Finding Free Movies on the Web

Can't afford a Netflix subscription, let alone cable service? Don't sweat -- there are plenty of places online that offer free, legal streaming media across a variety of genres. There's something for everyone, from full-length feature films to documentaries, animated shorts, and current-season TV shows.

Young woman using some application on her digital tablet at night, view from above
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You don't need to spend money or turn to illegal streaming sites to get your fill of free content, though you may need to keep an open mind. Here are a few sites to get you started:

Hulu

Hulu
credit: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal

Hulu is best-known as the site that streams current-season TV shows -- if you missed last night's episode of The Bachelor, this is where you can come to get your fix. Hulu offers both free and paid services; free users are usually able to stream the most recent episodes of current-season TV shows, while paid users can access older episodes and seasons. If the current cable lineup isn't to your liking, you can also access some of Hulu's original content, like episodes from The Mindy Project and Casual. The site also offers a wide selection of movies, though free users are mostly limited to older picks from the Criterion Collection and documentaries.

Crackle

Crackle
credit: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal

If you're looking for mainstream -- but not necessarily current -- movies and TV shows, Sony's streaming website Crackle is stuffed with free content. Crackle is divided into two sections, movies and TV shows. The movies are mostly older blockbusters in the action, adventure, crime, and comedy genres (you won't find much that's been released within the last 10 years), while the TV section houses lots of binge-watching fodder, including full seasons of Seinfeld, Mad About You, and Married With Children. Crackle also creates some original content, including the short comedy series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.

SnagFilms

SnagFilms
credit: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal

Not sure what you're looking for? SnagFilms has a huge library of over 10,000 free movies and TV shows, most of which are classic -- but not in the black-and-white sense (you'll find plenty of older films starring current Hollywood actors). This site is nicely-organized for people who don't have a specific title in mind: The front page videos organized into curated collections, with category names like "Stars You Know, Movies You Don't," "Rockumentaries," and "Midnight Movie Madness."

YouTube

YouTube Movies
credit: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal

YouTube, your go-to site for music videos and funny cat clips, also offers full-length movies. Sure, most of the movies on YouTube's Movies account will cost you money (they're current blockbusters and they're available to rent), but YouTube also maintains a list of legally-uploaded movies you can watch for free. Most of the free movies have been uploaded by independent filmmakers and distributors, so you won't see a lot of star-studded titles.

Vimeo

Vimeo
credit: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal

YouTube is great for cat videos and its free movies section, but venture outside of those areas and you'll have to wade through a lot of low-quality content. Vimeo, on the other hand, is a video-sharing website that attracts high-quality content makers, possibly because of its no-ad stance. You won't find as many free full-length movies here, but you'll find lots of beautiful, professionally-shot videos and clips. It's also the perfect place to look for content if you want to learn something -- genres include documentaries, travel, reporting & journalism, cameras & techniques, instructionals, and talks.

Legal vs. Illegal: Places to Avoid

In your quest for free movies, you'll inevitably stumble across illegal streaming sites -- places that offer current blockbusters (sometimes even movies that are still in theaters, or that have yet to come to DVD) for free. While it's unlikely (but not inconceivable) that you'll be prosecuted for streaming videos from these sites, it's in your best interest to avoid them because they're usually full of malware, viruses, and other things that can harm your computer. Some sites even attempt to scam you out of your credit card info by claiming that they need to verify your identity in order to allow you to access the stream.

An illegal streaming site
Can you watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens for free online? Not legally, you can't.
credit: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal

I can't list all the illegal streaming sites here (new ones pop up every day), but here are a few warning signs that the site you're about to stream from is operating outside the law.

  • Tons of ads: Like most websites on the Internet, illegal streaming sites make their money through ads. If the video player is surrounded by ads, if multiple ads pop-up during the movie, or if you try to click play and your screen is overtaken by pop-ups, this site is probably not someplace you want to be. Remember -- the more things you click on, the more likely one of those things is a virus.
  • Terrible quality: If the video looks like it was shot with a camera phone during a theater screening, then this movie has not been uploaded legally. Signs of this will include terrible video quality, subtitles in another language (apparently movie theaters in some countries aren't as strict about filming screenings), a picture that's off-center, and shadows of people walking in front of the screen.
  • Too-good-to-be-true content: If the movie is still in theaters, hasn't yet been released to DVD, or is just relatively new and popular -- well, there's a reason it's not on legal streaming sites.
  • Personal information: No free, legal streaming site will ask you to give up your credit card information to verify your identity. Some illegal sites will ask you to provide financial information...don't do this. They'll tell you that they won't charge your card, and that's probably true -- they'll just steal it and sell it on the credit card black market (yes, that's a real thing).

There's really no reason to bother with illegal streaming sites when there are so many legal streaming sites that offer free content. The Internet Archives has over 2.3 million free streaming videos, including 4,557 feature films (black-and-white classics), 926 silent films, and 6,533 clips from the Prelinger Archives.

Fans of public television can watch select full episodes on PBS.com, while fans of privatized television who can't find their shows on Hulu should check their favorite networks' website -- ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, TNT, and The CW all offer a selection of free full episodes. Even fans of foreign television can get their fix: Viki, a Singapore-based company similar to Hulu, has free episodes of current Korean and Taiwanese dramas, while SoftBank-owned DramaFever features foreign (mostly Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese) TV shows and films.

In other words, watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the comfort of your home is hardly worth the risk of having your system compromised or your personal info stolen.