The options for watching British TV from abroad have never been greater. Here’s your guide to what they are, how well they work and how legal they are.
If you spend much time with expats anywhere in the world, the conversation will eventually turn to methods of watching TV channels from “back home”. You wouldn’t want to miss the latest episode of EastEnders or Corrie now would you?
An entire industry has built up around the desire to access familiar broadcasting.
A local satellite or cable TV subscription usually provides plenty of English language content, plus the bonus of subtitles to provide exposure to the local language. However, many people still miss everything from sports fixtures to soap operas – and there’s nothing wrong with craving those home comforts.
An entire industry has built up around this desire to access familiar broadcasting – usually meaning programs from the UK and the USA. Often the legality of devices and services that make it possible is something of a grey area, with some solutions far more reliable than others.
In 2012, and then again in 2014, expats in various European locations were dismayed when their previous solution for watching UK TV suddenly stopped working. Due to changes to the satellites delivering UK TV and Sky services, the satellite signals no longer reached as far as they did previously, and this resulted in a loss of signal for many.
Prior to this, the UK satellites reached far into Europe – as far as southern Spain, Portugal’s Algarve, and right across France, Switzerland and neighbouring countries.
The usual solution up until this point was to install a Sky or FreeSat receiver, point a dish appropriately, and a host of UK channels would become available. Plenty of local businesses offered to help set this up, with some even arranging full Sky subscriptions for customers. These were never strictly legal, and usually involved the companies setting up subscriptions for UK addresses and then passing the viewing cards on to their expat customers.
Nowadays, this option – even for those comfortable with it – is off the table for many expats. The newer satellites have a considerably smaller range, only really covering France, Belgium, and some of The Netherlands and Germany. Spain and Portugal are hardly covered at all.
Some options do remain. For expat destinations that are still covered, such as northern and central France, people can still pick up the broadcasts. Some expats in Spain and Portugal have realised that they can use the British Forces network to pick up a smaller range of UK channels transmitted from a Gibraltar satellite. However, neither of these are legally sanctioned methods. The forces network uses encryption keys which must be changed periodically, and this means systems set up in this way can periodically stop working.
In addition, some expats resort to enormous satellite dishes in an attempt to pick up the satellite signals from further afield.
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You won’t have a problem finding a company to help you access UK TV across Europe, and plenty of firms openly advertise such services online. However, they tend to skirt over the basic legalities.
Most significant is the fact that Sky is only licensed to sell TV packages to people in the UK, so using an active Sky subscription at your expat home isn’t within their terms and conditions. When it comes to the channels broadcast over FreeSat, one could argue the situation is murkier, especially if you have a TV at home in the UK and a valid TV licence.
There’s no denying that plenty of expats view British TV via satellite in homes and bars, and once it’s set up it tends to continue to work reliably. However, legally speaking there are concerns – especially for those with no remaining residence in the UK, and no British TV licence.
People can be found selling various types of IPTV boxes anywhere with a significant expat population. These provide access to a host of British TV broadcasts via the Internet. Many use the controversial Kodi system, which is now illegal in some places if used with add-ons that provide free access to paid content.
These IPTV boxes look similar to an Apple TV or Amazon Fire device, and often work beautifully when they’re first installed. However, the old adage that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is, is definitely valid here.
People can be found selling various types of IPTV boxes anywhere with a significant expat population.
If someone offers you a box that gives you unlimited Sky TV, complete with all the movies and sports channels, for considerably less than it costs for such a subscription in the UK, it’s not likely to be legal!
These devices usually work by tuning into illegally rebroadcasted streams from these channels. The people running these streams play a “cat and mouse game” with the authorities, which frequently results in servers getting shut down and peoples’ boxes stopping working.
The people selling these boxes “on the ground” often have a habit of disappearing around the same time as the boxes stop working. Because most people know, deep down, that they’re buying something that’s not strictly legal, they have no recourse when this happens.
As explained above – a TV package that would cost £100 per month in the UK is not going to be legally available elsewhere in Europe for €20 per month.
This doesn’t stop people taking a chance on these devices, and a lucky few may get away with using them for a while before they stop working. However, these devices are not legal. With authorities clamping down on Kodi and similar systems, there’s a potential for problems far greater than the sudden loss of EastEnders – so proceed with caution.
Just as it’s possible to find illegal sites showing the latest cinema movies, it’s possible to find them showing live TV channels from the UK, US and beyond. Usually these sites use similar “rebroadcasting” techniques to the IPTV boxes discussed above. They often disappear from the web after being shut down.
One example of a streaming service that’s familiar to many expats is FilmOn, a subscription-based offering. The service has endured various court battles over the years. At the time of writing it does still include live UK TV channels, and channels from other European countries. American channels are no longer available on the site. Filmon also now charges for access to live TV, with only two minutes of viewing available free of charge.
