If we watch any live TV on any channel or use the BBC iPlayer catch-up service, we will need to purchase a TV licence.
However, those over 75 who are in receipt of Pension Credit do not need to pay, and there are other exceptions to be aware of too.
The TV Licence currently costs £159 per year and is set to be abolished in 2027.
TV licence basics
Anyone who watches any live TV or uses BBC iPlayer to watch catch-up TV will need a TV licence.
To put this more plainly:
- If we watch live TV on any channels (including Sky TV, Amazon Prime Video and live YouTube broadcasts, we need a TV licence
- If we only watch catch-up services but that includes BBC iPlayer, we need a TV licence
- If we only watch catch-up services but we don't watch BBC iPlayer, we don't need a TV licence
- If we don't watch live TV or catch-up services, we don't need a TV licence
So, if we watch live TV from any broadcaster or watch BBC iPlayer, we need a TV licence - even if we only watch that live content on a mobile phone.
If we already have a licence and we don't need one according to the criteria above, we can cancel it through the TV Licensing website. However, they may send an officer to check we're telling the truth.
Who needs a TV licence?
While the rules above will apply to most people watching TV, there are some exceptions to be aware of when it comes to TV licensing.
Let's look more closely at those.
Communal TVs versus private TVs
One issue that causes confusion regarding whether we need a TV licence or not is when someone else in the building has one already.
This may apply to:
- Military personnel
- Older people living in care homes
Customers in all these groups may find that they need a TV licence of their own.
The way TV Licensing explain it in the case of care homes, student halls 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 - more on this below.
People living in a shared house may or may not need separate licences depending on the kind of tenancy agreement they have:
- Those who have signed separate tenancy agreements for their own rooms will each need their own TV licence
- Those who sign a joint tenancy agreement should find they are covered by one licence for the whole house
On this second point, however, there are exceptions if a tenant in a shared house has exclusive access to their own toilet or washing facilities.
If in doubt, get in touch with TV Licensing and ask. It's better to get a clear answer to the question than risk a fine.
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.
It's best to clarify with TV Licensing if we're concerned, but most lodgers will be exempt from needing a licence due to their relationship with the homeowner.
People aged over 75
Some people over the age of 75 do not have to pay for a TV licence.
However, the Government has tightened criteria over recent years, so many pensioners will need to pay for a TV licence in the normal way.
The only people who can automatically get a TV licence for free if they're over 75 are:
- Those in receipt of Pension Credit
- Those living with a partner at the same address who receive Pension Credit
This is far less generous than it used to be when all over 75s got a free TV licence, amounting to around 4.5 million households receiving one for free.
The concession was scrapped in July 2020, meaning every person over 75 who doesn't receive Pension Credit must pay for one at the usual price.
However, it was estimated by the BBC at the time that 1.5 million households would still be eligible for a free licence under the new arrangements.
As of 2020/21, over 775,000 applications for free licences had been received.
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.
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?
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.
TV Licensing say they will only cancel a licence in the following situations:
- Breach of licence terms (failure to pay money due)
- Error or fraud (address fraud or claiming they're over 75 when they're not)
- Change of circumstances (a licence is not required)
- Administrative (moving to a new payment scheme)
Note: TV Licensing cancelling a licence does not automatically give us the right to watch TV without a licence unless we fit into one of the categories already discussed or we have another licence for our home.
TV Licensing are keen to stop people cancelling their licence in case they continue to watch TV regardless, so we will have to provide proof and assure them we're not planning on illegally watching services.
Some of the forms of evidence that TV Licensing accept as proof include:
- A final water bill
- A property completion notice (on official solicitor's headed paper)
- Written confirmation of admission into either a hospital or care home
- A Ministry of Defence letter showing date of departure from the UK
Refunds are usually calculated in complete months, so we can receive a refund for anything up to 11 months.
This is a switch from how things used to be when it was only possible to get refunds in quarterly increments, meaning a lot of people missed out on money that was rightfully theirs.
There's more about refunds and who is entitled to them on the TV Licensing website.
There are different arrangements if we move home
Usually, we can take our licence with us, so we don't have to cancel it and get another one.
However, we will need to alert TV Licensing if we're moving home and we have already declared we don't need a licence so that can be applied to our next address too.
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 in receipt of Pension Credit.
However, some people can benefit from a discounted price for their TV Licence.
Black and white TV
It may seem hard to believe, but in 2019 there were still more than 6,500 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 £53.50 for the year - but as seems somewhat fitting, they must be bought or renewed over the phone, by post or by PayPoint; 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 £159 a year, that brings the annual charge down to £79.50.
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:
- The certificate or document issued by or on behalf of their local authority
- The certificate from their ophthalmologist
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 significantly 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 a TV licence?
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.
In 2020/21, TV Licensing made over 670,000 visits to addresses they believed might be watching TV illegally and caught 62,000 people viewing without a licence, the equivalent of 170 a day. This figure was lower than usual due to the coronavirus pandemic limiting visits.
They have 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 the TV licence worth it?
The TV licence costs £159 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.
There are ongoing discussions about the future of the TV licence, with the current plan to abolish it entirely in 2027.
For now, however, any customers wanting to watch live TV on Freeview or pay TV don't have a choice - it's a legal requirement to have one.
Summary: Check the rules
The popularity of streaming services means that more people than ever are watching catch-up services rather than live TV.
This has led to some confusion and complacency about whether they need a TV licence, but the rules are clear for now:
- If you watch any live TV, you need a TV licence
- If you watch catch-up services including BBC iPlayer, you need a TV licence
As we've discussed in this guide, there are exemptions for those on Pension Credit and ways to ensure you're not paying for extra TV licences if they aren't necessary, but the majority of us will still need to pay for a TV licence each year.
There were 24.8 million TV licences in force in 2020/21, generating £3.75bn in revenue for the BBC. Whatever the future holds for the licence fee, they will continue to pursue those without a licence to help maintain that revenue.