How To Cut The Cord And Watch TV Without Sky/Virgin/BT: The Complete UK Guide

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Cord cutting is one of the biggest TV buzzwords in recent times. After years of having to pay hundreds of pounds a year to cable/satellite companies such as Sky and Virgin Media, you can now watch great programmes on your telly at a lower cost, without the need for a cable subscription.

But how do you cut the cord? What devices do you need, what are the best streaming services, and how much money can you save? I’m here to help, with the ultimate guide for UK cord cutters looking for alternatives to Sky and the like. So get your scissors out – and let’s start this journey.

What Does “Cord Cutting” Mean?

Until a few years ago, the only way to watch anything beyond the free, over-the-air channels (like the BBC or ITV), was to get an expensive, 12-month (or more) contract with a premium pay-TV company such as Sky, Virgin Media, BT, etc. You would pay anywhere from £30 to £60 a month, sometimes even more, and get a “package” of channels.

Hand holding scissors cutting the cable cord

The more you paid – the more channels you got in your package. That, unfortunately, did not necessarily mean more good things to watch – as many of those channels were often useless to the average viewer. However, you would still get them all as part of that unbreakable expensive “package”.

Back in the day, when you wanted to watch a show, you had to sit down and watch it live – exactly when it was broadcast on the channel. Then we had VCRs, and then we had digital recorders such as TiVo, which were basically glorified VCRs – you could record shows and watch them whenever, but the actual recording still took place at the exact time the programme was broadcast.

Things started to change once fast broadband came into the picture. Now, you can watch TV via your internet connection – and no, not just cat videos on YouTube. There’s no need for “channels”, or telly guides listing broadcast times – now, you subscribe to a cheap (and legal!) streaming TV service such as Netflix or Disney+, and get your programmes directly to your TV (or phone, or tablet) via the internet.

The added plus – broadcast timings are a thing of the past with streaming TV services. The programmes are there in the cloud, waiting for you to watch when you want. And, in many cases, once a show is available on your streaming service, the whole series is already there for the taking, and you can watch the entire thing in one, long sitting (that’s called Binge-Watching). Don’t forget the crisps!

To sum up, by becoming a cord cutter, you can:

  • Watch TV on your own time, wherever you want and on any device
  • Save hundreds of pounds a year
  • Ditch those annoying 12/18 months contracts
Cord cutter tearing up TV contract

What Do I Need For TV Cord Cutting?

If you want to watch TV without Sky or the other traditional pay-TV companies, here are the things you need:

1. Fast Broadband

Once you cut the cable/satellite cord, most of your TV programmes will be streamed to you via the internet. And for that, you need broadband at a decent speed. The faster broadband you get, the more streaming you can do – and on more devices at the same time.

Netflix’s official “speed recommendations” list a minimum of 5 Megabits per second for HD quality streaming, and 15 Megabits for 4K streaming.

In the real world – that’s usually not enough. Sure, the streaming might WORK with a 5 megabits broadband connection, but you will probably get a lot of buffering, and there won’t be any internet bandwidth left for other online activities in your house (while streaming TV is being watched).

What Is Buffering?
Streaming TV is being downloaded to your device in real-time. To prevent disruption in the middle of the programme/movie you’re watching, a small portion of it will be preloaded into your device.

Then, while you’re already watching, the device will keep downloading the next chunk and the one after that, with you still watching the previous chunk that was already downloaded.

If your broadband connection is too slow, the streaming device can’t keep up – you will ‘finish’ watching the preloaded part before the next one had enough time to download, and your programme will STOP, until the device can fill the buffer again – i.e., download the next chunk.

What Broadband Speed Do I Need For TV Cord Cutting?

For HD streaming on ONE DEVICE at a time and no one else at your house doing anything “heavy” on the internet, the common 17Mb broadband package is usually enough.

If you have a bigger household, with more than one person intending to watch streaming TV simultaneously (or use the internet for other heavy needs such as gaming or video calls), you should get a speed of at least 38Mb.

For 4K streaming on one device (and the possibility of HD streaming on other devices simultaneously), I would recommend a speed of at least 50Mb.

Chart of Recommended Broadband Speed For Cord Cutters

Important Tip:
Get a broadband package with no monthly limits. Streaming TV downloads A LOT of data via your internet connection.

