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TV licence explained

By Andrew Laughlin

If you’ve ever asked the question 'Do I need a TV licence?', the answer may be more complex than you think. We explain when you need one and the best way to buy

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If you watch or record live TV - either through your TV or through a website - then you need a TV licence.

This applies whether you receive Freesat, Freeview or a pay-TV service in your home, whether you rent or own your accommodation, and whether or not you watch BBC channels.

On 1 September 2016, the law changed to state that you must be covered by a TV Licence to watch or download on-demand or catch-up programmes on BBC iPlayer.

You don’t need to buy a TV licence if you only use your TV to watch DVDs, Blu-rays or videos, or you purely use non-BBC catch-up and on-demand services, such as All 4, ITV Hub or Netflix, to watch non-live content.

If you’re sure that you don’t need a TV licence, make sure you inform TV Licensing via the online declaration form or call 0300 790 6071.

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What counts as 'live TV'?

Live TV doesn’t cover just watching sport or live episodes of programmes, it covers all content at the time it’s broadcast on a TV channel, and it also includes all +1 channels, such as ITV+1 and Channel 4+1.

The 'live rule' also applies to any programmes live streamed on video on-demand platforms at the same time as on television. So, if you’re streaming EastEnders on BBC iPlayer while it’s also being shown live on BBC One, you need a TV licence.

BBC iPlayer

Previously, you only needed a TV licence to watch live programmes on BBC iPlayer. However, as of 1 September 2016, you need one for any on-demand iPlayer viewing. 

That includes using BBC iPlayer to catch up on telly that’s been broadcast on BBC One, BBC Two, etc; dipping back into archive shows or downloading programmes to watch while offline. 

This covers any device, including smart TVs, laptops and desktop computers, tablets, smartphones, set-top boxes (Sky, Virgin Media, YouView, etc) and media streaming devices (Apple TV, Chromecast, etc).

For more, head to the TV licensing website

Do I need a TV licence to watch Netflix?

No. You only need a licence for watching or recording content as it's broadcast live on TV. If you’re streaming on-demand movies or TV shows on Netflix, YouTube or Amazon Instant Video (or any other online video service) you don't currently need a licence. 

The same goes if you’re just catching up on already broadcast TV programmes on ITV Player, now known as ITV Hub, or other non-BBC services.

If you do want to stream live programmes, then the licence you buy for your property also covers you for watching TV outside of your home on 'any device powered solely by its own internal batteries'. This includes live streaming on smartphones, tablets and laptops. 

You can also record live programmes on these devices and watch them outside of your home.

How much does the TV licence cost?

Currently, the licence fee costs £147 for colour or £49.50 for black and white. The billions of pounds generated by it pays for all the BBC’s activities, including its family of TV channels, websites, BBC iPlayer and more. If you can’t pay for your annual TV licence in one lump sum, there are various options available to spread the cost.

  • Direct debit You can make smaller payments by direct debit, including monthly or quarterly. Bear in mind, though, that if you go for a quarterly direct debit, you will be charged £1.25 per quarter, adding an extra £5 to your annual bill.  
  • Credit card Unlike some other bill services, you won’t be charged for paying your TV licence via credit card over the phone or online. If you have a cashback credit card, you could get some of the money back as long as you pay off your card balance in full at the end of the month.
  • Cash You can make weekly, fortnightly or monthly payments against your TV licence at shops and newsagents that have PayPoint outlets. This allows you to spread the cost more easily, but it's worth keeping a record of the payments you have made so you can keep track.

What happens if I don’t pay?

Whether you agree with the TV licence or not, if you’re found to be watching or recording live TV without a valid licence, you’re guilty of a criminal offence that is punishable by a fine of up to £1,000. TV Licensing claims that is uses a number of methods to detect if you’re covered, including enforcement officers that carry out checks on properties, detector vans and a national database.

TV licence: specials cases and exemptions

Students You still need a TV licence if you’re a student, as it’s unlikely that the licence held by your hall of residence, or your parents, will cover you.

Tenants and lodgers If you live in self-contained accommodation, such as a flat, then you need your own TV licence. If you rent a room as a lodger, the TV licence for the whole house should cover you, unless you have exclusive access to a toilet or bathroom - in that case you could be classified as living in separate accommodation requiring its own licence.

Changing address When you move house, you can take your TV licence with you. Just fill out the change of address form, or call 0300 790 6071. If you move in with someone who already has a licence, you can cancel your own licence and potentially get a partial refund.

Elderly You’re entitled to a free TV licence if you’re aged 75 or over. If you’re currently 74 and need to renew your TV licence soon, you can buy a short-term licence up until your 75th birthday – that way you’re not out of pocket.

Blind or visually impaired people You may be eligible for a 50% reduction in your TV licence fee.

Care home residents You still need to have a separate TV licence for your living area, but you may qualify for a concessionary licence costing just £7.50 per room, flat or bungalow.

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