Can You Stream Without A TV Licence? (UK Guide)

It seems really bizarre to content viewers and streamers in other countries, but in the UK, we do need a TV licence to watch certain kinds of content. The launch of on demand streaming platforms has made it easier in recent years to bypass the need for a TV licence, but there’s still a lot of confusion as to when you do and do not need one to watch or stream certain content.

We’ll aim to clear up any confusion in this guide, precisely defining exactly when you can and cannot stream in the UK without a TV licence.

Here’s a quick bottom line answer:

You can stream content in the UK without a TV licence as long as it’s purely on demand, and not a live TV broadcast. If you’re streaming any content as it’s being broadcast or using BBC iPlayer, a TV licence is required.

New let’s drill down into this summary, to give more specific examples of what you can and cannot do as regards streaming without a TV licence.

What Are The Rules On Watching Content & The TV Licence In The UK?

Whilst the rules on just what content you can and cannot consume are quite complex and nuanced when you drill down into it and think of specific cases/scenarios, the overall general rule is quite clear and is stated on TV Licensing’s own official website:

“If you use a laptop (or any other device) to watch or record television programmes as they are being shown on TV or live on an online TV service, or to download or watch BBC programmes on demand, including catch up TV, on BBC iPlayer, then, by law, you need to be covered by a TV Licence and you are committing an offence if you don’t have one.”

TV Licensing Website

And that’s really it. There’s 3 essential criteria or tick-boxes to determine whether someone watching/streaming content from within the UK needs a TV licence to do so:

  1. Live TV – Watching any show as it’s being broadcast live on TV or any other platform like YouTube.
  2. Broadcast TV – Watching any show that’s also being broadcast live on a TV station or online TV service at that moment, even if the content itself is pre-recorded and not actually live.
  3. iPlayer – Watching any content whatsoever on BBC iPlayer, whether live or catch-up.

But by elimination, streaming or watching any content that doesn’t fit this criteria is fine, and doesn’t need a licence.

Examples Of Content You Can Stream Without A TV Licence (UK)

Let’s offer some clarification and examples of streaming content that would NOT require a TV licence:

  • Streaming any content on YouTube that’s not currently live or being broadcast (eg. video clips, interviews, highlights, podcasts on any channel as long as not being played live).
  • Streaming content on any catch-up TV service other than iPlayer (eg. ITVX, My 5, Channel 4/All 4 etc), as long as the shows aren’t being broadcast live.
  • Streaming catch-up/on demand content from Britbox or another catch-up service, as long as the content isn’t live.
  • Streaming movies and shows on services like Netflix, Disney Plus or Amazon Video, as long as the content is fully “on demand” and not being broadcast live.
  • Streaming sports highlights/replays and other content as long as not being broadcast live.
  • Streaming digital radio content only (including BBC Sounds).

And that’s really it. If it’s content that’s already sitting in some kind of library or channel, that the user independently clicks on and chooses to watch at any time, and it’s not being broadcast live  independently of you making that choice, that’s when a TV licence isn’t required to stream that content.

It’s when the content is actually being broadcast/live at the same time that’s the differentiating factor. The BBC iPlayer is one exception to this, since ALL content on this platform – even catch-up – needs a TV licence to be streamed.

One grey area that does exist right now with streaming content is livestreams from independent content creators on YouTube (as opposed to actual broadcast stations). The content is being streamed live, but not by a “broadcaster” as such, so it’s less clear where this sits legally. Use your own discretion, but err on the side of caution.

What Content You Cannot Stream Without A TV Licence (UK)

Let’s clarify further by giving some examples of streaming content in the UK that DOES require a TV licence:

  • Any live content or content currently being broadcast live on a station even if the content itself may be pre-recorded.
  • Any live news streams (including on YouTube)
  • Any live sports streams (including on YouTube)
  • Any content whatsoever on BBC iPlayer (always requires a licence).
  • Any content from “+1” or “+2” or “+24” or similar channels. This is still classed as broadcast TV, even though it’s an hour/day behind the main channel – you still need a licence to watch these.
  • Any live content (such as football matches) on the Amazon Video service.

And that’s really it. Live TV such as sports is more obvious, but the “broadcast TV” issue is the one that sometimes catches people out. Basically, if you could load up a TV guide on any streaming or cable box/hub/station, find a program and click on it to start watching it, then it’s content that’s classed as “currently being broadcast”, even if the content itself might be pre-recorded and not live.

This kind of content, you cannot stream or watch on any device from within the UK, without a TV licence.

Streaming Without a TV Licence FAQs

The whole issue of streaming/watching content and the TV licence is a complicated issue, as there’s so many different ways you can access content now. Let’s clarify with some commonly asked questions on this issue:

Q. Can I use iPlayer without a TV licence?
A. No, a TV licence is required to use the BBC iPlayer app in any way, whether for live or catch-up content.

Q. Can I watch live news without a TV licence?
A. No, a licence is required to stream any live content as being broadcast, including ALL live news on any platform.

Q. Can I stream live football without a licence?
A. No, a licence is required to stream any live content as it’s being broadcast, which includes ALL live sports.

Q. Can I watch news/sports clips on YouTube without a TV licence?
A. Yes it is permitted to watch non live clips on YouTube without a licence.

Q. I don’t stream BBC content at all, do I still need a licence?
A. You still need a TV licence to stream any live (or currently being broadcast) content from any broadcaster from within the UK, not just the BBC.

Q. Do I still need a TV licence if I already pay for cable/satellite TV or streaming services?
A. Yes, you still need a TV licence to stream or watch any live/broadcast content. This requirement is in addition to any subscriptions you pay for internet/TV/streaming services.

Q. Does the device you’re using matter?
A. No, the rules apply whether using a streaming box, laptop, PC, phone, tablet or whatever to stream the content. Live/currently broadcast content plus iPlayer requires a licence.

Q. Can I listen to radio without a TV licence?
A.  Yes, digital radio is exempted from this regulation and you can listen to radio only broadcasts without a licence.

Some More Useful Resources

Here’s a couple more resources that might be helpful to understand accessing and streaming content in the UK and TV licence laws:

  • TV Licensing website – Clarifies legal issues and answers a lot of FAQs regarding this issue.
  • Chill Jon Carne YouTube – Great channel that comprehensively covers this entire issue of the UK TV licence, including what you can and can’t watch without a licence. Binge watching his main content on the TV licence, plus his excellent Q&A videos, is a good way of learning what is and isn’t allowed to be streamed without a licence. Apart from the iPlayer, catch-up TV is generally fine!


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