The UK requiring a TV License to watch TV?


I’m from the states and just heard of the concept for the first time. Curious where this came from and how it’s enforced.

In: 0

In the U.K. you need* a TV license if you either watch or record live TV, or use the BBCs own streaming app: iPlayer. I believe it goes back to when TV first came about in the U.K. and it was only state TV of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) available.

Nowadays, the TV license goes towards funding the BBC. Many people avoid paying it now by saying they only stream TV (excluding iPlayer) and no longer watch or record live TV.

The * is against “need” as you don’t technically “need” it for those things. You can still do those things without a license and many people do. You can easily get around it by saying you only stream TV (excluding iPlayer) to no longer pay the license. It’s pretty unlikely to get caught out doing this too tbf.

short answer: the BBC.


When it was founded, it was effectively “the British *Government’s* Broadcasting Corporation”, and has acted in this manner as a quasi-governmental organisation for pretty much its whole existence. it was also the ONLY Television network for many years.


as such, it was easy enough for the directors of the BBC to get parliament to pass a law that everyone who wanted to watch TV needed pay a licence fee to fund the programs that the BBC provided.


yes, this is basically a tax, and is currently classed as type of tax.


enforcement is basically up to the BBC, and its basically a case of them proving you have a TV hooked up to receive TV signals but don’t have a licence. As its legally mandated that you pay if your TV is able to recieve, it can become a prosecutable offence, though i dont know of anyone being prosecuted for it (generally they just pay up as the cheapest way out of the situation). the Agents however are NOT police, and hold no special powers of entry or access, so getting proof isn’t always easy.

I think u/D1789’s answer is pretty comprehensive but I would like to add a couple of bits –

It was originally a radio licence and cost about 10 shillings in 1923!

It became a TV licence after WW2 I think, and now I think about it, I don’t know if it still includes the radio. I assume not, as nobody has ever mentioned that in my lifetime.

These days whether or not you believe the licence should be paid tends to come down to your opinion on the BBC. Personally, I think the BBC is fucking brilliant, even if I don’t watch it a huge amount, and I am fine with paying for it, although I think calling it a licence is outdated. The good that the BBC does is immeasurable, and goes way beyond anything a commercial broadcaster brings to the table.

Also, before digital TV they used to drive around in vans with little radio things on top, figuring out if you were watching TV and checking to see if you had paid for it!

“License” is a bit of a silly term for it, as we usually associate it with someone being certified to do something dangerous or complex (drive a car, practice medicine, etc.) So it creates a funny image where someone watching TV without a license is somehow endangering themselves or others.

Really it’s more like a tax or fee, like you would pay for trash pickup. It’s on behalf of the BBC, which is a government entity, and they use the proceeds to produce their shows. It has historically been difficult to enforce because broadcast television just kind of goes anywhere. All you need is a TV with an antenna, and they can’t stop you from getting a signal. So you can lie about not having a TV (or not using that TV to watch the BBC) in order to not pay the license while secretly still getting the signals. It probably would have been better to just tax everyone rather than charging a conditional fee, at least once nearly every home had a television in it.

In the early days of radio you had to get a licence to own one, because radio technology was new and experimental and there were various concerns about the impacts it would have – and it was only really used for stuff like military communications and shipping, so there was no real reason for ordinary people to own them anyway.

Companies that sold radios came up with the idea of starting public broadcasts so that they could market them to the general public. In the UK, the government and the radio companies agreed to set up a monopolistic broadcaster called the British Broadcasting Company, later the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was funded by a share of sales of radio sets. This turned out to be insufficient, in part because people were building their own radios or buying them unofficially. So the licensing system was adapted into a way of funding radio broadcasts.

After the Second World War, the BBC also started broadcasting TV programmes, and it was decided to set up a similar TV licensing system to fund this instead of funding it out of general taxation, since it was thought that it wasn’t fair to raise everyone’s taxes to fund something that only a minority of wealthy people would benefit from. Over time, TV became ubiquitous and this rationale didn’t make sense any more. Nowadays, people tend to argue that the system is justified because it helps keep the BBC independent of the government – the government can’t just cut the BBC’s budget when they’re unhappy with it. This reasoning doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, because the government *can* cut the licence fee if they want, and they also get to appoint the people who run the BBC (e.g. the current BBC director-general is a former Conservative activist who has cracked down on BBC personalities criticising the government on social media and has also banned them from attending Pride parades).