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Activating Windows 10

For more than 15 years, desktop versions of Windows have included a set of anti-piracy and anti-tampering features. In the past, Microsoft has used different names for these capabilities: Windows Activation Technologies and Windows Genuine Advantage, for example. In Windows 10, these features are collectively referred to as the Software Protection Platform.

The various checks and challenges in Windows 10, in essence, are enforcement mechanisms for the Windows 10 license agreement, which is displayed during the process of installing or deploying the operating system. (You must provide your consent to complete setup.) We're not lawyers, so we won't attempt to interpret the terms of this legal document. We do recommend you read the license agreement, which is written in relatively plain language compared to many such documents we've read through the years.

It's important to understand a potentially confusing concept here: The legal and contractual restrictions imposed by license agreements are completely independent of technical restrictions related to installation.
Licenses are assigned to devices. If you upgrade a system to Windows 10 from Windows 7 and then the system's hard disk fails, you can replace the storage device, perform a clean install of Windows 10, and still be properly licensed. Conversely, it's technically possible to install and activate Windows on a computer that doesn't have an underlying license, but that successful activation doesn't necessarily translate to a valid license. This distinction is especially crucial for businesses (even small ones) that could be the target of a software audit to verify proper licensing.
You can find the license terms for the currently installed Windows edition by going to Settings → System → About. Under the Windows Specifications heading, click Read The Microsoft Software License Terms.

In this section, we explain how the activation and validation mechanisms in Windows 10 affect your use of the operating system.

Product activation happens shortly after you sign in on a PC running a freshly installed copy of Windows 10. Typically, this involves a brief communication between your PC and Microsoft's licensing servers. If everything checks out, your copy of Windows is activated silently, and you never have to deal with product keys or activation prompts.

The activation process is completely anonymous and does not require that you divulge any personal information. If you choose to register your copy of Windows 10, this is a separate (and optional) task.

After you successfully activate your copy of Windows 10, your hardware is still subject to periodic antipiracy checks from Microsoft. This process verifies that your copy of Windows has not been tampered with to bypass activation. It also allows Microsoft to revoke the activation for a computer when it determines after the fact that the original activation was the result of product tampering or that a product key was stolen or used in violation of a volume licensing agreement.

A Windows 10 PC that is not activated can still be used. All Windows functions (with the exception of personalization options) work normally, all your data files are accessible, and all your programs work as expected. The nagging reminders are intended to strongly encourage you to resolve the underlying issue. Some forms of malware can damage system files in a way that resembles tampering with activation files. Another common cause of activation problems is a lazy or dishonest repair technician who installs a stolen or "cracked" copy of Windows instead of using your original licensed copy.
Links in the Windows Activation messages lead to online support tools, where you might be able to identify and repair the issue that's affecting your system. Microsoft also offers free support for activation issues via online forums and by telephone.

The activation mechanism is designed to enforce license restrictions by preventing the most common form of software piracy: casual copying. Typically, a Windows 10 license entitles you to install the operating system software on a single computer. If you're trying to activate Windows 10 using a product key that has previously been activated on a second (or third or fourth) device, you might be unable to activate the software automatically.

Windows licensing options

Every copy of Windows is licensed, not sold. Windows 10 supports multiple license types, some of which are new.

  • Full
    A full license is sold directly to retail customers as an electronic distribution or a packaged product. With a full license, Windows can be installed on a computer that was not sold with Windows originally, or it can be used as an upgrade. (Microsoft no longer sells upgrade-only licenses for Windows.) You need a full license to install Windows in a virtual machine, on a Mac or other computer that does not come with Windows preinstalled, or in a dual-boot or multi-boot setup. A full license can be transferred to a different computer; the underlying copy of Windows on the original PC must be removed for the transferred license to be valid.

  • OEM
    An OEM (original equipment manufacturer) license is one that's included with a new computer. This license is locked to the computer on which it's installed and cannot be transferred to a new computer. OEM System Builder packages are intended for use by small PC makers but are often used by consumers and hobbyists in place of a more expensive full license. The system builder is required to provide support for OEM Windows along with the device on which it is installed.

  • Volume
    Volume licenses are sold in bulk to corporate, government, nonprofit, and educational customers and are typically deployed by using enterprise-management tools. A volume license for Windows is available as an upgrade only.

  • Cloud
    If you purchased an upgrade to Windows 10 Enterprise using a subscription option (E3 or E5), your license is associated with your Azure Active Directory account. You can activate that edition of Windows on up to five PCs by signing in with those credentials.

