In the old world of analogue broadcasting, this was an easy question. “Watching TV” just meant feeding a broadcast signal to a box containing a TV tuner and a cathode ray tube.
If you did that in the UK then you needed a TV licence. In today’s digital world, however, you may need a TV licence if your only device is a smartphone.
TVs and aerials are still common, but internet streaming means they are no longer required for watching television. The new licensing rules therefore cover not just TVs but PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones, games consoles such as the Xbox and PlayStation, streaming devices from Roku, Amazon and others, set-top boxes and personal video recorders (PVRs).
If you use the BBC iPlayer app on any device for any reason, you need a TV licence.
The basic rule is that you must have a TV licence if you watch, record or otherwise consume live television. It doesn’t matter which television stations you watch, or how you watch them. You still have to buy a licence if you only watch live streams from Mongolia’s Eagle TV channel.
The definition of “live” is flexible because there can be delays in transmission, and many set-top boxes and PVRs let you pause or save TV programmes. Indeed, recording, capturing and storing live TV also counts as watching live television. You can’t get out of paying for a licence by recording programmes and watching them later.
Briefly, if you start streaming a TV programme just before it ends, you need a licence. If you start streaming it just after it has ended, you don’t need a licence.
As mentioned above, it doesn’t matter what kind of device you use to watch live television, or how you collect and process the signal. You’re still watching live TV if you get the feed from an aerial, a cable network, a satellite dish, a wifi hotspot or any other internet server. This includes watching live fights on Sky Sports Box Office, ATP tennis on Amazon Prime and so on, even though you will be paying separately to watch them. Logically, it must also include any live television feeds on Facebook or Twitter.
You’re still watching live TV if you view the feed on a TV set, a computer monitor, on a smartphone, tablet or laptop, on a VR headset or projected on to a wall. It doesn’t matter.
I hope this alerts anyone who thought they were within the law because they watched TV programmes on their smartphones or via a Roku stick in the back of a monitor.
On-demand content is exempt, but you’d have to delete the BBC iPlayer app at the very least from a Fire TV box.
Conversely, with one exception, you don’t need a TV licence if you only watch stored programmes, which are played “on demand” rather than streamed or broadcast live.
For example, you don’t need a TV licence to watch movies and TV programmes on DVD or Blu-ray, or streamed from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Now TV, YouTube and similar services … unless they stream live TV.
You don’t need a TV licence to watch programmes on catch-up TV services, with the exception of the BBC’s iPlayer. You can watch anything stored on services such as ITV Hub, All 4 and My5, as long as you don’t watch live TV. These services are, after all, paid for by advertising.
However, you do need a TV licence to use the BBC’s advert-free iPlayer catch-up service. In this case, you’re paying the BBC because you are consuming BBC content.
This exception was only introduced in September 2016, and not everyone knows about it.
The concept of the TV licence was based on households, and has been extended to shops, offices and other business premises. Once you had a TV licence registered to your home address, it covered numerous people watching live TV on numerous TV sets. You didn’t need another licence for a second or third TV set in a kitchen or bedroom.
Things got a little more complicated once you could watch live TV on a mobile device, which meant you could watch it outside your licensed home.
The solution to this conundrum is battery power. Your home TV licence covers your mobile use outside the home, as long as you watch TV on battery power.
However, if you plug your device into a mains socket outside your home, that site needs its own TV licence. In other words, if you take your laptop to a friend’s house and plug it into the mains to watch live television, then it’s not covered by the TV licence from your house. Your friend’s house needs a licence as well.
Technically, this should also apply if you plug in your device to watch TV or BBC iPlayer in a coffee shop or on a train, and so on, though that would be somewhat hard to control. However, companies that don’t have TV licences should know that they may be breaking the law if any of their staff view or record live television or use BBC iPlayer while in the office. It’s only legal if they use a device that’s not plugged into the mains and they are covered by their home licence.
Make a declaration
The TV licensing site can guide you through making a declaration of exemption. Photograph: Andy Hepburn/PA
If you really don’t consume any live television, or use BBC iPlayer, then you can make a declaration to that effect on the tvlicensing.co.uk website. This has separate sections for home, student and business addresses.
You are not legally obliged to make an NLN (No Licence Needed) declaration, but it is better to do so. First, you can get a refund on fees you have already paid. Second, it will avoid the problems that will arise if you simply stop paying.
From the BBC’s NLNP (No Licence Needed Policy), you can expect your claim to lapse after two years. The NLNP says: “It is the BBC’s view that two years is a reasonable length of time for residential guards, given that residential circumstances frequently change. For example, occupiers may move house or change their viewing habits such that a licence is required.”
The NLNP’s enforcement procedures have been redacted “because they contain information which could be useful to people attempting to evade the licence fee”. However, an unknown number of people will be visited by “the TV Licensing field operations team”. (The collection system is contracted out to Capita.) You can refuse them entry, but they may come back with a search warrant.
The BBC says, when contacted, about a sixth of NLN claimants are found to need a licence.
You can be prosecuted for watching TV without a licence, and fined up to £1,000 (up to £2,000 in Guernsey). Hundreds of thousands of people have been prosecuted – some of them living in poverty – and some have been jailed for not paying fines.
Things to do…
So, if you are going licence free, it is a good idea to disconnect your aerial. You should also delete BBC iPlayer apps from all your devices and clear any BBC cookies and caches.
Next, remove any FreeView receivers and set-top boxes that are no longer required and are removable. Reset any products that can receive live TV back to factory condition, and don’t install any live TV services. If you can’t stop them from scanning for channels, make sure they aren’t attached to an aerial, though devices may nag you about “completing the set-up” later.
Finally, you could add a block list to your router or to your computer’s Hosts file to prevent access to content from selected BBC internet addresses. It published a list in June 2018. However, you don’t need a TV licence to use BBC websites, or listen to BBC radio.
You can easily claim that you don’t watch TV, but remember, you may have to convince a licensing officer with a search warrant.
Also see: How to cancel Sky