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Best free and paid streaming services for college students

Peacock, one of the best free and paid streaming services for college students, on a TV
(Image credit: Comcast/NBC)

Life in college was crazy enough before the streaming wars. Now, college students must thumb through free and paid streaming services to find the best mix to match their tight budgets. You can't burn all your cash out on Netflix and HBO Max, right?

Since it wasn't that long ago that we were in college watching all the TV our schedules allowed, we've done the work to find the best free and paid streaming services for college students. 

This mix gives you free live news, the ability to watch your favorite shows either live or the next day, and a pass to become a film buff faster than you can say "history of cinema 101" (and without the snobby teachers, either).

And even adults well out of college rely on some of these services for their everyday streaming, so you have our word that we're not hazing the new class by giving them mediocre picks. 

Here's our list of the best free and paid streaming services for college students.

the criterion channel logo

(Image credit: criterion)

1. The Criterion Channel

The best streaming service where college students can get film-literate

Specifications

Movies: More than 2,800
Price: $10.99 per month, $99.99 per year

Reasons to buy

+
Thousands of excellent films
+
Bonus features

Reasons to avoid

-
Available in U.S. and Canada only 
-
No parental controls

College students everywhere will have no trouble finding someone's Netflix login for rewatching Old School or binge-ing Stranger Things again. So, we recommend that you get a subscription to The Criterion Channel to truly up your film-buff game. Not only is the service filled with classics from the masters (Goddard, Varda, Fellini, Haneke and more), but it's one of the most well-presented streaming services there is.

The Criterion Channel presents new collections of films to help you discover things you might have missed — but still care about. For example, it's currently running a series of 15 noir films that are in color, so your friends who think black and white movies are passe have one less veto in their pocket. It's also got 16 great boxing movies, so you can see that films about fisticuffs go just beyond the multi-chapter Rocky story.

They also do limited-run series from specific directors, so you can see the entire Richard Linklater 'Before' trilogy in a single weekend. Criterion Channel also presents films by actor, including sets for Jackie Chan (you know the Police Story classics are in there), Judy Garland and Jeanne Moreau.

Start a free 14-day Criterion Channel trial (opens in new tab)

The Peacock app icon

(Image credit: Future)

2. Peacock

The best free streaming service overall

Specifications

Live TV: Yes
Originals: Yes
Registration required: No
Supported devices: Android phones and tablets, Android TV, Apple TV, Apple phones and tablets, Chromecast, Comcast Xfinity X1 and Xfinity Flex, LG TV, Playstation 4, Vizio TV, Xbox One, web browsers

Reasons to buy

+
Popular classic shows
+
Sample exclusive originals
+
Excellent snappy interface

Reasons to avoid

-
Seems like it's meant to just get people to actually pay for Peacock once you're hooked
-
You have to sign up

Peacock is a very interesting streaming service, because it falls on both our free and paid best streaming services lists. This is why it had to earn a spot here, where even the free tier has more than 13,000 hours of content. It'll give you a little bit of The Office and some 30 Rock (which is leaving Netflix) too, plus classics like Cheers and Law & Order. 

More modern TV is on there, with hits such as Yellowstone and Modern Family, plus Battlestar Galactica, This Is Us and Parks and Recreation. It doesn't give you every episode of these shows, but enough to try and convince you to upgrade. Also, you can sample the fantastic Peacock Original We Are Lady Parts without paying. 

The Movies section may not be as strong for free subscribers, but it does have 1917, Train To Busan, John Wick (and its two sequels), Minions and the fantastic under-seen gem A Simple Favor. And if you pay for Peacock? That $4.99 per month can get you live sports and even WWE's premium live events (formerly called PPVs). 

Check out our full Peacock review to learn more.

Watch Peacock here (opens in new tab)

Pluto TV app interface

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

3. Pluto TV

The best free streaming service for show-specific channels

Specifications

Live TV: Yes
Originals: No
Registration required: No
Supported devices: Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Amazon Kindle and Fire tablets, Android phones and tablets, Android TV, Apple TV, Apple phones and tablets, Chromecast, Roku, web browsers

Reasons to buy

+
Linear and on-demand content
+
Channels devoted to popular shows and movies

Reasons to avoid

-
Mostly retro content

Want a streaming service that's giving you "all you can eat dining hall buffet" vibes without spending a dollar? Then check out Pluto TV. Quietly, Pluto became one of the best free streaming services over the last few years. While writing this story, I turned it on and immediately found myself watching Tom Hanks and Matt Damon emoting in Saving Private Ryan on the Pluto TV Action channel. Russell Crowe's up next in Gladiator.

