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 finally 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 actually save? I’m here to help, with the ultimate guide for UK cord cutters who are looking for alternatives to Sky and the like. So get your scissors out – and let’s start this journey.
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Table of Contents
What Does “Cord Cutting” Mean?
Up until a few years ago, the only way to watch anything beyond the free, over-the-air channels (like the BBC), was to get an expensive, 12-months (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.
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, but 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, 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, but actual TV programmes. 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 NOW, 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 most cases, once a show is available on your streaming service, the whole series is already there for the taking, and you can watch the whole 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
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 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’ official “speed recommendations” list a minimum of 5 Megabits per second for HD quality streaming, and 25 Megabits for 4K streaming.
In the real world – that’s just 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. In order 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 at the same time (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 at the same time), I would recommend a speed of at least 50Mb.
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 would 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.
There are many devices out there – from small ones that hide behind your TV (such as the Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire Stick or the NOW Stick), to full-featured set-top boxes like the Roku Premiere, or gaming consoles (PS4, XBox One) that also function as TV streamers.
All these devices have their pros and cons, but if you want to jump right in, our recommendation for an all-around good streamer is the Amazon Fire TV Stick, with the Roku 4K Streaming Stick+ 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 cable TV package (assuming you’re not under contract), you need to subscribe to a video streaming service that offers content on demand.
The main paid options in the UK are:
- Netflix (See our Review), at £9.99/month for the HD package with up to two simultaneous streams (to separate devices), or £13.99/month for the 4K package with up to four simultaneous streams.
- Amazon Prime Video (See our Review), at either £5.99/month for the video service or £79/year for the full Amazon Prime service which includes Prime Video.
- NOW (Formerly NOW TV, See our Review): Sky’s monthly subscription service for cord cutters, at £9.99/month for the TV package, £11.99/month for the Cinema package, £3.99/month for the Kids package, and £33.99/month for Sky Sports.
- Disney+ (See our review): Disney’s streaming service, with content from the worlds of Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars and National Geographic. It normally costs £5.99/month or £59.99 for a full year
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 as well, 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 – such as The Walking Dead, Westworld, etc’.
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 7 days on NOW. Netflix no longer have a free trial in the UK – but they have a special ‘watch free’ page) – 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 lots of places where you can stream movies for free.
But remember – unlike a cable contract, with a streaming service you can easily cancel each of the services 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 really 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:
- BritBox UK (See our review): The joint streaming subscription service from ITV and the BBC, with a medium-sized archive of past British shows. It currently costs £5.99/month.
- Apple TV Plus (See our guide): The streaming service from Apple, which you can get for free when you buy an Apple device, or pay £4.99/month. It’s made up entirely of original shows – but the number of titles is still low for now.
- hayu (see our review): A streaming service dedicated to fans of American reality TV programmes, such as Keeping Up With The Kardashians, The Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules.
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?
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 that 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 full 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, though there’s a way to watch ITV without adverts).
If you want to watch LIVE TV, you can do that via the internet as well – apps such as TV Player offer a selection of live free-to-watch channels, streamed to you over the internet.
What’s Freeview And How Can I Watch It?
Freeview, a joint venture of the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4, 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, 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.
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, the ITV Hub, All 4 and Demand 5, all in one device. Of course, if you already have a decent streamer, you would already have these apps on that device.
- See our full Freeview guide for all the information you need to start watching over-the-air channels for free.
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, in almost every case, you will pay less than you would have for a cable TV contract.
Let’s look at a common 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 £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 cable companies offer – but this is a common price as of 2021.
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 – £9.99/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 Instant Video – £79 for a year, which comes down to £6.5/month – you get TV programmes + movies.
This comes down to a total of £26.48 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 be around £27 per month.)
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 cable 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 full 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. A full series can cost anywhere between £4 and £25.
Can I watch sports as a cord cutter?
Sports are indeed a bit of a problem for cord cutters, as there aren’t a lot of options at this point. But things have improved recently:
- A lot of sporting events are broadcast on the BBC, so you can watch them on the BBC iPlayer.
- Freeview has the BT Sports Showcase channel, which shows a variety of games and sporting events, as well as the Freesports channel.
- BT Sport now has a Monthly Pass that offers sports fans a flexible way of watching BT Sport on a month-by-month basis, and there are even ways to watch BT Sport for free.
- You can subscribe to the NOW 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 entirely, on any device. See our full 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 very good reasons not to do this:
- 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?
- 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 would 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 after a month or two of being a cord cutter you decide this isn’t for you 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.
Have any other questions? Write them in the comments below!