Do you really need a TV licence?

The short and simple answer to the above question is a resounding “yes”. It is also a more stringent a rule than many believe as you do not have to be caught watching the TV without a TV licence, merely having a TV connected to an aerial is sufficient. 

Do you really need a TV licence?

Whether you have ever watched the TV is irrelevant. It is having the capability of watching TV that you will be punished for. It also gets worse, as in the day and age of the PC, laptop and other mobile devices, there are further restrictions, which will be outlined in the section below on “Penalties for watching TV in the UK without a licence”.

If you are still unsure about any aspects of the law and the TV licence, you can research the government’s TV licencing website.

Who gets the money from the licence?

The TV licence is a revenue source for all broadcasting companies, though the significant proportion goes to the British Broadcasting Corporation – the BBC – as it does not generate additional revenue through advertising.

The inception of the TV licence

So, when did it all begin? When was the TV licence first introduced?

You have to go back to the days when the first televisions appeared, and transmission was only in black and white (monochrome). 

Here we are talking about the £2.00 fee introduced in 1948 by the then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. That £2.00, then, equates to approximately £85.00 today. It was in the summer of 1967 that the BBC first started broadcasting in colour. In January 1968 an additional supplement of £5.00 for watching TV in colour was introduced. That £5.00, then, equates to approximately £175.00 today. 

Few people know that the two licences still exist today, with the monochrome license fee set at £53.00 and the colour licence at £157.50 for 2020. What even fewer people know is that until February 1971, there was also the option of a radio-only licence which, at the time of its abolition, stood at one pound and five shillings (this was pre decimalisation), which today equates to approximately £22.00.

When do you need a TV licence? 

Now, when it comes to digital technology, it is illegal to watch any UK television station, live, on a PC or portable devices such as a smartphone, games console, digital box or ‘connected’ DVD/Blu-Ray/VHS recorder, as well as on a television, whether it is a standard TV, or a ‘connected’ TV, without a TV licence. 

However, when it comes to watching ‘catchup TV’ as it is called – watching TV programmes on such platforms as Channel 4’s 4oD, where the content is not being streamed live – you do not need a TV licence. 

There is, as with virtually any rule, an exception, and that is the BBC iPlayer, where you need to have a TV licence to watch any BBC content, whether it is live streamed or watched ‘on-demand’. The law also states that you must have a licence to watch any live online TV service, such as ITV Hub, All 4, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Now TV, Sky Go, etc. 

It should be noted that even if a TV channel is available only online, it is still classed as live TV and a licence is required. If you are aged over 75, then you still need a TV licence, but the licence is free. If you are registered blind (not partially sighted) then you again need a TV licence, but you will only have to pay 50% of the fee.

Penalties if you are prosecuted for watching TV without a licence  

There is a very common misnomer, misconception or urban myth – call it what you want – that you can be imprisoned if you are caught watching TV without a licence and that it is also a criminal offence. 

To put the record straight, you will not go to prison if you are convicted of watching TV without a licence, and you will not get a criminal record.

However, it is still deemed to be a criminal offence, all the same. 

Where the ‘rumours’ about imprisonment have come from do not relate to being caught watching TV, they concern what will happen if you do not pay the fine you will have to pay if caught.

The law allows for you to be fined up to a maximum of £1,000 (£2,000 in Guernsey) if caught watching TV without a licence. It is what happens if you do not pay the fine that can and will likely lead to a criminal conviction and a custodial sentence.

You can also be imprisoned if you fail to pay any arrears due for your TV licence, which applies to those who do not pay the full licence fee at the beginning of the year.

It should be noted though that the legal intention is not to deliberately look to imprison people who do not pay fines or who do not bring licence payments up to date. Imprisonment is a last resort and will only usually result if the money required cannot be obtained by bailiffs who have seized possessions or the garnishing of your wages. 

So, the truth is that you are not being imprisoned for watching TV without a licence, you are being imprisoned for either refusing to or failing to pay the fine imposed after being found guilty of watching TV without a licence – there is a considerable difference between the two.

On the 20th February this year, the UK Government issued a document on the subject of “Consultation on decriminalising TV licence evasion”, and as this is now an active subject for debate. There is every likelihood that in the not too distant future, it will no longer be a criminal offence, though this will not alter the legal consequences of failing to pay any fine imposed.

So, to sum up, you can either pay the full fee for a TV licence and watch TV on any device, and watch any channel, or you can opt not to pay for a TV licence and restrict yourself to watching catch-up TV and non-live streamed content on a portable device, excluding anything on BBC iPlayer, but not on television, whether ‘connected’ or not’.


If convicted for not holding a TV-licence, you will get a criminal record, but it is not one that you have to disclose for most purposes, and it will not show up on basic criminal record checks, a court’s legal adviser explained. It is only if you go for an advanced criminal record check (when applying for work as a lawyer, for example) that it shows up.

If you feel that you have been unlawfully fined or convicted for an offence, contact one of our criminal law solicitors now!

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