  • Digital license
    PCs that have been upgraded from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, during or after the free upgrade offer, receive a digital license that is associated with the upgraded hardware on Microsoft's activation servers. The details of a digital license can be linked to a Microsoft account.

Do you need a product key?

The 25-character alphanumeric product key is certainly not dead, although you're increasingly less likely to need such a key to work with Windows 10. On most PCs built by large OEMs and sold through retail channels, Windows can retrieve the embedded license information from the computer's firmware and activate automatically.

Smaller OEMs (in Microsoft's parlance, these are called System Builders) purchase individual copies of Windows that require a product key for activation. The System Builder is required under the terms of the OEM license to include that key as part of the Windows installation and to provide an official copy of that key to the purchaser of the PC.

If you're building your own PC or installing Windows 10 in a new virtual machine, you still need a product key from a retail copy of Windows 10 or an OEM System Builder package. You also need a product key to upgrade a PC that does not already have a valid Windows 10 license.

If you skip the opportunity to enter a product key during a clean install, or if the key you enter fails activation (perhaps because it has been used on another PC), you can go to Settings 7rarr; Update & Security → Activation and click the Change Product Key button. Enter a valid product key for the currently installed Windows edition.

Here are some important facts you should know about product keys:

  • A custom product key is stored in firmware on any copy of Windows that is preinstalled on a new PC by a large computer maker. This configuration is called System Locked Preinstallation (SLP). Using this configuration, you can reinstall the same edition of Windows and reactivate without having to enter a product key.
  • Your product key matches your edition of Windows. When you enter a product key as part of a custom install of Windows, the key identifies the edition to be installed. If you purchase a boxed copy of Windows 10 from a retail outlet, the installation media (a DVD or a USB flash drive) contains a configuration file that automatically installs the edition that matches the product key included with that package.
  • Some Windows 10 PCs don't require a product key.
    If you upgraded a properly activated copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, you don't need to enter a product key. A record of the edition that device is licensed to use, Home or Pro, is stored with the device's hardware ID on Microsoft's activation servers. That digital license can be associated with your Microsoft account for later use. Digital licenses are also associated with upgrades and full licenses of Windows 10 purchased from the Microsoft Store.
  • Product keys are not tied to a specific architecture. The product key matches a specific Windows 10 edition and will activate a 32-bit or 64-bit copy of that Windows 10 edition on your hardware (assuming the hardware is compatible with the architecture you choose, of course).
  • You are not required to enter a product key when performing a clean install of Windows 10. You're prompted to enter a valid product key when you perform a clean installation of Windows 10. If you are reinstalling Windows 10 on a PC that has previously been activated and has a digital license, click I Don't Have A Product Key, just to the left of the Next button.

Clicking I Don't Have A Product Key allows Setup to proceed but might require that you select a specific Windows edition to install. Be sure to choose the edition that matches your license.

Managing digital licenses

In the first year after the initial release of Windows 10, Microsoft made upgrades from Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 free; the free upgrade offer was extended until December 31, 2017, for any PCs that use assistive technology. As part of these campaigns, Microsoft also added a new license type. On PCs upgraded using that free offer, the Windows activation server generated a Windows 10 license certificate (Microsoft initially called it a digital entitlement but later changed the nomenclature to digital license) for the corresponding edition (Home or Pro). That digital license is stored in conjunction with your unique installation ID on Microsoft's activation servers. (You can read more details about this and other license types at https://support.microsoft.com/help/12440/windows-10-activation.)

The unique installation ID is essentially a fingerprint of your PC, based on a cryptographic hash derived from your hardware. That hash, reportedly, is not reversible and not tied to any other Microsoft services. So, although it defines your device, it doesn't identify you. But it does make it possible to store activation status for that device online.

Once that online activation status is recorded, you can wipe your drive clean, boot from Windows 10 installation media, and install a clean copy (skipping right past the prompts for a product key); at the end of the process, you'll have a properly activated copy of Windows 10.

At any time, you can check the activation status of your device by going to Settings → Update & Security → Activation.

One detail worth noting suggestion to add a Microsoft account. Doing so creates a record of the digital license that can be retrieved for troubleshooting purposes.

