How to Get HD TV Channels for Free (Without Paying for Cable)

Remember TV antennas? Well, they still exist. A digital TV antenna allows you to watch local TV stations for free, all without paying a dime to a cable provider.

We’ve talked about cutting the cord by relying on Internet services, but this is yet another way to cut that TV bill and get more content to watch. Follow along as we run you through not only which antenna to buy and the differences between them, but also which local channels you can receive based on where you live, and how strong of a signal you can get in the first place.

Discover Your Local Channels and Their Signal Strength

To find out which TV channels you can get over the air for free, we recommend visiting a site called TV Fool and using their signal locator tool. Simply enter your address and click on “Find Local Channels”.

Give it a few moments to load the next page. Once it loads, you’ll see what looks like a round diagram with various lines inside, as well as a list of channels off to the right, highlighted in different colors.

It can be a bit daunting trying to figure out what it all means, but the only thing you really need to pay the most attention to is the circular diagram. The lines you see are in various lengths, and each line represents a channel. The longer a line is and the closer it is to the center of the bullseye, the better the signal is for that channel based on your location.

The direction of the lines are important as well. The diagram’s cross represents north, south, east, and west. As you can see from my diagram above, most of the broadcast signals are coming from the northeast, which means I should ideally place my antenna in the northeast corner of my house so that I can get the best signal possible. (More on antenna selection in a moment.)

From the list of channels on the right-hand side, you really only need to focus on the distance of the broadcasts signals, which tells you how far away they are.

Since many of the signals that I can get are fairly close to my location (only 5-10 miles away), placement of my antenna isn’t super critical. However, if your broadcast signals are farther away, you’ll need to pay extra close attention to where and how you place your antenna.

TV Fool gives you a rough idea on this by using colors to highlight which channels you’ll easily receive and which ones would be more difficult. Channels in green are channels that you could get with a basic TV antenna, while channels highlighted in yellow and red will need a more powerful antenna and strategic placement.

The Different Types of Antennas

Which type of antenna you purchase largely depends on the information that you gathered from above diagram, and different antennas are available depending on how far away you are from the broadcast signals.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Antennas

Not all TV antennas are weatherproof, and many cheaper ones are only meant to be placed indoors. If broadcast signals are relatively easy to come by in your area, then you’re probably fine getting an indoor antenna.

If some of the broadcast signals are farther away, though, an indoor antenna may not be powerful enough. For that, you’ll need an outdoor antenna, built to take the grunt that mother nature provides, and reach much farther. Outdoor antennas are almost always more reliable, though they take a bit more work to set up.

Directional vs. Multi-Directional Antennas

You’ll also want to consider whether the antenna you get is directional (also called uni-directional) or multi-directional (also called omni-directional). As you can guess, directional antennas grab a signal from a single direction, while multi-directional antennas can fetch signals coming from any direction.

Multi-directional antennas are more convenient, but have a significant downside: their range is usually much weaker than directional antennas, which can put all of their power toward gain a signal from a single direction. Multi-directional antennas can also suffer from noise and interference coming from all directions, whereas a directional antenna can block all that out.

Of course, a directional antenna will only work if the channels you want are all in one direction. If they’re coming from different parts of town, a directional antenna won’t work well for you.

VHF vs. UHF

Television broadcast signals are transmitted over two different frequencies: Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF), so it’s important that the antenna you end up buying supports either or both (ideally both).

If you go back to your TV Fool analysis, you can take a look at the section below the list of channels, which will tell you what channels use UHF and which ones use VHF.

You don’t need to know a whole lot about this, other than which frequency is used the most by the channels that you can receive over the air. If they’re mostly UHF, then you’ll want to be sure to buy an antenna that can grab UHF signals. Most antennas can grab both VHF and UHF channels anyway, but it’s good to check before you buy, just in case.

A Note on Pre-Amplifiers

Other than the antenna itself, you also may need what’s called a pre-amplifier, which is a small device that gets connected inline with the antenna’s coaxial cable on its way to your television.

