you watch or record television programmes as they're being shown on TV, or use BBC iPlayer, you need a separate TV licence for that property.
The only exception is if your second home is a static caravan, but only if the TV there won't be used at the same time as those 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.
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 on a television or via BBC iPlayer – provided you don't also use them to watch TV.
This is because while the Communications Act 2003 states that a "television receiver" must not be installed or used unless you have a licence, the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004 defines a television receiver as anything installed or used for receiving "any television programme service". Therefore, if you're only using your TV to listen to the radio, it isn't defined as a TV receiver.
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.