We haven’t always got access to a TV - whether that’s because your only set is on the fritz, someone else is hogging it, or you’d just rather not watch that gory drama in the living room. Luckily, there’s another solution: you can watch telly online using your computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Thanks to the magic of technology, a huge number of TV channels in the UK are available to watch live via the good old internet. Some are on web browsers, while others can be watched through a smartphone or tablet app - and the best part is that if you do it properly, it's 100% legal.
What do I need to watch live TV online?
1. A gadget
Laptops, desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones can all be used to watch live TV online. On your gadget, you'll need either a web browser - like Chrome, Internet Explorer, or Firefox - or your chosen platform's app. And hey, it can't hurt to have a charger handy too in case all that streaming drains your battery.
2. A broadband connection
You only really need speeds of about 2Mb to effectively stream video, but for the most reliable connection, best quality picture, and least amount of annoying buffering, we'd recommend superfast fibre optic broadband. And you'll want an unlimited package - watching video online gobbles up a lot of data.
3. A TV licence
Catch-up and on-demand TV can be watched by anyone, but to watch any kind of telly at the same time as it's broadcast, you'll need a TV licence.
How can I watch live TV online for free?
Quite a few free-to-view and terrestrial channels have online portals that let you watch them online completely free - provided you have a TV licence, of course. If not, catch-up TV is your friend, which lets you watch recent episodes of shows that you missed (see below).
Services that let you watch TV live include:
- iPlayer - for BBC channels, including BBC Three
- ITV Player - for ITV channels
- All4 - for Channel 4 channels
- UKTV Player - for UKTV channels, such as Dave and Really
- STV Player - for STV fans in Scotland
- S4C Clic - for S4C fans in Wales
Can I watch premium channels online?
Other channels, like the more premium ones you get with a pay-TV package, are often available to watch online - at a price. Most services that let you watch them live either come included with your TV subscription, or require a subscription of their own.
Splashing out is definitely worth it if you're in a household of big TV watchers, as it means you can watch live telly from multiple places - even if you're not at home.
- Sky Go is included in any Sky TV subscription. It's got over 70 live channels overall, including the likes of Sky Atlantic, Sky Arts, and Comedy Central. It's even available to non-Sky TV customers for a monthly fee. Read more about Sky Go.
- Virgin TV Anywhere is included in any Virgin Media TV subscription. There are dozens and dozens of channels available to watch live, depending on what's included in your package.
- TV2Go is an app included in any TalkTalk TV subscription, and has a selection of live channels to watch. However, it's only available as an app for certain smartphones and tablets - you won't find it online.
- NOW TV lets you buy a monthly Entertainment Pass, which gives you access to 11 live premium channels. It's a great way to get certain channels - like Sky Atlantic, Sky One, Comedy Central, Discovery, and Gold - without the commitment of a full TV package.
Best buy deals
- Average speed* 11Mbps
12 month contract
- £18.00 per month
- Average speed* 36Mbps
12 month contract
- £25.00 per month
- Average speed* 63Mbps
12 month contract
- £30.00 per month
*Average speeds are based on the download speeds of at least 50% of customers at peak time (8pm to 10pm). Speed can be affected by a range of technical and environmental factors. The speed you receive where you live may be lower than that listed above. You can check the estimated speed to your property prior to purchasing.
How can I watch live sports online?
If a sporting event you want to watch is on a terrestrial or free-to-view channel, you can likely watch it live on the channel's online portal. Football games on BBC One, for instance, will generally also be streamed live on iPlayer.
As for premium sports services… yep, you can watch those live online too.
BT Sport subscribers can watch live sports on the BT Sport website (using your BT ID); on a smartphone or tablet through the BT Sport app; or through Sky Go or Virgin TV Anywhere if you have access.
Sky Sports subscribers can watch live sports on the Sky Sports website (using your My Sky ID); via the app; or through Sky Go.
Catch-up and on-demand
Pretty much all services that let you watch live TV - including all of the ones above - will also have plenty of on-demand content under their belts too. They'll let you watch shows as and when you want to, whether it's basic catch-up for episodes you've missed, box sets to binge-watch, or sports highlights.
Other TV channels have stuff available on-demand but don't always let you watch them live - including Demand 5 (for Channel 5) and UKTV Play (for Dave, Drama, Really, and Yesterday).
For full TV series and box sets, a paid streaming service may be your bag. Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video, for example, both have web browser versions that let you watch plenty of on-demand series - not to mention a whole load of films too.
Check out our guide to on-demand TV for more.