FilmOn – specifically – is a strange case, because over the years the company has been fighting a long and drawn-out battle to stay in business. While currently operational, it’s fair to say it operates in a legal grey area. The service doesn’t have a particularly favourable reputation on TrustPilot. The need for a UK TV licence to watch BBC channels also remains.
The need for a UK TV licence to watch BBC channels remains.
Other streaming sites offering live TV are almost certain to be illegal. There’s a chance you will get away with using them, but without the use of a VPN (see below), your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will be able to see what you’re doing. If you have a risk-averse attitude to your TV entertainment, these sites are best avoided.
VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are hugely popular, because as well as enabling the streaming of TV services from foreign locations, they also have security and privacy benefits. Streaming services like BBC iPlayer, Sky Go and All4 are blocked outside the UK, as you will have no doubt discovered if you’ve tried to access them elsewhere.
If you travel regularly to and from your overseas home, It’s worth noting that iPlayer does permit you to DOWNLOAD programmes in the UK and watch them overseas.
When you use a VPN, instead of connecting to the internet directly via your ISP, you connect via a VPN server, which can be in a country of your choice. Instead of having an IP address in the country where you’re physically located, you appear to have one from that chosen country. This means that when you go to a streaming site – such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix or CBS, you appear to be in the UK or the US, where those services are available.
VPN companies do have an ongoing battle with certain streaming services, who work to block their IP addresses. However, the best VPN services tend to keep on top of this and ensure their servers keep working for the many people who subscribe specifically to watch TV abroad.
You can use a VPN to watch TV from abroad in two ways: the simplest is to use the VPN provider’s software or app to watch the streaming service of your choice on your computer or phone / tablet respectively; the alternative requires a little more technical knowledge, and involves configuring your broadband router to always connect via the VPN, so that any device you use on your home network “appears” to websites to be in the UK, US, or location of your choice.
A well-reviewed VPN service like ExpressVPN is a very reliable way to watch TV from abroad, and once set up using the router method, you can use devices like Apple TV and Amazon Fire as if you were home. You may even be able to use smart TV apps, if you’re using a TV that you originally purchased in the UK.
A well-reviewed VPN service is a very reliable way to watch TV from abroad.
While there are some free VPN services, they almost all have limitations, so you can expect to pay €5-10 per month for a reliable service.
VPNs themselves are legal almost everywhere, including all the popular European expat destinations. However, they are illegal in some countries, including Iraq, Turkey, China and the UAE.
Where the legality gets somewhat murkier is in terms of what you do with the VPN. As already mentioned, you’re not supposed to watch BBC iPlayer unless you have a UK TV licence.
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SmartDNS services are an off-shoot of VPN services, and some providers include a SmartDNS option with their VPN package.
However, the technology in use here is not the same. Instead of encrypting your connection and making you appear to be in another country like a VPN, SmartDNS employs technical trickery to make it look like your connections to specific sites are coming from the correct place.
A few years ago, SmartDNS services were widely seen as the best solution for streaming TV services from abroad. However, just as the likes of Netflix have clamped down on them and managed to block many of them, the providers themselves have backed down a little from some of the bold claims of what they’re capable of. Plenty now market themselves as being there to help unblock “websites,” and shy away from specifically mentioning TV streaming services.
This doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying something like Smart DNS Proxy or Unlocator. Good SmartDNS services provide reliable access to a range of US and UK streaming TV services. What separates them from VPN services is the ease of configuration.
Usually, all that’s required to get them working is to change a single (DNS Server) setting on an internet connected device – which could be a Smart TV, iPad, games console, Apple TV box or similar.
Your ISP will know what you’re doing, and it has to be your judgement call whether you’re OK with that!
It’s worth remembering the trade-off for this is there’s no encryption happening – so your ISP will know what you’re doing, and it has to be your judgement call whether you’re OK with that! SmartDNS services cost a similar amount to VPNs, sometimes slightly less.
The legality of these services is much the same as that of VPNs. Using the technology itself is usually fine – it’s more about what you choose to do with it!
You may be slightly disappointed that there’s no one solution here that is totally uncomplicated and, perhaps more importantly, completely legal. However, there are plenty of solutions that work reliably and cost very little. When it comes to VPN and SmartDNS, there are plenty of free trials and money-back guarantees, so there’s little risk in trying them out.
There are benefits to getting acquainted with the local TV options in your new home, especially if you’re making it your permanent residence. For example, there are subtitles on English movies and TV shows, and watching them will help you learn the local language. However, it’s only natural to want to stay connected to your favourite content – proven by the amount of interest there is in these solutions.
Hopefully all the information here will help you make the right judgement calls about what systems to use to tune into your favourite TV from home.