How activation works in Windows 10: Digital license vs. product key

Here's what you need to know about Windows 10 activation: What's the difference between digital license and product key, and all the different activation scenarios.

Windows 10 PC, logo, blue background

Over the years the installation of Windows has gotten easier and more reliable, and Windows 10 is not an exception. In the new version of the operating system Microsoft has made it a lot easier for users to upgrade, but to make it all happen the company had to modify the different ways in which customers install Windows 10, and up until now there was not much documentation explaining the new changes.

Recently, the company made available documentation resources that explain how the Windows 10 activation and upgrade process work.

In the “Activation in Windows 10” web page, the software giant begins explaining that it uses the activation technology to verify a computer is running a genuine copy and the same license hasn’t been used on more devices than it was permitted under the terms.

Windows 10 also includes a new kind of activation, something the company calls “digital license” (formerly known as “digital entitlement”), which is in addition to the 25-character product key method. The activation the operating system will use depends on how you have obtained your copy of windows 10.

According to Microsoft, “digital license” (digital entitlement) is the new activation method in Windows 10 that doesn’t require the user to enter a product key. In this case activation will happen automatically.

Windows 10 will use the “digital license” (digital entitlement) activation method, if one of the following is true:

  • You’re upgrading a genuine copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to Windows 10 for free.
  • You’ve purchased a copy of Windows 10 in the Windows Store and successfully activated Windows 10.
  • You’ve purchased a Windows 10 Pro upgrade in the Windows Store and successfully activated Windows 10.
  • You’re part of the Windows Insider Program and you have upgraded your genuine activated copy Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to the latest Windows 10 Insider Preview build.

Windows 10 will use the product key activation method, if one of the following is true:

  • You have obtained a copy of Windows 10 from an authorized retailer.
  • You have obtained a digital copy of Windows 10 from an authorized retailer.
  • You’re using the Volume Licensing agreement for Windows 10 or MSDN subscription.
  • You have purchased a new computer running Windows 10.

How to activate Windows 10 after the upgrade

If you have upgraded to Windows 10 from a genuine copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, the activation will happen automatically through an internet connection and an online “digital license” (digital entitlement) will be created for your device.

According to the Microsoft documentation, if your version of Windows is not activated before upgrading to Windows 10, you won’t be able to activate, as such you have to make sure your copy is fully activated before upgrading.

Checking your Windows activation is very easy:

  • Windows 7: Click the Start button, right click Computer, and click Properties. Then look under Windows activation.
  • Windows 8.1: Go to Control Panel, click System and Security, and click System: Then look under Windows activation.
  • Windows 10: Open the Settings app, go to Update & security, and navigate to Activation.

If you’re copy of Windows 10 isn’t activated, you can get more information in the “Windows 10 activation errors” web page.

How to activate Windows 10 after reinstall

If you have activated a free copy or bought and activated a copy of Windows 10 from the Store, you have a “digital license” (digital entitlement) for that device.

This means that you can reinstall Windows 10, even a clean installation, and you don’t need to enter a product key. If during the installation you’re prompted to enter a product key, select Skip. Then the operating system will activate automatically after the installation.

If you previously installed and activated Windows 10 using a product key, then you’ll need to enter a product key during the installation.

How to activate a new Windows 10 installation

A product key will be needed to activate Windows 10, when you install the operating system for the first time, and your device never had an activated copy of Windows 10 on it.

Of course, you’ll also need a product key if you are installing Windows 10 Pro on a device that has Windows 10 Home running on it.

How to activate a Windows 10 Insider Preview build

If you upgraded your genuine copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to the latest Windows 10 Insider Preview build, then you’ll get new and activated builds.

After July 29, 2015, if you want to install the latest Windows 10 Insider Preview build, but you’re running Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1, you first need to upgrade to Windows 10 using the free upgrade offer.

After the upgrade go to Settings > Update & security > Advanced options and then click the Get Insider Builds to join the Insider Preview Program to receive the new builds.

How to activate Windows 10 after hardware change

If you have taken advantage of the free upgrade offer of Windows 10, and then you made some significant hardware changes, such as replacing the motherboard, Windows 10 won’t re-activate.

However, starting with the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, you can link your Microsoft Account with your Windows 10 digital licence, and use the new Activation Troubleshooter tool to re-activate the operating system.

Linking your digital license with your account is very straightforward, if you’re already have a Microsoft Account connected to your Windows 10 Anniversary Update or later, you’re good to go.

If you only have a local account, you need to add a Microsoft Account to Windows 10. Go to Settings > Update & security > Activation, click Add an account and complete the process. 

Then you can use the Activation Troubleshooter. Go to Settings > Update & security > Activation, click Troubleshoot, sign-in with your Microsoft Account. Then select your computer your the list of digital licenses associated with your account, check This is the device I’m using right now, and click Activate. If the activation fail, then you’ll need to contact customer support for assistants.

Update, October 14, 2015: Microsoft will make easier to activate Windows 10 with Threshold 2. Starting Windows 10 build 10565, users will be able to use their Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 8.1 product key to do a clean install of Windows 10 without having to do the upgrade first — full details on the changes here.

Update, June 23, 2016: Starting with Windows 10 build 14371 and moving forward, Microsoft is renaming “digital entitlement” to “digital licence”.

Update, July 9, 2016: On July 29th, Microsoft is ending the free offer to upgrade free to Windows 10. Everyone who has upgraded will retain the digital license for the life of the device. This means that if you reinstall Windows 10 with the Anniversary Update your computer will remain activated.

Source Microsoft