TV Licence In The UK: Do I Need To Pay It?

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“Pay a TV licence to watch the telly?!” – For old folk, the answer to that question is obvious, but ask a teenager or a young student today, someone who primarily watches TV (or even just YouTube) on his phone, and he won’t understand this weird need to pay for the privilege.

As Cord Cutters, TV licensing raises some interesting questions. We’re looking to ditch the cable bill, and only watch the specific things we want to watch, on demand. Will that clash with a TV licence?

The TV licence is a tax used to fund the BBC. It is collected by the BBC (mainly through outsourced companies), and there are penalties of up to £1,000 if you fail to pay. In the past, cord cutters who never watched live TV were exempt – but due to a recent change in the law, people who only watch BBC iPlayer also have to pay.

  • TV Licence Cost: £157.50 For A Colour TV (£53 For B&W)
    (As of April 2020)

Who Needs To Pay A TV Licence

Check out our handy infographic to quickly see if you need to pay, and read the explanations right after it:

TV Licence infographic 2020
(Feel free to use this on your website. If you do, please link back to this page)

There are two main questions to ask yourself, when you’re determining whether you need to pay the licence fee or not:

  1. Are you watching ANY live TV on ANY device?
  2. Are you watching BBC iPlayer on ANY device?

If the answer is YES to either one of those, then in most cases, yes, you need to pay a TV licence.

Do note that the LIVE TV part refers to ANY live TV, not just the BBC channels. ITVChannel 4Channel 5… anything that is being broadcast right now, in real time, falls into that category.

Oddly enough, this also applies if you’re watching live TV from any other country (while you’re in the UK). Either via satellite, or even streaming via the internet – if you’re watching live TV from any and all countries in the world… it falls under the TV licence fee.

Also note that RECORDING live TV also falls into this category. I’m assuming none of you are still using VCRs, but many Smart TVs, Freeview recorders, streamers, and TiVo-like boxes come with the option to record live TV. So if you record something live and then watch that content later – you still need a TV licence.

However, this does NOT include watching programmes on catch-up apps and websites, such as the ITV Hub4 On Demand, etc’ – if you only watch their programmes on these catch-up services (or as box-sets), you do not need a TV licence.

But wait! There’s the BBC iPlayer thing…

BBC iPlayer homescreen
BBC iPlayer

The second question, relating to BBC iPlayer, is a new addition to the TV Licensing rules that came into effect on September, 2016. Up until then, there was an iPlayer “loophole”, where watching BBC programmes via iPlayer (the app, or directly on the website), did NOT require a licence. Well, that has changed – now, any type of watching you do with iPlayer, DOES require a TV licence – whether you stream it, or download from iPlayer for later viewing.

Do note, however, that if you’re watching BBC programmes only on other commercial VOD services (such as Netflix, or buying a programme on Amazon Prime Video), then you don’t need to pay the TV licence, as you paid for those services separately.

How Do I Pay The TV Licence?

The easiest way to pay the TV licence fee, is via the TV Licensing website, where you can set up a direct debit and other forms of payment.

You can also pay via the TV Licence Phone Number0300 790 0368 for Direct Debit customers, or 0300 555 0286 for Payment Card customers.

Who Doesn’t Need To Pay A TV Licence?

Basically, if you answered the two earlier questions with a NO, then you most likely don’t need to pay. So if you…

In all these cases, you would NOT need a TV licence.

In addition, people over the age of 75, are also exempt from a TV licence – but only until August 2020. At that point, most over-75s WILL need to pay the TV licence, except those who receive Pension Credit. (Originally, this was set to expire on June, but the date was postponed due to the pandemic.)

Additionally, if you or someone you live with is blind or severely sight-impaired, you only need to pay 50% of the TV licence.

The bottom line for cord cutters: If you ditch cable TV and base your viewing around Netflix, Amazon, etc’, then just make sure you NEVER watch anything on iPlayer, AND never watch anything on Freeview/Freesat (or via some of the Live TV apps such as “TV Player”), and then you can avoid the licensing fee.

Giving Notification: If indeed you don’t need to pay the TV licence fee, you should notify “TV Licensing”, the body charged with collecting the money. You’re not REQUIRED to notify them, but if you do, they’re supposed to stop sending you angry letters urging you to pay.

How Will The BBC Know If I’m Watching Live TV And iPlayer?

This is one of the most controversial issues around TV licences, and the BBC usually remain intentionally obscure about the detection methods, as to not reveal their hand to would-be TV licence evaders. There are, however, some things we do know.