Troubleshooting activation problems

When you install Windows 10 on a new PC, it attempts to contact Microsoft's licensing servers and activate automatically within three days. Under most circumstances, activation over the internet takes no more than a few seconds. If the process fails, you see several indications that there's a problem. The first is a link at the bottom of every page in Settings: Windows Isn't Activated. Activate Windows Now. If you open any option from the Personalization category in Settings, every option is grayed out and unavailable, with a message in red at the top: "You need to activate Windows before you can personalize your PC." Below that is an Activate Windows Now link.

The most obvious reminder of all appears, naturally, if you click Settings → Update & Security → Activation.

If you're confident you have a legitimate Windows 10 license, click Troubleshoot to try to fix the problem. The activation troubleshooter can resolve some simple problems and is especially well suited for activation errors that result from hardware changes or from situations where you inadvertently installed the wrong Windows edition.

You're allowed to reinstall and reactivate Windows 10 on the same hardware an unlimited number of times. During the activation process, Windows transmits a hashed file that serves as a "fingerprint" of key components in your system. When you reinstall the same edition of Windows 10 you activated previously, the activation server receives the current hardware fingerprint and compares that value against the one stored in its database. Because you're reinstalling Windows 10 on hardware that is essentially the same, the fingerprints will match, and activation will be automatic.

Just as with earlier Windows versions, this activation process is designed to prevent attempts to tamper with the activation files or to "clone" an activated copy of Windows and install it on another computer. What happens if you upgrade the hardware in your computer? When you activate your copy of Windows 10, a copy of the hardware fingerprint is stored on your hard disk and checked each time you start your computer. If you make substantial changes to your system hardware, you might be required to reactivate your copy of Windows.

You can upgrade almost all components in a system without requiring a new license. Replacing the motherboard on a PC is the most certain way to trigger the activation mechanism, because the activation server assumes you tried to install your copy of Windows on a second computer. If you replaced a defective or failed motherboard with one that is the same model or the manufacturer's equivalent, you do not need to acquire a new operating system license, and you should be able to reactivate your copy of Windows.

To help with this scenario, the activation troubleshooter relies on a feature that was introduced with the Anniversary Update, version 1607: the capability to save a digital license for Windows 10 and link it to your Microsoft account. This step isn't mandatory, but it's handy if you make major changes to a system with a digital license and need to reactivate.

If the PC in question has a valid digital license that has been previously associated with a Microsoft account, you can run the activation troubleshooter to make the match that Microsoft's activation servers can't. Click the Troubleshoot link at the bottom of that Settings page to launch a tool that tries to find the activation record for the PC you're using. If you're not signed in with a Microsoft account, you need to do so, using the account you used previously to activate this PC.

The activation troubleshooter in action. After signing in with the Microsoft account to which the previous device activation was linked, you'll see a list of linked devices. Select the name associated with the device you're having troubles with and then click Activate.

If all else fails, your only remaining option is to contact the telephone-based activation support center, explain the circumstances, and-assuming that the support representative accepts your claim-manually enter a new activation code. (If you upgrade your PC with a new motherboard, that is considered a new PC and might require a new license.)

The license agreement for a retail copy of Windows 10 allows you to transfer it to another computer, provided that you completely remove it from the computer on which it was previously installed. An OEM copy, by contrast, is tied to the computer on which it was originally installed. You can reinstall an OEM copy of Windows an unlimited number of times on the same computer. However, you are prohibited by the license agreement from transferring that copy of Windows to another computer after it has been assigned to a device.

Product activation and corporate licensing

Businesses and educational institutions that purchase licenses through a Microsoft Volume Licensing (VL) program receive access to VL media and product keys that require activation under a different set of rules from those that apply to retail or OEM copies. Under the terms of a volume license agreement, each computer with a copy of Windows 10 must have a valid license and must be activated.

Beginning with the Anniversary Update to Windows 10, Microsoft also made it possible to upgrade to Windows 10 Enterprise from Windows 10 Pro by purchasing a Windows 10 Enterprise E3 or E5 subscription from a Microsoft partner who is part of the Cloud Service Provider program. Beginning with version 1903, this option extends to Windows 10 Education, the equivalent of Enterprise edition for educational institutions. For more details about subscription activation, visit the following page:

https://docs.microsoft.com/windows/deployment/ windows-10-enterprise-subscription-activation

Enterprise and Education editions of Windows 10 can be installed using Multiple Activation Keys, which allow activations on a specific number of devices within an organization, or they can use Key Management servers to activate computers within an organization. If you encounter activation issues with Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise in a VL deployment, contact the person in your organization who manages your VL agreement-the "Benefits Administrator," as this person is called.