For example, An hour of HD content on Netflix will download up to 3GB of data. An hour of 4K content is up to 7GB of data. That means that even if you watch only 3 hours of HD TV a day, you will download 279GBs of data over a month.

So skip those broadband packages that limit your monthly data usage. As a cord cutter, you would reach those data caps pretty quickly.

2. A Streaming Device

So you have a fast enough broadband connection, you have a TV, now you need a device that will stream the programmes and movies you want to watch from the internet to your telly.

You can, of course, settle for watching everything on your computer, your smartphone or your tablet – if you have any children at home, you know that’s what many of them do these days.

But most cord cutters still want to watch at least some of the content on their TV, while sitting on the sofa with a bag of crisps. For that, you need a streaming device connected to your TV.

Alternatively, most TVs sold today are “Smart TVs” that already come with streaming apps. It’s a decent solution in many cases, but if you want a faster experience with a better user interface and more options – standalone streaming devices are still, usually, better.

There are many devices out there – from small ones that hide behind your TV (such as the Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV Stick or the Roku 4K Stick), to full-featured set-top boxes like the Roku Express 4K, or gaming consoles (PS4/5, Xbox) that also function as TV streamers.

All these devices have pros and cons, but if you want to jump right in, our recommendation for an all-around good streamer is the Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick, with the Roku Streaming Stick 4K being another great option.

For a detailed comparison, see our Best TV Streaming Device In The UK.

3. Streaming Services

Before you cancel your current pay-TV package (assuming you’re not under contract), you need to subscribe to a video streaming service that offers content on demand.

Netflix on TV
Photo: Deposit Photos

The main paid options in the UK are:

Disney Plus on tablet deals

The streaming services all differ in their content offerings – Netflix and Amazon’s strong points are “box-sets” of programmes, where you get every episode of the series at once. (Note that there’s also a way to watch the American version of Netflix in the UK – here’s how.)

NOW has some of those, but focuses more on its catch-up service, with episodes coming up week-to-week. The plus side is that you get newer programmes as they’re being broadcast.

We take an in-depth look at each of the streaming services on our dedicated reviews – but if you want to jump right in, some have a free trial (a month on Amazon, and sometimes seven days on NOW. Netflix no longer offers a free trial in the UK) – so you might as well check all of them and see which one’s better for you.

Of course, serious cord cutters might join more than one service at a time (that’s what I usually do) – and you would STILL pay less than you would for a comprehensive satellite/cable TV package. Plus, there are also many places where you can stream movies for free.

But remember – unlike a cable contract, with a streaming service you can easily cancel each service when you want to save some money, or just don’t have enough time to watch TV. And then, just as easily resubscribe – so there’s no need to pay for ALL the services ALL the time.

In addition to the Big Four, there are several smaller streaming services in the UK that you might want to consider, such as:

  • Paramount+ (See our review): A streaming service that offers content from CBS, Showtime and Paramount Pictures, as well as exclusive, original programmes and films, at £6.99/month.
  • Apple TV Plus (See our guide): The streaming service from Apple, which you can get for free when you buy an Apple device (up to 3 months), or by paying £8.99/month. It’s made up entirely of original shows and films – but the number of titles is still low.
  • Discovery+: A streaming service that focuses on lifestyle, reality TV, nature and sports. Some of the content is available for free, some with adverts and a low-cost subscription fee, and the top tier, which has no adverts, also includes a variety of sports from Eurosport. Recently, they also added a “Premium” tier, which includes TNT Sports – the new name of BT Sport. You can subscribe directly – or via Amazon Prime Video Channels.

In light of this competition from streaming services, Sky now offers its own line of streaming devices/services: Sky Glass (see our review) is a streaming TV from Sky that lets you stream Sky’s content via broadband, without needing a dish – and it also lets you sign up to Sky without a long-term contract (but you do have to buy a new TV).

Sky Glass with movies hero
Sky Glass

Sky Stream is similar to Sky Glass, but it’s just a small set-top box that lets you stream Sky’s content – without having to buy a whole TV (see our Sky Stream review).

How Can I Watch The Free Channels, Such As BBC One and Channel 4?

