How Do TV Licensing Catch You?

With the freedom that streaming and the internet have offered and the variety of channels and options that are available, you can sit back and choose to enjoy television the way you want to, whenever you want to and when you do it’s easy to let time slip away and end up getting lost in all of your favourite shows. 

And it’s also easier than it’s ever been to forget that in order to watch all of that television, you’ll need a TV, or television, license.  

The television license has been a legal requirement in the UK since it was first introduced in nineteen forty-six, and anyone who watches, or tries to watch television without a licence can be charged under the licencing act and fined accordingly.

But, how do the relevant authorities prove you are watching tv? And how can they catch you in the act if you don’t have a licence? 

What Is A TV Licence? 

The wording of the television licence and what it includes has changed dramatically since it was first introduced and is constantly changing and evolving to keep pace with the different ways we watch television.

The body responsible for enforcing the terms of the licence, who are commonly referred to as TV Licencing state that a license for a premises must be in place in order for the residents to be able to use any equipment that is capable of receiving a television signal.

The list covered by a TV Licence includes televisions, laptops, DVD or video recorders, mobile phones, or similar that can be used to watch or record a television signal as it is being broadcast or transmitted. 

A TV Licence that covers an individual’s place of residence also legally permits them to use a laptop or mobile phone that is powered by an internal battery or a portable television in a public place or anywhere else that the owner wishes to use it.

In two thousand and sixteen, to cover the rising use of streaming and on-demand services, the licence was also changed to include services that were similar to (such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus) the BBC’s iPlayer platform. 

However, the biggest change to the licence was made in two thousand and six when the ONS (Office Of National Statistics) changed the way that the TV licence was classified. It went from being a fee payable in order to receive televisual services to a tax that was charged for watching the same services. 

While this had no discernable impact on the way the fee collected from the licence was distributed among the BBC and other broadcasters, it did set a precedent that preempted a number of legal challenges that questioned the validity of the licence following the reclassification. 

So How Can TV Licensing Catch You If You Don’t Have Licence? 

While it used to a misnomer and an urban legend that TV Licensing rode around in a van with an antenna on top that enabled them to detect illegal signals so that they’d known exactly which doors to knock on in order to arrest anyone without a licence, since the advent of the digital age, there is a degree of truth to that old myth. 

In order to catch you if you don’t have a TV Licence or to find those that don’t, TV Licensing employs three distinct and separate strategies, and while the effectiveness of each differs, by using all three TV Licensing have ensured that they have an incredibly high detection rate. 

National Database

As they’re an official government body, TV Licensing is allowed to access and can use the National Database of thirty-one million homes in the UK in order to ascertain whether or not you actually have a License. 

Contrary to popular belief, the TV License actually covers the address of the holder rather than the holder themself, so anyone registered as living at the same address as the License holder is legally permitted to watch any device capable of receiving a television signal either at home or any other place of their choosing. 

However, once a license holder pays the fee, their residence is then added to the database, which enables TV Licensing to know which addresses in the UK have, and don’t have a TV Licence.

And if an address doesn’t have a license, they can legally knock on its door in order to gather further information from the resident about any, and all devices in the property that are capable of receiving a television signal. 


Once they’ve established whether or not a premises does have an up to date TV Licence, officials if they suspect that televisual equipment is being used in those promises illegally, can use what they refer to as “technologically capable detection equipment” to proves any suspicions that they may have concerning whether or not the residents of the premises are watching a television or streaming broadcast illegally. 

Emboldened by the evidence that their detection equipment has provided them with, TV Licencing can then decide to proceed and they are legally entitled to approach and question you about any suspicions that they may have. 

The Knock At The Door

This is where things get a little muddled and tricky.

While the database and their detection equipment can give them just cause to question you on your doorstep and they can ask you to enter your residence in order to search for any equipment capable of receiving a television signal, legally you can refuse to let TV Licencing into your home. 

The only time that TV Licencing can enter your home without your express permission is if they have obtained a warrant from a magistrate.

But in order to obtain that warrant, they must put forward direct evidence (photographic or otherwise, actual physical proof) that you have that equipment in your possession and residence that proves their suspicion beyond any reasonable doubt.

If TV Licencing can’t prove their case to a magistrate, they can’t get a warrant and you can still refuse to let them enter your home. 

If You Do Let Them In

Having said that, at the end of the day the men and women who work for TV Licencing are just people doing their jobs, and if you do let them in (once they’ve proved who they are by showing you their credentials), they’ll conduct a brief search of your home which you’re allowed to accompany them on, to search for any equipment that is capable of receiving a television broadcast signal. 

Following the search, they’ll also interview you about any equipment that they may have found, and will ask you to read and sign any relevant paperwork so that you understand what is happening at every stage of the search and interview process.

And contrary to popular belief, the visiting TV Licensing officers aren’t stern-faced bureaucrats and are usually incredibly friendly and polite. But as we’ve already pointed out, as friendly and polite as they may be, if you refuse to let them enter your home, that is the end of the matter until, and if, they return with a legally obtained search warrant. 

What Happens Next? 

If you’ve been caught using equipment that can receive a television signal without a TV Licence, legally, you can and will be prosecuted. However,  rather than being asked to attend court to plead your case in front of a magistrate, the same magistrate will more than likely issue you with an SJP or Single Justice Procedure. 

You can use this form to either plead guilty or enter a not guilty plea and provide any information that can be used to help your case, such as witness contact details or statements.

Unfortunately, by the time your case has reached this stage, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that you’ll be found guilty and it’ll be left up to the magistrate to decide what happens next. 

In some cases, the magistrate will insist that you pay for the relevant Licence (which is still one hundred and fifty-seven pounds, as the old black and white licence and cheaper option is now being phased out in accordance with the gradual phasing out of black and white televisions) rather than fine you the maximum amount that they can. 

If they do decide to make an example of you however and bring the full weight of the law to bear on you, if you don’t have a TV Licence and TV LIcensing can, and have proved their case against you, you can be fined anything up to one thousand pounds. 

How Can I Avoid Being Caught By TV Licensing? 

Truthfully, there is only one way to avoid getting caught by TV Licensing and falling into the legal chasm that could result in you ending up with a criminal record and an eye-watering fine, and that is to pay your TV Licence.

Now that everything, and anything, can be tracked online, the only way to avoid a visit from, and possibly being prosecuted by, TV Licencing is to make sure that you have a current TV Licence. 




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About S. Santos

👋 I'm a technology columnist and blogger with over 10 years of experience, currently serving as Blue Cine Tech's AV Editor. Specialising in gadgets, home entertainment, and personal technology, my work has been featured in top technology blogs. I'm dedicated to breaking down the complexities of the latest tech trends, from explaining the intricacies of Dolby Vision to optimising your streaming experience. This blog serves as a platform for my ongoing exploration of the ever-evolving tech landscape. If you see me at industry events like CES or IFA, feel free to say hello.

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