Want to know the latest goings-on in the United Kingdom? From British dramas to live sport, find out how with our guide to TV and radio in the UK.
If you’re a recent arrival to the United Kingdom, you might be pleasantly surprised by the quality of local TV and radio. Whether you’re looking for international news and current affairs, top-level sport, or the latest entertainment from the UK and beyond, you’ll be able to find it in the comfort of your own home.
To help you understand what you can expect when you turn on your radio or TV, this guide contains information on the following topics:
- Watching TV in the UK
- Terrestrial TV in the UK
- Satellite and cable TV
- Streaming services
- Listening to the radio in the UK
- Useful resources
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Watching TV in the UK
Since 2012, all terrestrial TV channels in the UK have been digital. These channels are available on Freeview, which you can connect to easily via your aerial at home. In order to do this, you will need a modern TV with digital capabilities. However, if you have an older TV, you can still pick up a set-top Freeview transmitter that you can connect to your aerial. Alternatively, you can opt for Freesat, a similar service accessed via satellite.
Freeview has over 70 of the UK’s most-watched digital TV and radio channels, including BBC One, ITV, Channel 4 and many more. It also has a growing number of HD (high definition) versions of the main channels, although you will an HD-ready TV to watch these. If you want to watch live sport (including the English Premier League and NFL), newly-released movies, or the latest US dramas, you will need either a satellite or cable TV subscription.
Getting a TV license in the UK
Like many other European countries, the UK operates a TV licensing system to fund its public broadcasters, including the BBC. The license fee is applicable to anyone who wants to watch live TV in the UK, whether via Freeview or one of the country’s many satellite and cable operators.
An annual license can be bought online, with your license then either mailed or emailed to you. The license fee increases annually with inflation. As of 1 April 2020, the cost of a license for a color TV in the UK is £157.50. A license for a black and white TV is significantly cheaper, at £53. If you are visually-impaired, you can apply for a 50% discount on your license fee. Those aged 75 and over are currently exempt from TV license fees, although this is set to change in July 2020.
If you don’t purchase a license and are caught watching live television you could be liable for a fine of up to £1,000. For more information, and to check whether you need to buy a license, visit the TV Licensing website.
Terrestrial TV in the UK
There is a range of terrestrial TV channels to choose from in the UK. Unlike some other countries, almost all channels are available nationwide through Freeview and the major subscription-based satellite and cable TV providers. This includes some regional channels that provide more locally-focused programming.
National TV channels in the UK
The majority of the national TV channels in the UK are operated by a handful of main broadcasters:
- BBC – standing for British Broadcasting Corporation, the UK’s public broadcaster operates seven national TV channels, including BBC One, BBC News, and two children’s channels
- ITV – the commercial broadcaster operates six national TV channels, including ITV, ITV2, and children’s channel, CITV
- Channel 4 – hybrid public/commercial broadcaster with six channels, including Channel 4, E4, and Film4
- Channel 5 – commercial broadcaster with five channels, including Channel 5 and 5USA
- UKTV – owned by the BBC’s commercial arm, it operates four channels, including Drama and Dave
Regional TV channels in the UK
Confusingly for many expats, BBC One and ITV both operate regionally. This means each region of the UK receives its own version of both channels. While most of the schedules remain the same across the country, news and current affairs programming are tailored to each specific region. This ensures residents receive news and information for their local area.
Alongside these regionalized national TV channels, a range of regional channels and programming are also available in the UK. Despite being regional, many are available nationwide on Freeview. These include the following:
- BBC Alba – BBC-operated channel with programming entirely in Scottish Gaelic
- S4C – Welsh language TV channel available nationwide
- London Live – news and entertainment, focused on the UK’s capital
- That’s Manchester – news and views for Manchester
International TV channels in the UK
If you’re missing TV from home, you’ll probably be interested in the international TV channels available in the UK. Unfortunately, whether you’re looking for channels from Europe, Asia, or beyond, you’ll need to sign up for either a satellite or cable TV subscription.
Satellite and cable TV in the UK
Unlike in some other European countries, the uptake of cable and satellite TV in the UK has been relatively limited. Around 50% of households have additional TV subscriptions. The vast majority of these subscriptions are including in package deals with home phone and broadband internet. For more information about setting up your cable or satellite TV, read our guide to TV, home phone, and internet in the UK.
The biggest TV, home phone, and internet providers in the UK include the following:
With these TV subscriptions, you’ll be able to access a significant number of additional channels. These include US-based entertainment channels, international live sports channels, music channels, and plenty more. Providers will also offer additional services, such as on-demand catch-up programming and interactive TV.
Most providers allow you to pick and choose the types of channels you want to watch, so it pays to do a little research before signing up. This is particularly important if you want to receive international TV channels and radio stations in the UK, as these differ between platforms. However, you should be able to find a wide range of overseas channels via cable and satellite, including Star Gold, Zee TV, France 24, and many more.
The channels you receive through these subscriptions and what you pay in fees will vary depending on what package you sign up for. Shop around to ensure you get the right selection of channels for your needs. However, the sheer amount of choice when it comes to TV can be confusing, so you may wish to use a comparison site like Broadband Genie or Confused.com.
Streaming services in the UK
These days, some of the best movies and TV series are only available on streaming services. Luckily for expat arrivals to the UK, many of your favorite streaming platforms are available throughout the country.
In addition, all five main broadcasters in the UK have their own streaming services, including BBC iPlayer and All 4, operated by Channel 4. Here, you’ll be able to catch-up on any programs you’ve missed and watch boxsets of some of the most popular comedies, dramas, and documentaries from the UK and beyond.
Listening to the radio in the UK
If you prefer consuming your entertainment with your ears, you’ll be pleased to find out that the UK has a rich and varied history when it comes to radio programming. In fact, the BBC itself started life on the airwaves back in 1922 and continues to operate a wide range of local, regional, and national radio stations in English, Welsh, and Scottish Gaelic alongside its TV channels in the UK.
These days, UK radio is available through both digital and analog services. The UK has a well-developed digital radio network and while the UK government plan to eventually phase-out analog broadcasts, it’s unlikely to happen in the next decade or so. Radio stations are available through radios, smartphones, and digital TV services, including Freeview and all cable and satellite providers.
Alongside the BBC’s 57 national and local radio stations, there are also a whole host of commercial stations catering for a wide range of interests, from gospel music to rolling political news and discussion. The most popular radio station in the UK is BBC Radio 2, with over 14 million listeners every week. Other popular national radio stations in the UK include the following:
- BBC Radio 1
- BBC Radio 5 Live
- Radio X
In addition to national radio, local stations remain very popular across the country. Alongside local BBC stations, there are also local commercial stations that are also tailored to specific audiences. If you’re moving to a new area in the UK, check online to see if there are any local radio stations you should be listening out for.
- Ofcom – the regulator for TV and radio stations in the UK