A quick scroll down shows a ton of variety, from Pluto's BET HER channel to a food-content-first network with Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and the college-friendly Bong Appetit. Genre-focused channels are just the beginning, though. 

You've got whole channels for classic shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, Degrassi, Baywatch, Star Trek and Stargate. Reality TV is represented as well, with a Bar Rescue channel, a Dog: The Bounty Hunter channel and a whole Jersey Shore channel. 

Need live news? CBS News, CNN, NBC News Now and Sky News are also on Pluto.

Watch Pluto TV here (opens in new tab)

The Hulu app on an Apple TV home screen

(Image credit: Future)

4. Hulu

The best streaming service for cord-cutters in college

Specifications

Starting price: $7 now, $8 per month starting Oct. 10
Simultaneous streams: 2
Live TV: Requires $65 per month Live TV package
Exclusive originals: Yes
Platforms and devices: Android, Android TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Echo Show, Fire Tablets, Fire TV, iPhones and iPads, LG TV (select models), Nintendo Switch, Mac and PC, PlayStation 3 (no live programming), PlayStation 4, Roku, Samsung TV (select models), VIZIO SmartCast TVs, Xbox, Xfinity Flex & X1

Reasons to buy

+
Great selection of current TV
+
Inexpensive
+
Quality original programming

Reasons to avoid

-
Frequent commercials
-
Inconsistent selections from older TV seasons

Hulu is famous for its originals (as it should be), but it's more than just the service you need to watch The Bear, The Dropout and Only Murders In the Building — all of which I'm sure one of your classmates has been raving about. 

Want to stay in touch with your favorite TV shows without spending that "live TV" money? Well, many of them get posted to Hulu the next day. That means current hits like Abbott Elementary, What We Do In The Shadows and Bob's Burgers can be found on Hulu, too. Even Love Island (UK) makes it to Hulu!

Hulu even offers some live news content, so you can see what ABC News Live is up to, as well as see clips from ABC News. Hulu's also a part of a couple of well-known bundles for saving. Though they're all affected by the incoming price hikes. Existing subscribers can get Hulu with the $14.99 Disney Plus (ad-free) bundle that throws in ESPN Plus (which UFC fans, among others, need), for savings of around $14 compared to the combined price. New customers will have access to an ad-supported $12.99 bundle for all three services, savings of about $13. There's going to be a $19.99 per month ad-free Disney Plus and Hulu + ESPN Plus bundle as well.

If you're willing to pony up a lot of cash, you can get Hulu's live TV version. It has all the important local broadcast networks and the major cable networks too. Check out our full Hulu with Live TV review.

Sign up for Hulu for $6.99 per month (opens in new tab) before the price goes up.

Sling TV's home screen

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey/Tom's Guide)

5. Sling TV

The best live TV streaming service for value

Specifications

Starting price: $35 per month
Simultaneous streams: 1-4
Live TV: Yes
Exclusive originals: No
Platforms and devices: Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, iPhone and iPad, web browsers, Android, Android TV, Xbox, Samsung Smart TVs, LG Smart TVs and VIZIO Smart TVs

Reasons to buy

+
Much cheaper than cable
+
Wide breadth of content
+
No contract required

Reasons to avoid

-
Occasional pixelated streams and buffering issues
-
Gets expensive very fast with optional packages

You can still get live TV without paying $70 per month, though. Sling TV — starting at $35 — is actually half the price of Hulu's live TV service and it's my personal choice. 

For half the price of Hulu's live TV service, you can get either the Sling Orange or Sling Blue lineups. Both feature top-tier live cable networks, such as TNT (huge for NBA playoffs games) and TBS (important for MLB playoff games). But If you want both ESPN (Sling Orange) and your local Fox and NBC affiliates (Blue), then you probably want the $50 per month Orange & Blue package. Sling TV's customizability and low entry-price made it a lock for the 2022 Tom's Guide Award for best live TV streaming service.

Sling includes 50 hours of cloud DVR for when college life gets in the way of must-see TV, and it's got other popular channels such as BBC America, Cartoon Network and the Food Network. 

Read our full Sling TV review.

Save 50% on your first month of Sling TV (opens in new tab)

Henry T. Casey
Senior Editor

Henry is a senior editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.