If the cable from the antenna to the TV is going to be any longer than 50 feet or so, then you’ll need to get a pre-amplifier. The longer the cable is, the weaker the signal gets by the time it reaches your television, so using a pre-amp (like this one) and installing it near the antenna inline with the cable will make sure that you don’t lose any signal strength.

However, make sure to check if your antenna already comes with a pre-amp built in. Many outdoor antennas already do, since they know you’ll likely need a long run of cable to make it to your television.

Our Recommended Antennas

If you’re looking for a basic indoor multi-directional antenna, this 1byone indoor antenna ($13) is one of the most popular indoor TV antennas on Amazon, thanks to its 25-mile range and measly price tag. If you just need a cheap, basic antenna to place in a window and be done with it, that’s a good option. It has a common flat design to it that many antenna makers use, so feel free to go with another company if the price is better—The Mohu Leaf ($40) is also very popular (I have one and it works great), and The Wirecutter recommends the ClearStream Eclipse ($40, amplified version for $60).

Indoor directional antennas aren’t as common, but they do exist. This antenna from Terk ($60) is a popular option with a range of 45 miles. We’ve also used the 60-mile ClearStream 2 ($90) in the past with great results, though it’s a little big to be considered “indoor” (even though it’s labeled as such). Still, on an apartment balcony, we found it got all the channels in that direction with great clarity.

If you want an outdoor multi-directional antenna, we use this amplified 60-mile range model from 1byone ($70) and it works great. There’s no need to point it in any specific direction, so you have a lot more options as far as where you could mount it on the outside of your house, which also helps since you need to run power to it.

Outdoor directional antennas are extremely common, though, so you’ll find a lot of options in this area. 1byone’s outdoor directional antenna ($45) has an 85-mile range, which has a farther reach than their multi-directional model, but it’s also much larger. It also requires that you plug it into a power source, since it’s amplified.

Again, there are lots of other antennas out there, but these are a few popular, highly rated options (and a few we’ve tried ourselves with good results). Every antenna will work a little differently depending on your neighborhood and where you set it up, so you may have to try a couple before you find the ideal one for you. Buy from somewhere with a good return policy!

How to Hook Your Antenna Up to Your TV

Got your antenna? Great! Now it’s time to set it up and try it out.

You’ll first need to position the antenna in a good location (ideally where it has the best line-of-sight with signal towers). Again, if you get a very strong signal, a basic indoor antenna by your TV will probably be good enough. Mounting it by the window will get you a better signal, if you need it. (Don’t actually mount anything on your wall until you’re happy with the signal you get, though. You may need to move the antenna around to improve your signal and experiment with different locations.)

If you need an outdoor antenna, though, it’ll take a bit more work to install—you’ll likely have to use a ladder to climb up and mount it to the roof or side of the house using the included hardware. If you aren’t comfortable doing this, call a professional. (Check to see if your house already has a roof antenna, too—many do!)

After you’ve found a good place for your antenna, connect it to your television with the included coaxial cable. In the photo above, you can see how we’ve attached the coaxial cable from our antenna to the antenna input jack on our TV. And if your antenna is amplified, plug the amplifier into a power source. Our antenna can be powered via USB, so we plugged the USB cable that powers the amplification system into the TV’s USB port.

Once it’s plugged in, head to your TV’s channel setup menu. Your TV will need to scan for available channels, which should take just a few minutes. When it’s done, you’ll be watching HD TV channels, you can cut the cable cord for good. If you aren’t getting the best signal possible, adjust the positioning and try scanning again—hopefully, with a bit of tweaking, you’ll be watching all your local channels in crystal-clear HD.

Craig Lloyd writes about smarthome for How-To Geek, and is an aspiring handyman who loves tinkering with anything and everything around the house. He's also a mediocre gamer, aviation geek, baseball fan, motorcyclist, and proud introvert.


Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 03/8/17

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