If you want the convenience of watching TV from another country or on a computer, phone, or tablet, here’s how to watch TV online:
1. Use free streaming services
The first step to watching TV online for free is to look for a streaming service that provides what you want to watch. It should not surprise you that the pickings are pretty slim if all you want to do is watch free TV online. First of all, it costs money to create television programs, and people do like to be paid for their creative work. Program owners have gotten savvy about finding ways to get people to pay for their product — at least with advertising sponsorships.
Also, programming is usually tied to location, because show owners (and their lawyers and partners) want to restrict the distribution of their shows to only certain countries. For that reason, a source of free online TV in one country may not work if you’re in another country.
Having said all that, there are some popular options. Sony’s Crackle.com has a good selection of new-ish and classic movies and TV series, interrupted by ads. Tubi is also an ad-supported source of movies and television series from several different studios. LinkTV is a non-profit source of free streaming TV and a sibling of the KCET PBS station in Southern California. The programming giant Viacom owns PlutoTV, with more than 100 live and original channels and thousands of on-demand movies. And, although you need to create an account and give them a credit card in case you want to order premium content, the Roku Channel has a significant library of movies and full episodes for free; you don’t even need one of their devices.
If all else fails, it’s worth the time and effort to search YouTube. Content creators often post their shows for your enjoyment.
2. Use free on-demand sites
Many broadcasters and networks make their shows available for free on demand, but the shows are delayed by a few days or a week. You can see full episodes of serial programming and clips of comedy shows, but expect to be shown ads and to be pushed towards subscribing to a cable TV package. Also, read the instructions carefully; the networks don’t particularly want you watching this way.
In the U.S., ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox all have significant archives available for free streaming, although various episodes are sometimes locked. The non-commercial PBS, however, is increasingly putting its content behind a paywall.
For U.K. viewers, the BBC has a large catalog of its episodes available for on-demand internet viewing, Channel 4 and ITV both require a free registration; ITV’s stream generally includes shows just from the last 30 days.
3. Use paid streaming services
If you are willing to spend some money to feed your streaming habit, you can navigate to a variety of paid websites to watch TV shows. These sites tend to be secure and reliable (and you can be pretty sure they’ll be around tomorrow), but they do have downsides.
One is cost. YouTubeTV is about $50/month, though you get a cable-bundle-sized set of channels and content. Hulu has a tier of older streaming programming for $6/month (with add-ons for premium cable channels) or $45/month (plus add-ons) for streaming live TV. Netflix, depending on the package you get, can cost about $13/month, but except for its exclusive content, the movies and episodic programming it airs can be months old. Free on-demand sites to watch TV on the internet also have pay tiers, where you can find up-to-date content and sometimes live streams or (in the case of CBS), online exclusive content.
Aside from the expense, paid streaming services may present difficulties if you travel or live in countries outside the service’s home area. If you live in the U.S. and want to watch Netflix in your Berlin hotel room, a lot of its content is off-limits.
4. Make the most of free trials
In most cases, paid services have a free trial period — usually a week or a month. You need to sign up for an account and typically also register a credit card for when the trial expires and becomes a paid account.
If there’s something specific you want to see right away, and you are ready to binge-watch the entire TV series, this may be a good option. It won’t help if you’re outside the allowed geographical area. And you’re on your own to remember to cancel before your card is charged.
5. Find live TV streams
A few channels let you watch live online streams, usually news channels such as CNN or CBSNews. PlutoTV, mentioned earlier, lets you watch a pretty wide variety of live news but does not include network entertainment programming. Streema carries streaming channels from around the world. FreeInterTV carries live programming from Russia, India, Ukraine, Turkey, Poland, the U.S., and the U.K. TVplayer is a U.K. website, the basic version of which lets you watch U.K. network TV online.
6. Watch TV with a VPN
Geoblocked content is one of the bigger obstacles to streaming TV online. It’s not uncommon — even on a paid service — for a show that’s available in one country to have restrictions against being played in another country.
