HBO is probably the United States' most popular and acclaimed cable network, closely linked to the so-called 'golden era' of television thanks to a string of massive shows including The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, and Westworld.
Despite that success, and the popularity of those massive shows, it's surprisingly difficult to watch HBO live or browse its back catalogue in the UK or many other countries beyond the US. Here's how to watch HBO live or access the network's back catalogue through the HBO Now streaming service from anywhere, along with the best ways to watch HBO shows on UK channels.
How to watch HBO's Watchmen for free
From today until Sunday 21 June 2020, everyone can watch all nine episodes of HBO's Watchmen for free, without the need for a VPN. This has been done to highlight and amplify black voices on the channel, and show a series that discusses systematic racism in American in the wake of the protests against police violence after the murder of George Floyd.
You can tune into Watchmen now on HBO.com. All you'll need to do when you click on an episode is provide an email address and your date of birth (you'll need to be over 18 to watch the show).
How to watch HBO Max in the UK
If you want guaranteed access to everything HBO produces - including the extensive back catalogue of Warner Bros content - the easiest method is to sign up for the HBO Max streaming service. This costs $14.99 per month, but you do get a seven-day free trial.
The full version of this Netflix-esque streaming platform lets you watch all of HBO's content. While it doesn't include the option to live stream the HBO channel itself, it does add most original programming and films within minutes of the start time, so you can watch the latest Westworld episode almost-live.
With the Warner Bros back catalogue, you'll also get access to all ten seasons of Friends, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air and films such as A Star Is Born.
Other content on there includes almost the entire DC library, the Studio Ghibli film collection, anime from Crunchyroll and exclusive originals including the upcoming Friends Reunion Special and the Justice League Snyder Cut.
The big downside is that HBO uses geo-targeting to block users from outside of the US, so if you head to the HBO Max website you'll just see an error message. Of course, there is a way round this: use a VPN. This masks your IP address, allowing you to browse the web as if you're based in another country - in this case, as long as you connect through a US server, HBO will believe you're trying to watch from the US.
Our most recommended VPN is NordVPN, which you can sign up to from £2.29/$2.75 per month, but check out our guide to the best VPNs for streaming video if you want to look at some of the other VPNs we've tested that are particularly well suited to streaming platforms like HBO Max.
Billing information for HBO Max
Once you've signed up for your VPN of choice, you'll need to download it on either your iOS or Android device, as you'll need that for your payment information. The HBO Max website only allows you to sign up if you have a payment card that's tied to the US. If you don't have that, here's the steps you should take:
- Launch your VPN on your iOS/Android device and connect to a US server
- Create a new Apple ID/Google Play account in your browser that's tied to the US (leave phone number and country blank)
- Register your new account on your iOS/Android device app store
- You should now have access to the US app store - download the HBO Max app
- Create a new account with your email address and password
- Use Paypal as your method of payment (this can be a UK account)
- Once your account is verified, you can sign in from any device
You should now be able to watch HBO Max as if you were in the US, providing you have a VPN on the device you're using.
How to watch HBO Now in the UK
For HBO Now, you can use the same method detailed above, using a US Apple Store/Google Play account, a VPN and the HBO Now app.
Like above, the only way you can access sign-ups is through the HBO Now website, which requires US billing info. So unless you have a US credit card to hand, you won't be able to sign up
HBO Now vs HBO Go vs HBO Max
There's one small potential confusion worth clearing up: the difference between HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO Max.
For reasons best known to itself, HBO currently operates three separate streaming services - two of which offer almost identical features and interfaces, whilst the third is a little different. The main difference is how you pay for them though: HBO Max and HBO Now are standalone services that anyone can sign up to for $15 a month, while HBO Go is provided to existing HBO cable subscribers free of charge.
If you're not in the US you're almost certainly not paying for HBO on cable, so you won't be able to sign up for HBO Go anyway. However, if you are a US cable subscriber who's staying or living abroad, you should be able to access HBO Go through a VPN just as you can with HBO Now.
HBO Max is a different beast. This brand new streaming service combines HBO's own content with new exclusives and other material from WarnerMedia's portfolio. That means you get HBO series along with the likes of Friends and Fresh Prince of Bel Air. You can also check out our list of the best VPNs for HBO Max right now.
Deadline has also reported that HBO Go will gradually be phased out entirely in the US over the next few months, whilst HBO Now will be simply be re-branded to 'HBO'.
Watch HBO on Amazon Prime
The other option for watching HBO is to pay for the company's Amazon Prime Video Channel.
If you're not familiar with Amazon Channels, they're basically ways to access another company's content through the main Amazon Prime Video interface. It doesn't really save you any money - the monthly fee for HBO is still $14.99 - but it does let you keep all your content in the same place and use the same apps and devices if you're already a Prime Video customer, or use a Fire tablet or Fire TV.
Bear in mind that the HBO channel is still US-only, so if you're in the UK or the rest of the world you'll still have to use a VPN to access the content - but at least you can keep it all within your existing Amazon services.
Watch HBO shows on Sky Atlantic or Now TV
If signing up for both a VPN and HBO Now sounds like too much work - or money - then there is one more option in the UK: Sky Atlantic.
Sky has a deal with HBO to exclusively air the American network's shows in the UK, meaning that most major HBO shows - including both Game of Thrones and Westworld - air on Sky Atlantic. Some of these shows are even aired at the same time as in the US, so you don't have to risk GoT spoilers from American viewers. In addition to that the channel offers a number of shows from other premium American networks such as AMC and Showtime.
Because of that premium content, you can't add Sky Atlantic to a TV package with another provider - it's exclusive to Sky subscribers. So if you want to watch the latest HBO shows on Sky Atlantic you'll need to sign up to Sky - the channel is included in the Sky Entertainment package from £20 a month.
There is a cheaper way to access the same content: Sky Atlantic's shows are also included in the Now TV Entertainment Pass, which costs £8.99 per month and allows you to stream a variety of TV shows - from Sky channels and beyond, including the HBO series - from your phone, games console, smart TV, or PC. You can try it right now thanks to a 7-day free trial too.
Now TV is definitely the cheapest way to watch HBO shows in the UK, but it does come with one big disadvantage: while it always has the most recent shows, the service's access to the back catalogue varies considerably as licensing deals change. That means that at some points it will have every season of Game of Thrones, or the entirety of The Sopranos, but the next month it might be gone, so it's a less reliable way to watch old HBO shows than HBO Now is.