You’re British, you pay your British TV licence but you’re not in Britain – but thanks to iPlayer you can still tune in to your favourite shows. Right?
It’s a bit more complicated than that.
Technologically speaking there’s no reason why you can’t stream iPlayer in America, Egypt or Ecuador. But legally and contractually speaking there are several reasons why you shouldn’t.
The first is that the BBC often doesn’t have rights to broadcast or stream certain programmes outside the UK: it’s signed a contract for the UK rights only, and someone else may have the rights to broadcast or stream that content in other parts of the world. Sometimes the BBC made the programme but sold the rights to other broadcasters, so, for example, Top Gear is sold to broadcasters all over the world.
Secondly, there’s the user agreement. It effectively says “this is a British service for British people in Britain”; to stream BBC content in America, you should be using BBC America.
Let’s be practical, though. Let’s say you’re on holiday in Orlando and know that nothing but Numberblocks will keep the kids quiet. How do you use iPlayer when you’re not back in Blighty?
The answer is those three little words: Virtual Private Network. But before we explore them, let’s explore two little words: iPlayer downloads.
How to use iPlayer downloads to watch when you’re abroad
If you download programmes before you travel you can watch them anywhere, including places where you can’t get an internet connection. The expiry date will be the same as if you’re in the UK. Not all programmes can be downloaded – many imports are unavailable – but the big-name BBC stuff is usually OK.
How to use a VPN to watch BBC iPlayer abroad
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) creates a secure tunnel between you and the site you’re visiting or service you’re accessing, and it does that by routing your traffic through its own servers. One happy by-product of that is that it messes with geolocation, which is usually performed by a site checking your IP address to work out where you’re coming from. If you’re connecting from a UK IP address you’ll get the UK version, if you’re connecting with a US one you’ll get the US version and so on.
With a VPN, you can simply change your IP address so it appears to be coming from somewhere else: Falkirk when you’re really in Florida, Bristol when you’re in Burkina Faso, Tipton when you’re in Tuvalu. All you need to do is run iPlayer, login and let it check you’re in the right part of the world. Easy!
How to choose a VPN to watch BBC iPlayer abroad
There are lots of VPN services out there, but our favourites are ExpressVPN, VyprVPN and NordVPN, all of which deliver rock-solid reliability and fast connection speeds. Speed matters when you’re using a service such as iPlayer: a connection that can barely cope with email isn’t going to deliver The Bridge in HD.
Using a VPN couldn’t be simpler. Just sign up, download the app and sign in; the process is then really simple and straightforward because the app will do all the work for you. Things are slightly tricker on mobile devices, where you’ll usually have to change the domain name servers that your device uses to connect to services, but it’s not difficult to change and the VPN’s help pages will show you exactly what to do and where to do it. It takes seconds.
A VPN is also worth having when you travel even when you don’t want to watch iPlayer: public Wi-Fi hotspots aren’t always secure and they’re easily faked by scammers.
Will I still be able to watch the BBC iPlayer in Europe after Brexit?
Legally? No. Post-Brexit, Britons will not benefit from the EU regulations that enable you to “carry” copyright – so while a French person could legally stream French TV in the UK, someone from the UK won’t be able to legally stream UK TV in France from March 29, 2019. The BBC told Engadget that “We are interested in being able to allow UK licence fee payers to access BBC iPlayer while they are on holiday… there are complex technical issues to resolve which we are investigating and it will be dependent on what legislation is in effect in the UK in the future."
Is there anything I should worry about if I’m watching the BBC iPlayer abroad?
Yes. Don’t use mobile data unless (a) you’ve got tons of it in your mobile phone package and (b) it doesn’t incur roaming charges. Mobile data roaming charges can be frighteningly expensive when you’re outside the EU (and post-Brexit, when you’re in the EU too), and streaming video can use frighteningly large amounts of data.
Wi-Fi is a much better idea, but be wary if you’re in a hotel: some hotels charge hilarious amounts of money for Wi-Fi access and that access often isn’t very good. It’s worth checking this stuff in advance before you travel if the ability to stream media is important to you.