A good way to avoid the problem is with a virtual private network (VPN) that hides the location of your computer or other device. For example, if content that’s available in your home country is geoblocked online in a country you’re traveling in, using a VPN, such as Avast SecureLine VPN, is an effective way to see whatever you want to see.
7. Watch foreign TV online
Using a VPN to watch TV online when you're abroad is a great way to get around georestrictions that might otherwise block shows from your home country. VPNs can reroute your internet traffic through another country, like your home country, where the content you want to watch is not geoblocked. That's how VPNs let you watch live or stored streams that may not be available where you're traveling, which is particularly handy for anyone stuck in a foreign hotel room wishing to watch TV from their homeland.
Keep in mind that although some sites promise to stream TV anywhere for free, the streaming quality is frequently less than optimal, and you may be compromising your security by exposing your location. Using a VPN is the best way to watch international television while you're away from home, and it will give you access to the high-quality streams available in your home country.
Why is it so difficult to watch TV online?
You may have noticed that it’s not especially easy to watch TV online. There are several reasons for that.
Geographical licenses may perhaps be the most prominent reason for TV streaming restrictions. Studios that create TV shows license them on a country-by-country basis. This is why many U.S. episodes don’t air overseas for weeks or years after the shows are available stateside. It’s also why your favorite British sci-fi classic or costume drama doesn’t make it to the States for months. A show that’s licensed for airing France may not be necessarily available in Japan.
Another reason that it’s hard to watch TV online is that the television industry still hasn’t quite figured out the business model for online viewing. Advertising rates are set by monitoring the number of viewers per episode, and the economic value of streaming is still being debated within the industry. For example, is someone who sees a show’s stream three weeks after it first aired as valuable a viewer as the ones who saw it when it first came out? The TV industry hasn’t quite decided.
A third reason is technical. Engineers understand how to send video signals over the air, by satellite, or by cable/fiber optics. Streaming infrastructure is different and newer. Also, the internet bandwidth available to many homes, let alone via wireless internet, is much more restricted than are other means of transmission.
Is it legal to watch TV online?
The short version is yes, it’s legal to watch TV online. License-holders may try to restrict distribution of programming on a country-by-country basis, but viewing content is legal.
There are, however, countries that regulate or ban VPNs, which you may want to use to view blocked content. You should learn whether that’s true in your country or in a country you plan to travel to.
What does streaming TV involve, exactly?
In order to watch TV online, you should have the fastest internet connection you can manage, and a web browser or mobile app (depending on the video source and whether you’re viewing on a desktop computer or mobile device).
It’s a lot more complicated on the transmitting side. Streaming programming to you requires vast amounts of storage and even more bandwidth. Paid services need to manage subscriptions and payments; third-party aggregators need to find reliable programming feeds that they can retransmit. It’s an expensive proposition.
My stream keeps buffering — what can I do?
It’s not uncommon to experience delays and starts-and-stops while streaming. Buffering happens when the internet — which was not really built to transmit large streams of data — can’t serve you the stream as fast as you can watch it.
There are a few things you can do to help. A faster internet connection is key. Restarting your device may also help, as does closing unnecessary windows and applications.
Some VPNs aren’t engineered especially well. You might want to replace one of those with a VPN designed for streaming speed.
But it may also be true that the problem is at the stream’s source, or at some untameable middle point between the source and your computer. If either of those are the case, you may just have to suffer until the problem resolves itself.
Can I watch TV online on different devices?
One of the greatest benefits of getting TV online is the convenience of picking your own device on which to watch the show. Any device with an internet connection can become a television, be it a phone, a laptop, a tablet, a Windows PC, or a Mac.
If you do decide to use a VPN to help you watch online, you can easily install one onto your phone or tablet, as well as your to desktop Windows PC or Mac.
Stream your favorite shows, wherever you are
If geographical restrictions are cramping your viewing style, you should know that Avast SecureLine VPN is designed to get past content blocks and let you stream online TV at super-fast speeds.
There are enough barriers standing between you and your shows. Don’t let a slow VPN be one of them.