We use cookies to allow us and selected partners to improve your experience and our advertising. By continuing to browse you consent to our use of cookies. You can understand more and change your cookies preferences here.


Updated: 7 Jul 2021

How to watch TV online and stream your favourite shows

Learn how services such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Player allow you to catch up on your favourite shows, or stream live channels, over the internet.
Which?Editorial team
Online tv 438237

All the major UK broadcasters, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, have online TV services that enable you to catch up on programmes that you've missed over the internet, or even stream their channels live.

You can watch this online TV on a variety of devices, from tablets and laptops to smartphones and smart TVs. However the availability of each service can vary.

How to watch TV online

To enjoy online TV you will need a reliable broadband connection. This doesn’t have to be a superfast service to stream shows but do need a minimum speed of around 3Mbps (megabits per second). If your broadband connection is slower than this then the picture quality will be poor and you’ll experience frustrating screen buffering while your computer waits for parts of the content to load. Not sure of your broadband speed? Check it using our free broadband speed test.

Bear in mind, too, that the quality of video streaming you'll see can also be affected by the number of other people using the connection at that time. If they are also streaming videos, it will reduce the bandwidth you have available. Here’s where having a superfast connection can be beneficial. If you currently have standard broadband (ADSL) and enjoy watching TV online, it's worth looking into upgrading - you may find you can get faster broadband and pay less. Read our guide on broadband speeds to find out more about how the two compare.

If you plan to watch TV over the internet then we’d always recommend getting an 'unlimited' broadband package. Whether you're streaming or downloading content (see more on that below), it’s easy to quickly eat into your data allowance - a capped broadband package could quickly run up additional charges.

Types of online TV

Streaming: This allows you to watch shows as they’re streamed directly over the internet. It doesn’t mean that they’re being shown live – it could be a catch up service showing a programme that you’d missed – but the important factor is that you need a constant broadband connection for the entirety of the show.

Most streaming services now offer options for standard-definition, HD or even 4K Ultra HD streaming, but again the speed of your internet connection will dictate what you can get. If you fancy watching ultra high definition content, you'll need a TV with a high enough resolution - read our guide on the top 4K UHD TVs to see which ones we recommend.

Downloading: Some services, such as iTunes or the BBC Store, allow you to download TV programmes or films to keep on your device. This means that you can watch them at your leisure, even if you don’t have an internet connection – for example on planes or trains.

Do I need a TV licence to use these services?

If you're watching on-demand or catch-up programmes on BBC iPlayer, you will need a TV licence. You will also need one if you're watching live TV anywhere else. And it doesn’t matter if you’re not using a TV – streaming on any compatible device, including computers and smartphones, counts too.

However, if you're watching purely catch-up television or films on-demand on other services, or only watch DVDs, Blu-rays or videos, then you won't need a valid UK television licence.

Most services will prompt you to state whether you have a licence before they let you stream live. We go into more detail in our guide to TV licence explained.

Bear in mind that there are often restrictions on when, or for how long, you can view programmes. The catch-up window is generally up to 30 days after the programme was originally broadcast, but there can be greater restrictions on certain content due to the rights the broadcaster holds. This is often the case with sport or films.