The main casualty of the streaming wars has been your wallet. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+, Paramount+: 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 or HBO Max in your streaming regimen, you shouldn’t count them out either. Think of these as appetizers. Sure, a new series on 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.
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A rebrand of IMDb TV, Amazon’s Freevee has one of the most comprehensive catalogs of all the ad-supported streaming options. A few of the popular series available to watch on-demand include: Mad Men, Bones, The X-Files, Desperate Housewives, and Burn Notice. Pop a little extra popcorn for snacking on during ad breaks and enjoy free movies like: The Shape of Water, Hidden Figures, Pride & Prejudice, A Single Man, and The King of Staten Island. Freevee includes a few live channels that broadcast news and reruns of reality TV shows.
Roku offers subscriptions to other platforms, like BritBox and Shudder, but it also operates a free Roku Channel, which has an eclectic mix of movies and TV shows. Some of the entertainment options include crime series like Murder, She Wrote; The Mentalist; and Without a Trace. Planning for an action-packed movie night on a budget? The entire John Wick trilogy is available to stream. 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 and NBC, indie movies, classic TV, game shows, and comedy programming.
The catalog of content offered for free on Peacock is much smaller than it used to be, with hit shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation now only part of paid subscription tiers. Despite that, the streaming service does include an OK selection of random TV shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Pawn Stars. Looking for something to keep the kids busy for free? Try playing the Minions movie.
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.
This streaming service with a free option is owned by TelevisaUnivision and great for Spanish speakers. Similar to other ad-supported picks, ViX offers live channels with news, sports, and movies as well as on-demand entertainment. The movies and TV shows on ViX are a mix of content created first in Spanish and dubbed options.
Most of the streaming services on this list specialize in on-demand content. Viacom-owned Pluto TV does have that—including movies like The Godfather, The Host, and The Addams Family—but its primary aim is to replicate the traditional cable-viewing menu with specialized channels serving up nonstop Doctor Who, Judge Judy, and even Survivor.
It also carries 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.
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, from cool comedies like Legally Blonde to sci-fi thrillers like Blade Runner 2049.
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 science fiction fans may enjoy watching 2001: A Space Odyssey again. Love thrilling series? You may enjoy watching Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal.
Plex also has 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.