If you’re used to getting your TV from Sky or one of the other pay-TV companies, then that’s where you’ve been getting your free channels as well (the BBC channels, ITV, etc.). When you cut the cord, can you still keep watching these channels?

Of course!

There are several ways to watch the free, over-the-air channels – online via the internet, with the Freeview service, the YouView service, or the Freesat service.

Most streaming boxes (and certainly the ones I’ve mentioned here) already come with dedicated apps for the big UK free channels, or you could use your laptop. Some of the free content available online:

With these apps and websites, you can stream programmes from your favourite free channels, directly to your TV, via the internet (just like with Netflix).

The selection usually includes both catch-up programmes (aired week-to-week) and box-set packages offering a whole series. (Keep in mind that on channels with adverts such as ITV, you would need to watch adverts on their streaming apps/websites as well.

Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker BBC
Doctor Who. Watch it on iPlayer or Freeview (Photo: BBC)

What’s Freeview And How Can I Watch It?

Freeview, a joint venture of the BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, is the United Kingdom’s digital terrestrial television platform. It lets you watch over 80 free, over-the-air channels, without any subscription fees (except for an annual TV licence).

Freeview is perfect for cord cutters, because it complements your streaming services with live channels. While it’s true that with Freeview, you still need to follow TV schedules and watch stuff on THEIR time (unless you use a Freeview Recorder or their 7-day catch-up service with Freeview Play), sometimes you just want to watch the news or a major live event, or just sit back and flip some channels – so Freeview is perfect for that.

To get Freeview, you need two things:

  • An aerial (either an outdoor one on your roof/outside wall, or an indoor aerial connected directly to your telly) – See our Best Indoor Aerial For Freeview review roundup.
  • A Freeview receiver – If you have a newish TV, manufactured and sold in the UK after 2010, it should already have a Freeview tuner built-in. Otherwise, or if you want more advanced features, you would need a dedicated tuner – see our Freeview Boxes review roundup.
Manhattan T3-R
Manhattan T3-R Freeview Recorder

With the right box (such as the Manhattan T3-R), you can also get Freeview Play – a combination of over-the-air channels and programmes on-demand via the internet, giving you access to the BBC’s iPlayer, ITVX, Channel 4 and My5, all in one device. Of course, if you already have a decent streamer, you would already have these apps on that device.

It’s interesting to note that in 2024, Everyone.TV (the company behind Freeview and Freesat) is planning to launch “Freely” – a broadband-based version of Freeview, where the channels will be streamed to you via the internet, instead of over-the-air.

At the moment, you can only stream Freeview channels with one of the pay-TV boxes – Sky Stream, Virgin Media Stream, or the BT TV Pro Box.

Two other options for free channels are YouView, which is a similar service to Freeview, but requires a different box (see our YouView recommendations here), and Freesat, which uses a satellite dish and usually offers better reception (and more channels) – see our Freesat guide right here.

… And that’s it! Once you have fast broadband, a streamer box with a streaming TV subscription, and a Freeview aerial and tuner – you’re all set to cutting your TV cord!

How Much Money Can I Save With Cord Cutting?

It really depends on your circumstances and how much telly you’re going to watch – the more streaming services you subscribe to, the more you will pay. Still, you will pay less than you would have for a cable TV contract in almost every case.

Let’s look at a typical example. We’re not including broadband prices as part of the comparison, since we’re assuming every household is paying for broadband these days, whether you use it for TV or not.

The Sky Entertainment+Cinema HD bundle, which currently includes:

  • Sky’s movie channels
  • 300 Basic TV channels
  • 35 entertainment channels including Sky Atlantic (but some are simply a part of Freeview)
  • A set-top box

This package typically costs around £42/month for new customers, + £20 installation fee at the time of this writing – with an 18 months contract. (so effectively £43/month) – Keep in mind it’s impossible to follow all the packages and deals traditional pay-TV companies offer – but this is a typical price as of 2023.

Plus, remember that these are prices for new customers. Once your contract is up, the prices usually jump up considerably (unless you haggle).

