When do I need a TV Licence?

child watching tv©iStock.com/pkline

"I don't have a TV but I do watch streaming TV channels on my computer. Do I need a TV licence?"

Once upon a time it was simple. If we had a TV, we needed a TV Licence. But with the ability to watch online and on demand, and streaming subscription services rising in popularity, the situation has become less clear.

At the time of writing, a full colour TV Licence costs £145.50 per year; from January 2017, the price will rise in line with inflation (currently at 0.5%). Not having one, however, can end up costing far more.

So in this guide we go through what the licence covers and who needs one, and how to get one for less where possible.

TV licence basics

There are two very simple rules of thumb regarding the kind of content that requires viewers to have a TV licence.

The first is that if we watch live TV from any broadcaster, we need a TV licence - even if we only watch that live content on a mobile phone.

That means that people with pay TV subscriptions who spend their viewing hours glued to Sky Living must have a valid TV licence as well as keeping up to date with their pay TV subscription.

The second rule of thumb is that if we only watch on demand content, we don't need a TV licence - unless we're watching via the BBC iPlayer.

Those who can bear to tear themselves away from social media for as long as it takes X Factor to become available on ITV Player, then watch on a delay - and who are never tempted to dip into Strictly - can therefore go without.

People who are sure they fit those criteria can cancel their licence if they already have one - but they should be prepared for a visit from TV Licensing, who will want to make sure there's no live viewing or watching Poldark via catch-up going on.

Who needs a TV licence?

The other issue that causes confusion regarding whether or not we need a TV licence is when someone else in the building has one already.

Communal TVs versus private TVs

Students, military personnel, older people living in care homes and people renting a house with others may all find that they need a TV licence of their own.

The way TV Licensing explain it in the case of care homes, student halls (more below) and military bases is that the main TV licence that covers the building actually only covers TVs and equipment in communal or working areas.

Residents with a TV in their own room or quarters will therefore need their own TV licence. The good news for people living in care or residential homes is that their licence may be significantly cheaper, or even free of charge. Click here for more detail.

Shared housing

People living in a shared house may or may not need separate licences depending on the kind of tenancy agreement they have. Those who've signed separate tenancy agreements for their own rooms will each need their own licence.

Those who sign a joint agreement should find that they're covered by one licence for the whole house - but there are exceptions. The TV Licensing website says this:

"...there may be other reasons why you need your own separate licence, such as whether or not you have exclusive access to a toilet or washing facilities."

Some lodgers

Being a lodger is a little different from being a tenant. As they live with the owner of the property, it's more likely they have a relationship of some sort with them - and that can be the key to not having to pay for a separate licence.

Indeed, TV Licensing's definition of "lodger" includes family members and common law partners - as well as nannies, au pairs, housekeepers and those simply looking for a room to rent.

However, lodgers who have their own self-contained living quarters - like a granny flat or annex - will still need their own licence.

In situations where we refer to "living with" a licence holder, this is the definition to use.

People aged over 75

Once we reach the age of 75, we no longer have to pay for a TV licence - but that's not the same as not needing one. Over-75s still need to apply for their licence - and to get it free, they need to provide proof of entitlement.

Those approaching their 75th birthday are advised to apply in advance, to make sure they don't pay for one any longer than they absolutely need to. People who know their existing licence will expire after their 74th birthday should apply for a short term licence that'll cover them until they turn 75.

TV Licensing advise that it can take up to 28 days to process applications, and that those paying annually won't be able to benefit from the short term licence. The best way to pay is by monthly direct debit - which TV Licensing will cancel the day after the holder turns 75.

Applicants will need to provide their date of birth and National Insurance Number, their full name and address including postcode, and the number of their current TV Licence.

The good news is that the free over-75s licence also covers anyone who lives with them, as defined above - and someone approaching 75 can have the household's existing licence transferred to them.

So if our 83-year-old mother lives in our house, we can change the TV licence to be in her name and benefit. But if she lives in an annex with its own entrance, she'll get a free licence but we'll still need to pay for ours.

Second homes

If we're lucky enough to have a second home made of bricks and mortar, or some other permanent material, we'll need a TV licence to cover that address - with one interesting exception.

If the devices we use to watch TV in our second home run off their own internal power source and aren't attached to an external aerial, they'll be covered by the TV licence at our main address.

That covers those of us watching on a mobile phone or tablet, a laptop that's not plugged in, or a battery powered TV set with one of those quaint old circular wire aerials.

The moment we need to plug in the charging cable, we're liable for a second licence - unless we stop watching live TV or BBC iPlayer.

Interestingly, this exception also covers students living away from home during term time - so as long as they go back to their parents' during the holidays and limit their viewing to a mobile or tablet that's put on charge only when they don't need it (like overnight), it could save them some more cash.

