You can do a lot online for free but if you want to do it legally you have to be more selective, and that includes streaming TV and movies.
Fortunately, the TV streaming space is full of options. Some premium, like Netflix and Hulu, and some free. It is this latter type that we are discussing in this guide, which will show how you can stream lots of content for no cost!
Streaming is gradually taking over the broadcast market. It is less limited than cable or satellite and often cheaper too. It uses your existing broadband connection and can stream to most devices using a browser or app. You can watch anything, anywhere at any time and it is changing how we consume media.
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about watching TV online. What you need, what to use, what services provide legal content and where to find them.
What do you need to watch TV online?
The barrier to entry is very low for TV streaming. All you need is a broadband connection, a device to watch the stream on, and perhaps a TV licence. You can watch TV online on a phone, tablet, games console, web browser, and many other devices.
The best option for most people is a TV box (such as a Sky TV box, or YouView box) or dedicated streaming device (like an NVIDIA Shield or Apple TV box) connected to a big-screen TV. They're easy to set up, provide great picture and sound quality, and give you access to a huge choice of content.
Broadband speed and data caps
A good broadband connection is key here as streaming is data intensive. Depending on what service you use, what definition you stream and how often you watch, you may need to revisit your broadband contract to check what you can stream and when.
Speed can be less of an issue than data caps. For seamless playback, anything capable of download speeds over 5Mb should suffice as long as nothing else is happening on the connection at the same time. Faster speeds will obviously benefit high definition (HD) or ultra high definition (UHD) streams but as a practical minimum, 5Mbps is enough. Though if your connection is shared or you're doing lots of downloading and other things then you'll need a faster connection. For the best quality video, a fibre optic service is recommended.
If you have a data-limited service you'll need to be aware of how much you're using. Here's a rough guide to how much data you’ll use for streaming TV:
- Standard definition requires around 650MB of data per TV show.
- High definition will require around 3GB of data per TV show.
- Ultra high definition (4K) requires around 7GB of data per TV show.
Data amounts are per hour of viewing.
If you plan to stream TV often, you would definitely benefit from an unlimited broadband deal. Combined with the usual browsing, emailing and general internet use it wouldn’t take long to use up a limited allowance.
Can you use 4G mobile broadband for streaming?
You can use 4G for streaming TV but you might not want to do it often. 4G connections can easily be fast enough to stream without stuttering, but most contracts come with data caps. From the list above, you can see that streaming even a couple of high definition TV shows or a single movie could use up a large chunk of your data allowance in one go.
If you plan on streaming over 4G, you may prefer to decrease the quality to standard definition. On a small screen, the difference will be marginal but it would use a fifth of the data.
You can use practically any internet-enabled device to stream TV. As long as it has enough power to handle a TV show it should work fine.
Popular streaming devices include:
- Smart TV. Smart TVs are internet-enabled and will often come loaded with TV streaming apps like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All4, My5, and many others. These are ideal for streaming premium TV, and catch-up or Freeview TV channels too.
- Set-top box. Broadcast TV boxes usually offer streaming capabilities. Sky and Virgin Media were a little slow to recognise the threat posed by streaming but have now embraced it. So much so that your Sky or Virgin Media box may now include the same streaming apps you find on a smart TV. Many Freeview boxes also include support for streaming apps and catch-up TV.
- Streaming box. A streaming box is a device dedicated to streaming content. Popular options include Roku, Kodi, Apple TV, and NVIDIA Shield TV. These can be very cheap, but there are also more expensive boxes which offer additional features such as gaming.
- Streaming sticks. Streaming sticks are similar to streaming boxes but they're generally cheaper and much more compact, so they can be tucked away out of sight behind your television. Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, and Kodi streaming sticks are popular examples of these types of devices.
- Computers. Any internet-connected computer can access streaming TV. Some services may offer dedicated applications, others may simply be viewed via a web browser. If you want to watch on a bigger screen, most computers can be connected to a TV with an HDMI cable.
- Phones and tablets. Newer phones or tablets have enough power to stream TV. Using the same apps or browser access as a computer and using Wi-Fi or 4G, you can access content wherever you like. Some devices support video output via their USB connection so you can connect them to a TV.
Do you need a TV licence to watch TV online?
A TV licence is required if you want to legally stream live TV as it's being broadcast, or view any content on iPlayer.
You do not need a licence to watch catch-up or streaming TV on any service besides iPlayer.
If you have a TV licence already, any streaming you do in your home will be covered.
The issue of watching TV outside the home is a little murkier. This guide on the TV licencing website covers it in detail. Essentially, mobile streaming is covered under a home licence unless you plug a device in to charge, then the place where you’re charging and watching needs a licence. Bizarre but true!
How to watch TV online with catch-up and on-demand services
The main ways to watch TV online for free is to use the apps for each of our broadcast channels. They include iPlayer, ITV Player, All4, My5, UKTV Player, and others. You can also get access to premium content from Sky and Virgin using their respective apps.
You can watch most BBC channels online for free with the BBC iPlayer. You will need a TV licence but otherwise, this is a great way to stream content. It features both live TV and on-demand and will include the majority of - but not all - BBC TV and radio broadcasts.
