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Digital TV options

Before you decide which digital TV kit to buy there are two main decisions to make.

  • Do you want to watch TV for free - after you've paid for the equipment such as a box or satellite dish - or do you want to pay a monthly subscription to receive more channels? There are often offers and deals on packages or bundles - for instance, TV plus phone plus broadband internet. It pays to shop around.
  • How will you receive a TV signal ? By

The following chart summarises the current options:

Digital TV options
Digital TV provider Monthly cost Delivery method
Freeview free aerial
freesat free satellite
Freesat from Sky free satellite
BT Vision subscription aerial and phone line
TalkTalk subscription aerial and phone line
Virgin Media subscription cable
Sky subscription satellite

The services offered by each provider are constantly changing. Options increasingly include more and more HD channels, 3D TV, YouView, live replay, catch-up and on-demand programmes, series record and other features. Click on the links in the chart above to see what each digital TV provider is currently offering as part of their service.

Depending on where you live, there may be choices in how you get a digital signal. To find out what's available in your area, use the Digital UK Coverage Checker

Digital TV through an aerial 

Also known as terrestrial TV, channels received through an aerial can be the cheapest way to get digital TV. Assuming you live in an area where it's an option, all you need to do is buy is a set-top box (from £25) or digital TV recorder to plug into an existing TV, and maybe pay for a new aerial. You will then receive free terrestrial digital TV (and radio), provided by Freeview. If you need to buy a new TV anyway, it should come with Freeview built in. Freeview's full package includes around 65 digital TV channels and 25 digital radio stations.

You can also subscribe to additional sports and entertainment programmes on demand through Top Up TV, but you will need the right equipment - a digital box or digital TV with a card slot, or a separate card adaptor. 

You can also get a monthly subscription service from BT Vision or TalkTalk that includes digital TV channels through your aerial. However, you also need a broadband connection on your phone line to get 'view on demand' channels, catch-up services and other features. See Digital TV by cable or phone line for further information.

If you had an analogue TV that worked well, you may be getting good digital TV reception from your existing rooftop or loft aerial or even your indoor aerial. If you're a tenant, your landlord should take responsibility for upgrading an existing rooftop aerial so you can get better digital reception.

Otherwise, you may want to consider a new aerial. For some people, an indoor aerial may be all that's needed. We have tested a number of indoor aerials: read our reviews of the best indoor aerials

For rooftop and loft aerials, a local aerial installer should be able to advise but make sure you go for a licensed one. The Registered Digital Institute is the UK's official body for registering licensed digital aerial and TV systems installers - use their consumer website, getmedigital.com, to find a local licensed installer. Otherwise, try the CAI (Confederation of Aerial Industries).

Pros and cons of terrestrial digital TV through an aerial

Advantages and disadvantages of terrestrial
For Against
  • this can be a do-it-yourself option
  • low one-off costs
  • high-definition (HD) channels available with the right equipment, depending on your area
  • digital TV recorders available for one-off cost
  • wide choice of products
  • smaller choice of channels and programmes than other digital options
  • you might need to buy a new aerial
  • you'll need to retune your equipment from time to time to pick up any new channels
  • extra cost if you want installation done for you
  • not available in a few areas

Digital TV by cable or phone line

The cable and telephone-based companies offer phone and internet as well as TV services. All charge monthly subscriptions from about £15 upwards, depending on the package of services and the number of channels you opt for - more than 100 are available. The cable connection and set-top box are installed for you, usually included in the subscription price. With BT Vision you can save money if you install the kit yourself. 

Virgin Media is the only national cable TV provider in the UK and offers a variety of subscription services - the more channels you want, the higher the cost per month. There are also regional cable TV providers, including WightFibre (Isle of Wight) and Smallworld Cable (south-western Scotland and north-western England).

Both BT Vision and TalkTalk offer a hybrid service: you receive digital TV Freeview channels through your aerial, while YouView, 'view on demand' programmes, catch-up TV and other services are via a broadband connection on your telephone line. Both charge a monthly subscription fee.

To find out what's available in your area, use the Digital UK Coverage Checker

Pros and cons of digital TV by cable or phone line

Adavntages and disadvantages of cable / phone
For Against
  • wide choice of channels
  • choice of packages
  • pay-per-view film services available
  • some offer programmes and films 'on demand' - to watch at a time to suit you
  • telephone and internet services available, which could be cheaper than having them separately
  • installation is done for you
  • no dish needed; aerial not needed for cable 
  • subscription includes servicing and call-out costs
  • can upgrade to HD with Virgin - though you'll need to pay a subscription for new kit


  • need to subscribe, and for at least 12 months
  • it can work out expensive if you're tempted by a lot of extra channels
  • not available everywhere
  • audio description of programmes not available from some providers (TalkTalk)

Digital TV by satellite dish

You can also get digital TV through a satellite dish, probably fixed to the outside of your building. There are two national providers: freesat (from BBC and ITV) and Sky, which offers both free and subscription options.

The satellite dish could be your own or a communal one if you live in a block of flats. Indeed, sometimes, residents club together to arrange for satellite reception for everyone all at once.

The installation can be done for you - but you may want to ask for the dish to be placed discreetly.

Note: There may be local rules about where you can put a dish or you may have to get permission from your landlord or freeholder.

Free satellite services

There are two options for receiving digital TV by satellite without a subscription. For both, once you have paid the start-up costs for the dish and box, there is no further charge.

freesat (from BBC and ITV)

  • one-off payment for a satellite dish, set-top box or recorder, and installation
  • you can use an existing Sky Digital satellite dish
  • buy the kit and arrange installation through high-street retailers
  • pay from £35 for a standard set-top box or from £215 for an HD digital TV recorder, plus £80 for the dish and installation
  • you get over 150 digital TV and radio channels
  • high-definition BBC and ITV programmes available with HD boxes or freesat digital TVs
  • access to BBC iPlayer

Freesat from Sky

  • one-off cost of £175 for all equipment and installation
  • you get over 200 digital TV channels, 80+ digital radio channels and interactive services
  • high-definition boxes and Sky+ recording are not available with this service

Subscription satellite services

With the Sky subscription service, you can get more than 400 digital TV channels as well as digital radio stations and interactive services. Sky Box Office movies/events, Sky+ recorder and Sky HD cost extra.

Other satellite services also exist. You can buy satellite receivers and dishes from satellite dealers and get 120+ TV channels and 80+ radio stations free-to-air. However, you won't get Channels 4 and 5, and also won't get an on-screen TV guide.

Pros and cons of digital TV by satellite

Advantages and disadvantages of satellite
For Against
  • very wide choice of TV and radio channels
  • available everywhere, including areas where you can't receive a terrestrial (through an aerial) digital TV signal or cable digital TV services
  • no retuning needed - all updates to equipment are automatic
  • installation is done for you
  • you need to have a satellite dish and new cabling installed
  • you may need to get approval to put up a dish

Last updated: July 2013

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