Static caravans and mobile homes (including chalets on wheels, as well as touring caravans, motor homes, and the like) should be covered by the licence for the main home, as long as no one's watching at home at the same time (so no house sitters).

Who doesn't need a TV licence?

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The rules on TV licences cover pretty much everyone in the UK - even people who don't watch any UK television at all will need a licence if they watch live television, regardless of where it's broadcast from.

In fact, there's only one group of people who are considered to live in the UK who definitely don't need a TV licence: military personnel who are stationed abroad or posted overseas.

Even then, if they receive news of their overseas posting and already have a TV licence, they may not qualify for a refund.

Getting a refund

One of the biggest grouches to be heard from even the most passionate defenders of the TV licence is regarding trying to get a refund for one.

That's in part because even if we're leaving the UK permanently, or moving into an address where there's no doubt that we won't need the licence we have, in most cases we can only get a refund if we've more than three months remaining on it.

Furthermore, TV Licensing pay refunds in three-month chunks - so if we bought our licence four months ago, we'll only get a refund for six months.

Students who have at least three months left on their term time licence when they go home for the summer can request a refund for that last quarter.

But be prepared: we've heard of students who've returned home for the summer with more than three months left on their licences being told that as they'll need one for the next academic year, they won't get a refund - and should transfer their existing licence to their new address instead.

If it turns out that we had a licence when we didn't need one and we can prove it, it's possible to apply for a refund retrospectively, as long as the expiry date on the licence was less than two years ago.

Some of the forms of evidence that TV Licensing accept as proof include:

There's a full list here.

The two-year and three-month restrictions don't apply, however, if we don't need a licence because we're living with someone aged 75 or older, or with someone registered as blind.

Free and cheap TV Licences

There's only one guaranteed way to get a TV Licence free of charge, and that's to be in a household with someone aged 75 or above. But some people can benefit from a discounted price.

Black and white TV

It may seem hard to believe, but in 2009 there were still more than 28,000 homes across the UK that were still using a black and white TV as their main set.

Black and white licences are still available to buy, and cost £49 for the year - but as seems somewhat fitting, they must be bought or renewed over the phone or by post; they can't be updated online.

Be careful though: add to the monochrome TV set a video recorder (as was admittedly more likely to happen in the 80s and 90s) or a set top box, and although the images may all be black and white, we've heard of people being told that as they can receive a signal in colour, they'll need to pay for a colour licence.

Severe sight impairments

People who are registered blind or as having a severe sight impairment, and those who live with them, are entitled to 50% off the cost of the TV Licence. For those who need a colour licence, which costs £145.50 a year, that brings the annual charge down to £72.75.

To get the discounted rate, the licence must be in the name of the blind person, who must supply TV Licensing with a copy of one of the following documents:

Once certification has been received and registered, there's no need to provide it again when renewing the licence.

The licence itself can be provided in Braille, large print or even in audio format.

Care home residents

Those who live in a care home may be eligible for a much reduced TV Licence, if they're substantially disabled, or aged 60 and above and either completely retired or working less than 15 hours a week.

The Accommodation for Residential Care (ARC) Concessionary TV Licence costs just £7.50 per room, flat or bungalow, per year - but getting one requires both the applicant and the care home itself to be eligible.

Those who think they may be eligible should check with their care home manager, who will arrange the licence for them if they do qualify.

What happens if I don't have one?

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Seeking more serious help

It's worth bearing in mind that consumer advice and debt management groups consider the TV licence as a "priority debt".

That might seem a bit rich - surely we can afford to miss a monthly payment, or not bother with one at all if we're struggling to pay other bills?

But it's a priority debt with good reason, because those found not to have one when required face prosecution as well as a fine of up to £1,000 (or £2,000 in Guernsey).

Not having a TV Licence is not an offence punishable by prison - but should the matter end up in court, defendants can be imprisoned for failing to pay a court-ordered fine.

Don't need a TV Licence?
Cancel by filling in this form

TV Licensing say they catch around 900 people every day who should have a licence but don't; as well as having a database of more than 31 million addresses with which to compare notes, they also use detector vans and handheld equipment.

Those who don't have a licence and have signed the "No Licence Needed" declaration can expect to receive written confirmation that they're safe - but as mentioned, they shouldn't be surprised if they get a visit in the early days to make sure, or receive the occasional friendly reminder from TV Licensing in case their situation changes.

Is it worth it?

The TV licence costs £145.50 a year. For that, everyone in the UK has access to eight TV channels (plus the HD versions where they exist), at least six analogue radio stations and several digital-only offshoots.

It also helps fund the Welsh language channel S4C and local TV channels, and some of the money goes towards projects the BBC are involved in because of their role as a public service institution, such as the UK-wide rollout of broadband and digital inclusion programmes.

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