- Required speed: BBC iPlayer requires a 1.5Mb connection for SD content and 5Mb connection for HD.
- How to access iPlayer: You will need to register and log in to BBC iPlayer to access content.
ITV Player is the channel’s equivalent to iPlayer for streaming online. It also features live TV and catch-up from across the ITV network. Like iPlayer, it features most but not all broadcasted content and plays through an app or browser.
- Required speed: ITV Player requires a minimum of 800Kb for standard definition playback, though this is quite low and we would recommend 1.5Mb as a more realistic minimum.
- How to access ITV Player: You must log in with an ITV Player account to view content.
All4 is Channel 4’s online streaming service. It was recently renamed from 4OD and offers the same service under a different name. It provides a way to watch live TV, catchup TV and boxsets from an app or browser and will play on most devices.
- Required speed: All4 recommends a minimum broadband speed of 2Mb for SD content.
- How to access All4: You must register an account with All4 in order to view.
My5 was Demand 5 and has been rebranded. It is still Channel 5’s streaming service with the same mix of live TV and catchup content though.
- Required speed: My5 recommends a minimum of 1Mb streaming speed which would be fine for standard definition streams.
- How to access My5: You will need to register an account and log in to access the content.
Other TV streaming apps
There are other TV streaming apps available other than from the channels themselves. They include Sky Go, Virgin TV Anywhere, NOW TV and the BT TV App.
Sky Go is included with every Sky subscription and has around 70 channels of live TV for you to stream online. If you have Sky Multiroom, Sky Go Extra adds access to boxsets and the ability to download content to your device for offline viewing.
- Required speed: Sky does not specify minimum speeds. We would recommend 5Mb minimum for accessing HD content.
- How to access Sky Go: You need to have an active subscription to access Sky Go and will need to log into it with your Sky account login.
Virgin TV Anywhere
Virgin TV Anywhere is Virgin’s answer to streaming TV online. Like Sky, you will need an active subscription to a Virgin Media TV service to be able to access content. There is a mix of live TV and catch-up depending on what your TV subscription allows access to.
- Required speed: Virgin TV Anywhere recommends 800Kb speeds for SD content but this is optimistic. We suggest a practical minimum of 1.5Mb should be enough.
- How to access Virgin TV Anywhere: You can watch via the app and will need to log in using your Virgin Media account to access the streams.
NOW TV is owned by Sky and provides premium streaming content without a Sky dish. Through a subscription, you gain access to selected channels to stream online wherever you want. Subscriptions are called passes and you buy a pass for specific types of content such as sports and movies. Channels are a mix of on-demand and live TV, the latter of which will require a TV licence.
- Required speed: A minimum speed of 2.5Mb is recommended.
- How to access NOW TV: You will need to log in using a NOW TV account. A valid NOW TV pass is required on all platforms.
BT TV App
The BT TV App is another way to stream BT TV channels online. You will require a BT TV subscription to access streams but will have the same live TV and catch-up options you do on television. With a wide range of content from across the spectrum and sports too, it’s a viable alternative to these other services if you already have BT TV. Content is available through the app and can be watched on a multitude of devices.
- Required speed: BT recommends a minimum connection speed of 2.5Mb to watch BT TV.
- How to access BT TV: You will need a BT TV account to access streams.
Other ways to watch TV online for free
The TV streaming space is not short of options. As well as the ways we have covered already, you have more than a few other methods for streaming TV online that don't have to cost anything.
YouTube should need no introduction. While it doesn’t feature much (legal) live TV, it has millions of other titles you can stream for free. There is also a subscription service called YouTube Premium that allows access to ad-free TV and music from a web browser or YouTube app. You don’t usually need to log into YouTube to use it (though some content is age-restricted and requires an account) but will need a subscription and login for YouTube Premium.
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video is a premium subscription service, however, if you have an Amazon Prime account then you already have free access to Prime Video. It has a huge library of movies and TV shows you can play through a browser or any compatible device, including Amazon-exclusive series. Amazon Prime does also offer some live broadcasts (such as Premier League football matches) for which you will need a TV licence.
Borrowing a log in
A very common way to stream free content is to share a friend's login to a premium service. This is technically against most streaming services’ terms and conditions but most turn a blind eye. They don’t acknowledge that it is happening, but they don’t do anything about it either and some advertise the ability to view multiple streams as a feature. If your streaming service allows multiple logins at once, you can share a single account between your family or close friends.
Amazon Prime Video limits you to three concurrent streams. Netflix allows two or four concurrent streams depending on your chosen plan.
Sky Go, BT TV, NOW TV, BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and most other services offer one stream at a time, which is linked to an account.
Stream TV for free using free trials
Most premium TV services offer some kind of free trial so you can try before you buy. This can be a good way to stream some TV or a movie for free. You just need to remember to cancel before the payment starts!
Netflix offers a 30-day free trial, as does Amazon Prime Video. NOW TV offers a 7-day free trial.
BT TV App, Sky Go, and Virgin TV Anywhere do not offer free trials as they are tied to your subscription. The broadcast channels have no need for free trials as they are free anyway as long as you have a licence.