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Tackling your debts

How to watch TV without a TV license

Posted 08 April 2015 by Shelley Bowers

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If you’re struggling with money and are looking at ways to save, there are ways to watch TV without a license … find out how to watch a different way

What can you watch without a TV license?

Let’s make it clear … if you have a TV and you want to watch live broadcasts, you will need a TV licence. However, watching TV via the normal digital channels on a bog-standard TV is becoming a thing of the past and there are now lots of ways that allow you to watch without needing a licence. Could you use one of them to help save you a bit of money?

First let’s see how much you know about TV licences. So, here’s a little quiz:

If you’re watching an episode of Horizon on BBC1, as it’s being broadcast of an evening, would you need a TV licence? 

If you were watching that same episode on BBC iPlayer at 10pm at night, would you need a TV licence? 

If you found that same episode on YouTube and watched it at 4.30 in the afternoon, would you need a TV licence? 

If you answered, yes, no and no, you’d be right. A TV licence is only required when you want to watch TV as it’s being broadcast live. So, do you think you’d be able to find all the TV you want to watch on catch-up or online, on websites like YouTube? If you can, and it’s highly probable that you can, then you might be able to save yourself £145 in licence fees.

But, knowing when you do and when you don’t need a TV licence can be confusing, especially now there are lots of other ways to watch TV, like NowTV, so let’s dig into it a little more.

To beging with, let’s clarify what "live" means, as live broadcasts can be found on catch-up websites too. Essentially, watching live means you are viewing the programme at the same time as it’s being broadcast, regardless of what website you choose to view it through. So, if you watch a programme through the BBC iPlayer and, rather than catching-up, you simply watch BBC 1 via the "watch live" link, you’re watching TV as it’s being broadcast, so you’d need a licence. If fact, any catch-up site where live viewing is possible, including ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5, will require a licence if programmes are to be viewed as they are being broadcast. This rule also applies to paid-for cable TV channels that include live viewing, including Sky and Virgin.

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Transforming your old TV into a smart TV

You may be thinking, 'that’s all well and good, but I can’t access internet TV on my television’. Yes, you can! What you need is a set-top box, like those provided by Roku. You buy a box that allows your TV to read digital signals. It a one-off fee for the box, then you have the choice of viewing just the free channels or purchasing extra ones.

Not just the BBC

Some people think that if they don’t watch the BBC, they won’t need a licence. This is understandable, as the licence fee is paid to the BBC and their own website specifically states that,

"The licence fee allows the BBC's UK services to remain free of advertisements and independent of shareholder and political interest.’ And, the BBC used its income from the licence fee to pay for its TV, radio and online services, plus other costs."

However, if you were to challenge the licence, by arguing that you only watch non-BBC channels and sit through the advertisements, you’d receive another reason as to why you need to pay the fee, which states:

"A TV Licence is a legal permission to install or use television receiving equipment (e.g. TVs, computers, mobile phones, games consoles, digital boxes and DVD/VHS recorders) to watch or record television programmes, as they are being shown on TV."

So, whilst part of the licence clearly goes to pay for BBC programmes, even if you choose not to watch those programmes you’re still paying for them and you’ll still need a licence.

Not just your TV

It’s not just watching TV on your television at home that requires some thought. If you have a laptop, tablet, phablet or mobile phone you want to watch live TV on, you’ll need a licence for that too. However, if you watch the TV via Wi-Fi in someone else’s property, it’s your licence you’re watching on. If you plug your device into the main aerial socket in another persons’ property, it’s them who needs the licence.

Recording Live TV

Even if you don’t watch the TV live, and you decide you’d like to record it to watch later, you’ll need a licence for that too. According to the BBC, watching live and recording whilst it’s being shown live are the same thing.

Playing Catch-up

If you’re able to contain yourself and be patient, you can watch pretty much everything on catch-up. There’ll be some things that aren’t available, usually the films that have been shown.

If you follow the catch-up only route, and never use the ‘watch live’ link, you will not need a licence. However, this is something that may change in the near future, if the current Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, has anything to do with it. In a speech he made on the 2nd March 2015 he stated,

"I welcome the Committee’s endorsement of our proposal to require people to pay the licence fee even if they only watch catch-up television."

Plus 1

There’s some debate about whether Plus 1 channels are considered live. The simple answer is yes … it’s a live broadcast because it’s the same programmes that are being shown as you’d see if you watched the channel directly through your normal TV channels.

Online TV

YouTube is another place where you can watch TV without a licence, but make sure you’re using the legally uploaded content, either via YouTube Movies or by viewing legal uploads, like the films on this top ten list. There are so many programmes, films and documentaries on YouTube, that the chances of finding what you want on there is very high. You may need to wait a little while for the programmes to appear, but patience is a virtue.

Netflix is another great place to watch TV without needing a licence. And be careful about other websites where you can watch ‘live’ TV, such as FilmOn. On this site you can watch UK, and a range of other channels from around the world, live. So, again, you’d need a TV licence to watch these.

It’s a criminal offence

But, beware, don’t think that you can just cancel your licence, still watch live TV and get away with it - you could face a fine of £1,000. So don’t do it, it’s not worth it and you really don’t need to, especially as it’s a criminal offence to be caught watching TV without a licence.

The fact that it is a criminal offence to watch TV without a licence is something that’s been debated for a long time. Arguments from the decriminalisation camp are compelling, with most people who end up in court unable, rather than unwilling, to pay. There’s a growing concern that criminalising people who are already in a vulnerable financial position only serves to make their lives more difficult and is a waste of the Magistrates’ time.

You can’t go to jail for not paying your licence fee. You can, however, end up in prison if you don’t pay any court fine imposed on you for not paying your licence fee. But this is usually when you refuse to pay, rather than when you genuinely can’t pay due to low income or some other issue with your finances.

Inform the licence people

If you do decide to get rid of your TV licence altogether, and only watch TV legitimately online, then you could also get rid of your physical TV too. If you do this, fill in the correct paperwork and send it off to the TV licensing. You can do this online to make it quicker. Once this is done, you may receive a visit from the licensing people to verify that you don’t have a TV. This should prevent you from receiving any further letters about licences for three years.

Our tips could help you save a bit of money, but if you’re struggling with your finances, it’s important you seek help … there are people out there who you can speak to. By talking to an expert, like one at Debt Advisory Centre, you can find out what your options are get back on the right track.

by Shelley Bowers

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To find out more about managing your money and getting free debt advice, visit Money Advice Service, an independent service set up to help people manage their money.