How to Use the BBC iPlayer Streaming Service

One of the longest-running TV streaming services on the internet, BBC iPlayer has been keeping viewers up to date with the vast selection of programming across the BBC’s many channels since it launched way back in 2007. Available on a wide variety of devices and platforms, it offers live streaming of BBC channels as well as an extensive library of catch-up content that’s usually available for 30 days after it goes to air.

Whether you’re trying to catch up with the episodes of Killing Eve that you missed, or settling in for the night with one of iPlayer’s complete-season “box sets” like Peaky Blinders, all from iPlayer’s growing library of free-to-air shows. 

There are already millions of people that have used BBC iPlayer over the years, but now that streaming TV has become an everyday thing, even more people are discovering iPlayer for the first time. So how do you access it? What do you need to do to set it up, and what devices can you stream it on? 

Read on for all the details – and even if you’ve used iPlayer in the past, it’s still worth taking a look, as a lot has changed about the service in recent years.

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Compatible Devices for iPlayer

Throughout its long history, the BBC has tried to make iPlayer accessible on as many devices as possible – and the odds are, if you’ve got a device that’s capable of streaming TV at all, there’ll be an iPlayer app available for it. 

The device everyone has is, of course, your desktop or laptop computer. All you need to do is head to the iPlayer web site in your favourite modern web browser, and you’re ready to watch. There’s also an advantage that the web-based iPlayer has over most of its app-based counterparts: you can download shows to watch later without an internet connection. That’s especially handy for laptop users – more on how to make it work below.

Mobile phone and tablet users have an iPlayer app waiting for them in the iOS App Store or the Google Play Store, while those with game consoles aren’t forgotten either – both Playstation 3 and 4 are supported, as is Xbox One.

Game consoles are an easy way to get iPlayer onto your TV screen if you have no other option, but if you have a streaming device, chances are it’s got an iPlayer app ready to go. Apple TV (4th-generation and 4K models only), Amazon Fire TV, Roku and Now TV boxes are all supported, and of course, the hugely popular Google Chromecast works great with iPlayer from either the iOS or Android app.

And needless to say, all the major smart TV brands have a BBC iPlayer app either pre-installed or available free of charge in their app stores.

Signing in to BBC iPlayer

For many years, you could just load up the iPlayer app and stream whatever you wanted – you only needed to make an account if you wanted to keep track of the stuff you were watching. 

These days, the BBC requires everyone using iPlayer to create an account – but don’t worry, it’s not hard! When you visit the iPlayer site, if you’re not signed in you’ll be sent to the login page (currently featuring the esteemed David Attenborough!) Click on “register for an account” and then enter your details – you’ll need an email address, your postcode and your date of birth (the latter is simply to make sure you’re old enough to watch the more adult content on iPlayer). Hit the submit button when you’ve filled everything out, and you’ll be asked to do one more thing – create a “display name”. This is the publicly visible name that will be used if you make a post or comment on any of the BBC’s forums, so don’t use your real name – come up with a colourful pseudonym (the BBC itself does recommend you don’t use your real name, but that warning is a little hidden on the page).

For the TV based apps, there’s a clever workaround to save you from having to slowly enter your email address and password using a remote control, one letter at a time. Instead, when you go to sign in, you’ll see a screen sending you to a special web page and an 8-letter code. Pop over to your nearest web browser, visit that page and sign in if you haven’t already. Then type in the code and instantly, your TV app will be signed in and ready to use!

One of the major benefits of having to sign in, by the way, is the ability to keep track not only of which shows you’re watching but exactly where you’re up to in an individual episode or movie. So you could start watching the next episode of Poldark on the bus heading home, then, later on, you can pick up where you left off on your TV-connected device. 

You Need a TV Licence

One requirement the BBC put in place a little while ago was that to use iPlayer, you must have a current TV licence. It’s unusual for iPlayer because usually, a TV licence is only required to watch live TV channels. You can watch as much as you like on Netflix and not have to worry, but iPlayer specifically requires you to have one for all its content, both live and on-demand.

The good news is, though, that the check for a TV licence is not exactly rigorous. The first time you go to play a show or stream a live channel, you’ll be asked whether you have a TV licence. Say “yes” and you’re good to go. Say “no” and you can’t use iPlayer at all. 

There’s no guarantee that the BBC won’t get stricter about this down the track, but for the time being the requirement for a TV licence works entirely on the honour system. 

Downloading Shows from iPlayer

If you watch a lot of TV on the go, you’re probably used to downloading a few Netflix shows to your mobile device to watch when there’s no Wi-Fi connection around. But BBC iPlayer has been offering downloads for many years – it was something of a pioneer in seeing the demand for downloading long before anyone else did. Initially only available on desktop and laptop computers, downloading is now also possible on the mobile iPlayer apps on iOS and Android. Just tap the “download” link below an episode while you’re connected to your Wi-Fi (don’t worry, the app won’t let you download while on 3G or 4G) then watch it wherever you like without using up precious mobile data. 

On computers, to download shows you need to install the iPlayer Downloads app – available for both Windows and Mac computers. Once it’s installed, you can click the download link below any episode and the app will take over, keeping an easy-to-browse list of all your downloaded shows for you, and letting you know how long you have until each one expires. You have a choice of downloading in either SD or HD with the computer apps, as well as the option for “Series Record”. This will automatically grab new episodes of a show as they arrive on iPlayer, so you’ve got them ready to watch right away. It’s a brilliant system that’s been refined to perfection over years, so be sure to grab the Downloads app from the web site if you’re going to be streaming iPlayer on your computer (you’ll find the link to it when you click a “download” button for the first time).

Using BBC iPlayer Outside the UK

One more thing – if you’re heading overseas for work or a holiday, be aware that once you leave the UK you won’t be able to stream shows or channels on iPlayer, even when you’re signed in. The service detects that you’re not in the UK and will pop up an error message. This is common with streaming services because of the way copyright and licensing works.

However, you can download shows before you leave the UK, and as long as you make sure you’re signed into the app before you leave, you’ll be able to play them wherever you are. So be sure to stock up on a few dozen shows just in case, and take the BBC with you wherever in the world you go!

With so many different devices able to access BBC iPlayer – and so much brilliant content to watch completely free of charge – it’s a great time to grab the app, sign in and start watching some of the UK’s best television shows – without paying a cent!