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If you’ve been wondering do I need a TV licence, you’re not alone. Home entertainment has changed a lot since the tv licence was introduced more than seven decades ago. There’s live broadcast channels, satellite and cable TV, and streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus.
If you’re watching live TV you must pay a licence fee of £159 a year. But these days most people prefer to view their favourite programmes when it’s convenient to them, not when they’re broadcast. As household budgets come under increasing pressure due to rising energy bills and national insurance contributions, how do you make sure you’re not paying for a licence you don’t need? Or worse, get hit with a £1,000 fine for not knowing the rules.
Martyn James of consumer website Resolver told us: “In just a few years, the way we watch television has fundamentally changed. Everything from phones to games controllers are now capable of being used as TV streaming devices and our choice of home entertainment is vast. That makes it immensely complicated to work out what the rules are when it comes to TV licences.”
Do I need a TV licence?
You need a TV licence if you’re watching or recording live TV. That doesn’t just mean live events but TV that’s being broadcast live. All channels, not just the BBC, apply. Watching live on online TV services such as Now TV, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, Apple TV, ITV Hub or All 4 all trigger a licence fee. So too will watching plus 1, plus 2 and plus 24 channels.
The big exception is BBC iPlayer. Even watching programmes on catch-up or downloading them from iPlayer to watch later are covered by the licence fee rules.
A fee is payable even if you’re not watching on a TV set. Additional devices include a desktop computer or laptop, a mobile phone, tablet, games console, a Freeview digital box or a Blu-ray/DVD or VHS recorder – if there any still around.
Resolver’s Martyn James adds: “The rules are pretty strict. TV Licensing have thought of every option open to households.”
The TV licence fee was introduced so that viewers could support and fund the creation of a wide range of BBC programmes and services. On top of the BBC’s TV and radio programmes it pays for podcasts, iPlayer, BBC World Service and apps. In 2021, fees collected by TV Licensing reached just over £3.75 billion and accounted for 74% of BBC funding.
What happens if you don’t have a TV licence?
Non-payment of your TV licence fee, when you should have one, could lead to a fine of up to £1000. You can’t go to prison for not paying your TV licence fee, but you could face a sentence for not paying the fine imposed on you as punishment. If you’re convicted you’ll get a criminal record. The record will only be visible if advanced criminal record checks are carried out on, rather than basic checks.
The government had discussed plans to decriminalise non-payment of the fine, but these were shelved in January last year.
TV licence evasion has risen from 5.2% to 7.25% over the last ten years. Using a database of around 31 million addresses as its main tool for detecting evaders, TV Licensing says it identifies an average of 1,000 people a day watching without a licence.
Supporting its investigations, TV Licensing claims to have a fleet of vans that use ‘secret’ methods of detection which, over the years, have raised eyebrows among sceptics who doubt whether they exist.
“Chancing your arm that they are not, could prove far more costly than the £159 annual fee.”
When you move house, you’ll get a letter prompting you to apply for a licence. If you have a valid licence, you can update your address details to take your licence with you. If you ignore the letters or emails you might receive a knock on the door from TV Licensing.
“A TV licence inspector could turn up on your doorstep if you’re watching TV without a licence,” warns Jane Hawkes. “Although they’re not allowed to go inside your home uninvited, they can obtain a warrant to do so.”
How many licences do you need in each household?
You only need one licence per household, regardless of the number of devices that household uses to watch TV. If you rent your home with other people, the rules depend on how the tenancy agreements are drawn up.
Renting with three other people in a house share, for example, where you each have your own tenancy agreement and separate bedrooms, means you’ll each need a licence. By having one, you can also watch TV in communal areas.
If you’re renting with someone else and you have a joint tenancy agreement, you only need one licence.
What’s the cheapest way to pay for your TV licence?
There are several ways to pay for your TV licence. You can pay the annual fee in one go by direct debit, debit or credit card, cheque, postal order or by BACS. You can pay online or take your card to an outlet that has PayPoint. Or you can pay in monthly or quarterly instalments by direct debit.
You won’t receive a discount for paying in full or by direct debit. It’s cheaper to pay annually or monthly.
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The first time you ever get a TV licence you’re only given a six-month period to spread the cost. After that, you can choose a method that suits your budget.
You can also pay weekly, fortnightly or monthly using a TV Licensing payment card. There is no extra cost.
Can I get a reduction in the cost of a TV licence?
You are entitled to a reduction in the cost of your TV licence if you meet certain criteria. Those over 75 years old and receiving pension credit will be exempt from the TV licence fee. Pensioners aged 75 or over who live in a care home or sheltered accommodation may also be exempt. If you’re blind or severely sight impaired you can apply for a 50% discount off the full annual fee for a colour licence which means you’ll pay £79.50.
Black and white TV set owners are eligible for a cut-price licence, costing users £53.50 a year.
If you’ve paid for your TV licence in full and decide to cancel it because you no longer watch live TV you may be eligible for a refund for the unused months.
TV Licensing works out whether you’re eligible for a refund based on the date your licence was issued, when it expires and when you can show that you do not need the licence from. To be eligible you must have a full month left on your licence, which you don’t need to use, before it expires. If you pay your fee in instalments your expiry date could be changed to reflect how much you’ve paid towards the total cost.
As soon as you’ve received your refund your licence is cancelled.
What can I watch without a TV licence?
If you are only watching programmes on-demand or catch up, you don’t need a TV licence. However, most TV services now offer live programmes on their demand or catch up services, so be careful not to get caught out.
On-demand programmes refer to the service’s library of shows, box sets or films. Catch-up are programmes that have been shown recently that you may have missed. They are eventually removed from the hub.
Watching an old episode of Heartbeat or Coronation Street on ITV 3 that’s being broadcast live on the channel, so it’s listed on the schedule, is a fee-paying pastime. Watching last week’s episode of Britain’s Got Talent on catch up through the ITV hub is not.
BBC iPlayer is the exception to the rule. Any use of this service means you’ll need a licence.
Do I need a TV licence if I just watch Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus?
If you are just streaming on-demand TV programmes and films through services like Netflix, you don’t need a TV licence. This is the same for YouTube and other online video streaming services.
Do I need a TV licence for Sky?
If you’re using Sky, or any other satellite or cable service, to watch or record live TV then yes you’ll need a licence. That includes live TV you may have recorded on your planner. If you only watch programmes or films on demand, you don’t need a licence.
How do I cancel my TV licence if I no longer need it?
If you don’t need a licence because of the way you watch television you can fill out a ‘no licence needed’ declaration. You may still receive a visit from an inspector to check your telling the truth.
Now more than ever, households want to ensure they’re not wasting any money.
Consumer expert, Jane Hawkes says: “If you never watch the BBC and only watch TV using other channels’ catch-up services then you could consider cancelling your TV licence. It’s straightforward to do, just fill in the TV Licensing online form, cancel your direct debit and complete a ‘no licence needed’ declaration form.”
When you fill in the declaration it will stop letters being sent to your home for up to two years.
You can cancel your licence online.