The main casualty of the streaming wars has been your wallet. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+, Discovery+: They all demand a monthly tithe. Toss in a live service like YouTube TV, the music app of your choice, and whatever gaming concoction suits your needs, and you're suddenly ringing up a pretty grim bill.
Fortunately, there are other services out there that can keep you entertained without destroying your budget, and they're the perfect cure for subscription fatigue.
The old adage that you get what you pay for does still apply here—to some extent. Free streaming services typically don't have as many viewing options as their paid counterparts, and most make you watch a few ads along the way. But they're also better than you might expect, and they continue to improve with time. Some even include original programming, or something close to it; the Roku Channel acquired the rights to dozens of shows that originally appeared on the ill-fated Quibi streaming service, for example.
While you shouldn't expect any of the following free streaming services to replace Netflix in your streaming regimen, you shouldn't count them out either. Think of these as appetizers. Sure, a new series on Netflix or Disney+ may be the main meal, but there's no reason you can't chow down on some free breadsticks while you're waiting for the next content drop.
Updated October 2021: We've added Crunchyroll and Sling Free, and updated availability details on other services.
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Roku refers to things other platforms would call apps, like Netflix or HBO Now, as “channels." It also operates its own free Roku Channel, which has an eclectic mix of movies and TV shows. Some are older shows like Alias and 3rd Rock From the Sun, but Roku also acquired exclusive global distribution rights to the shows Quibi produced before it flamed out, so you get some content here you can't get anywhere else.
The Roku Channel's other neat trick is that it offers free linear programming—which is to say, it acts like a traditional television channel rather than on-demand viewing—including news reports from ABC, indie movies and classic TV from Filmrise, and comedy programming from the LOL! network.
You can also subscribe to other streaming services—HBO, Showtime, Acorn TV, and so on—through the Roku Channel, which should save you some navigational clicks. If you already have the Roku app on your smartphone, the Roku Channel is right there waiting for you. Or you can get it—and everything else on this list—through your Roku device.
In terms of movies and TV shows you might actually be excited to watch, no free streaming service comes close to Peacock. Without paying a dime, you can view things like the first five seasons of The Office, or the Back to the Future trilogy.
The selection is very, very good, despite being free and ad-supported. For $5 a month, you can upgrade to unlock more content, like the rest of The Office, plus more movies and other premium selections. For $10 a month, you can watch it all (mostly) without ads. Still, the free plan has plenty to keep you entertained until you hit that wall.
For anime lovers, there's not much better out there than Crunchyroll, especially on a budget. You can watch hours of shows like One Piece or My Hero Academia, so long as you're willing to sit through some ads. Like, a lot of ads.
You'll also have to wait longer for new episodes than premium subscribers, but since most other services don't even carry most of the anime that Crunchyroll does, waiting a week for new episodes fresh from Japan seems like a square deal.
Do you have a library card? Then you have Kanopy! Well, sort of. You have to sign up for a separate Kanopy account, and your public library needs to be a Kanopy customer. Some big ones aren't; The New York Public Library system dropped it in 2019 because of ballooning expenses. While you can watch movies on the platform for free, your library pays per stream.
If your library does offer Kanopy, you can't do much better in terms of quality indie fare. It includes dozens of movies from the storied Criterion Collection. A cinephile's dream, and the perfect excuse to renew your library card.
Hoopla is another library-connected service that has a great selection—but no Criterion. On the plus side, you can also manage your library ebooks, comics, and other media through it, while Kanopy is strictly video.
Most of the streaming services on this list specialize in on-demand content. Viacom-owned Pluto TV does have that—including 19 James Bond flicks—but its primary aim is to replicate the traditional cable-viewing menu with specialized channels serving up nonstop Doctor Who, Antiques Roadshow, and even Survivor.
It carries also clips from traditional networks like CNN and Fox Sports, and there are hundreds of channels to surf through in all. Basically, if you've got decision fatigue—if you're tired of wasting an hour scrolling through Netflix before you actually watch anything—Pluto TV is the elixir you're looking for.
Sling is best known for its bundles of live TV channels and on-demand content, but you can also get a selection of what Sling has to offer entirely for free. Create an account and you can watch shows like Hell's Kitchen or Rick and Morty without paying a thing. There's also a selection of live news channels you can put on, if that's more your thing.
Fox-owned Tubi lacks the name recognition of some of its peers, but its library outpaces most of them, with thousands of ad-supported TV and movie titles. You don't even need to register an account to watch. It also arranges its haul into helpful categories—including a "Not on Netflix" collection to help you better appreciate what you're not paying for.
There's still a lot of junk to sift through on Tubi, but it doesn't take long to turn up rewatchable movies like the underrated Megamind, or inexplicably resurgent classics like Columbo. It announced plans to add original programming this fall, starting with the true-crime series Meet, Marry, Murder. Just don't get it confused with an identically-named series on the service that also came out this year and is, at least at the time of writing, ranked above Tubi's original.
If you've never gotten around to Mad Men, here's your chance. IMDb TV has the complete series, along with 31 seasons of The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. That alone should keep you busy for a few months. To access the IMDb library, you'll need to create an account or use your existing Amazon credentials.
The overall selection is decent, with scattered hits like Jennifer's Body or How to Train Your Dragon. There's some original programming here as well, including spy thriller Alex Rider. It's unlikely that IMDb TV will ever catch up to its Prime Video sibling in terms of high-quality content, so manage those expectations accordingly. That said, the libraries are integrated, so if you find something you really want to watch you can rent it with a single click.
Traditionally a media server service, Plex entered the free streaming market a couple of years ago. If you already use it to store your digital content, it's a very small jump to try out some of its gratis movie and TV options as well. The selection is a little hit or miss, but comedy fans can get every episode of the short-lived Dana Carvey Show, and arthouse devotees will be happy to see modern classics like Man on Wire and Melancholia.
Plex also recently introduced dozens of narrowly targeted linear television channels as well, which offer a 24-hour fix of everything from poker tournaments to IFC hits. Plex gets tons of extra content via Sony's Crackle, so you can search two libraries in one place. Crackle has been around in one form or another since 2004, and features gems like Train to Busan and a selection of episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.