Detective looking through binoculars700

First, if they suspect you need to pay a TV Licence but you’re not paying, they might send enquiry officers to visit your house. You’re not required by law to let them in, but if you don’t they might come back with a search warrant.

In addition, over the years “TV Licensing” have claimed to have sophisticated “detection” equipment, such as vans and handheld devices that, when in proximity to your house, can supposedly detect that you’re watching live TV.

When it comes to the new iPlayer rules, things get even more complicated. According to a report by The Telegraph last year, “TV Licensing” were supposedly using “spy vans” that could “sniff” your WiFi data, and detect patterns connected with iPlayer, hence confirming that you’re watching it.

These alleged “spy vans” were understandably the cause of an outrage, with people fearing an invasion of privacy. The BBC were quick to issue a statement, claiming that the information about these detection techniques is “inaccurate”:

“It is wrong to suggest that our technology involves capturing data from private WiFi networks”

Journalist and blogger Adam Banks, however, suggests in a lengthy post that these so-called “detection vans” are mostly smoke and mirrors, aimed at scaring the public into THINKING that the BBC has these magical detection technologies.

“The BBC’s wall of silence was accidentally breached in 2015, when it released a performance report that recorded just 116 detection requests across the UK in the whole preceding year.

If detection vans really had been ‘fanning out’ across the country, they’d been driving around either conducting large-scale illegal surveillance operations or doing absolutely nothing except at those 116 addresses – assuming all 116 requests were approved by the relevant senior BBC officials.”

Still, if you need to pay a TV Licence, you should – and it doesn’t matter how good the detection techniques are (or aren’t). It’s the law, and 200,000 people were prosecuted in a year for allegedly evading the TV licence – why risk criminal prosecution and a hefty fine?

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I watch iPlayer abroad?

Theoretically speaking, your licence covers you abroad as well. In practice, iPlayer can only be used for streaming while inside the UK.

You can, however, use iPlayer to download programmes to your smartphone or computer, and you’re then able to watch them anywhere – within 30 days.

Another option is to use a VPN – some of them (such as Nord VPN) let you watch iPlayer practically anywhere.

What if I move in with someone who already has a TV licence?

If you’re moving in with either your spouse, partner or family member, or any type of joint tenancy or joint mortgage holder, then one licence is enough for the both of you.

If you already had a TV licence in your previous address, you can cancel it – and ask for a refund over your remaining months.

I’m a student – do I need a TV licence?

In general, yes, but it’s an odd one: According to the TV Licensing website, if your parents already have a TV licence, you don’t have to pay, as long as you –

“Only ever use devices that are powered solely by their own internal batteries, and aren’t plugged into an aerial or the mains.”

That means you can watch iPlayer or live TV on your smartphone or tablet, as long as it’s not connected to the socket while you’re watching. If, however, you’re watching on a telly, or on a plugged-in desktop computer – you will need your own licence.

Read more information about students on the TV Licensing website.

I watch live TV from other countries. Surely, I don’t need a TV licence for that?

Sorry, but you do. Even if you’re watching live TV from a different continent, via the internet or a satellite, the law refers to ANY “live” TV – it doesn’t matter where the feed is coming from. So as strange as that sounds, you would need a licence even if you watch live foreign TV.

Does my licence cover watching TV outside of the house?

Yes, you can watch iPlayer or live TV on your smartphone or tablet, anywhere, as long as the device is not connected to the mains or an aerial.

That means you can watch on the tube, and you can take your laptop with you to that holiday cabin and watch – as long as you don’t PLUG IT IN while watching.

I bought live Pay Per View content, do I need a licence for that?

In some cases – yes. If you buy/rent a movie off a watch-on-demand VOD service (like the Amazon Store), then no. But if you’re buying the right to watch a movie or a sporting event as it’s being broadcast LIVE, then in effect you’re watching live TV, even though you’ve paid for it separately. So you would need a TV licence as well.

I’m moving and my address will change. Do I need to notify anyone?

Your TV licence can move with you, but you have to update your details on the TV Licensing website

Do I need a TV Licence to watch BBC programmes on BritBox?

No. BritBox (see our review) is a subscription-based video-on-demand service from ITV and the BBC, that has programmes from the BBC archives (among other content).

Although these are programmes from the BBC, they don’t have the same status as programmes on iPlayer, as BritBox is a subscription service – so it would be like watching BBC programmes on a DVD, for example. Therefore, you don’t need a TV licence for BritBox.