A similar cord cutter’s package includes:

  • Netflix – £10.99/month for the HD package – you get TV programmes + movies
  • NOW Entertainment Pass for Sky’s TV channels including Sky Atlantic – £9.99/month
  • Amazon Prime Video – £5.99 per month for the video-only tier

This comes down to a total of £27 per month. (Even if you add a ONE TIME cost of a streamer – even a more expensive one – the effective price across the first 12 months would still be around £30 per month.)

Cable vs cord cutting prices 2022

Even if you add an indoor TV aerial for Freeview, or a Freeview box, it would still come out cheaper than most comparable TV packages.

Now, keep in mind, cord cutting is not JUST about cost. If you shop around enough, you might find pay-TV deals that include cheaper broadband and mobile phone SIMs, for example, where the price ends up closer to a cord cutter’s price.

But by being a cord cutter, you get the freedom of choice: There are no contracts. You can add or remove streaming services whenever you want, depending on what you want to watch or your financial situation at that month.

Frequently Asked Questions

My favourite series isn’t on a subscription service – what can I do?

First, make sure the programme really isn’t available on any of the subscription services. You can use a site like JustWatch, where you pick a show, and the site shows you where it’s available.

If you do find it on a subscription service, the beauty of cord cutting is that you can join that service for a single month, just to watch that one programme you’re interested in (and possibly find out other programmes to watch while you’re there).

Still no luck? In most cases, you will be able to buy that specific programme directly, on VOD stores such as the Google Play Store or the Amazon Video Store.

You pay for the entire series (even if it’s still being broadcast – you will get a message each time a new episode is available), and watch it on your TV using the relevant store’s app. An entire series can cost anywhere between £4 and £25.

Can I watch sports as a cord cutter?

Sports used to be a bit of a problem for cord cutters, but there are quite a lot of streaming sports options these days:

  • A lot of sporting events are broadcast on the BBC, so you can watch them on the BBC iPlayer.
  • TNT Sports (which used to be BT Sport) has a Monthly Pass that offers sports fans a flexible way of watching TNT Sports (and Eurosport) on a month-by-month basis.
  • You can get Eurosport via the Discovery+ streaming service (it’s cheaper to get it without TNT Sports).
  • You can subscribe to the NOW Sky Sports Pass – they offer day and monthly passes. Learn how to get NOW for cheap with this guide.

Do I need to pay a TV licence fee?

The short answer is – Yes, for most people.

In the past, you only needed to pay a yearly licence fee for watching LIVE TV, but since September 2016, you also need to pay the fee if you watch ANYTHING on BBC iPlayer, and, as before, if you watch ANY live TV channels.

So the only way to skip the licence fee entirely is if you don’t watch (or record) ANY live channels, AND you skip BBC shows altogether, on any device. See our complete TV Licence Guide right here.

Can’t I just Torrent/download everything I want to watch, for free?

Technically, perhaps. But there are at least two excellent reasons not to do this:

  1. It’s illegal, and it could get you in trouble. Sure, a lot of people do it without legal consequences, but why take the risk when there are so many excellent, cheap and LEGAL options out there?
  2. If you like to watch a lot of telly, it’s only right that you support the folks who create your favourite programmes. When you go to a restaurant, you pay for your food, because the chef had to buy the ingredients, he had to learn how to prepare your meal, and he had to stand there all day and actually make it for you – so you don’t have any problem with paying him. So why would you not want to pay the people involved with creating the TV programmes you’re watching?

I’m still under contract with my cable TV. Can I cut the cord?

If you have several months left on your cable contract, you’re in a bit of a pickle, as you would have to wait until the contract is done.

However, I recommend you start your cord cutting journey BEFORE the official end of the contract. When you have two or three months left on your contract, start testing the waters.

Get a cheap streaming device, join Netflix (or you might already have Amazon Prime), and start checking out the programmes and movies, so you can see if the selection – and technology – is good for you.

That way, when IT IS time to leave your cable company, you will already know it’s a good option for you. Then, when the contract’s up, be sure to CANCEL it. Your cable company will kick and scream and offer you anything from a discount to a toaster made of gold (OK, I’m making that one up… I think) – Be strong!

Remember – if you decide this isn’t for you after a month or two of being a cord cutter for whatever reason, the cable company will be THRILLED to take you back. But at least give it a go first, before you sign up for another 12 months.

I assure you – most people who cut the cord, never look back.

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