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 a 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 no exception. In this operating system, Microsoft has made it a lot easier for users to upgrade, but to make it all happen, the company has also had to change how the activation process works.

According to the Windows 10 activation documentation, the software giant uses the activation technology to verify that a computer is running a genuine copy and that the same license hasn’t been used on more devices than 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 will depend on how you have obtained your copy of windows 10.

According to Microsoft, “digital license” 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 have upgraded your genuine activated copy of Windows 7 or 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.

Activate Windows 10 after the upgrade

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

According to Microsoft documentation, if your version of Windows is not activated before upgrading to Windows 10, it won’t activate. As such, you must ensure 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, click on Update & security, and navigate to Activation.

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

Activate Windows 10 after reinstalling

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

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

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.

Of course, you’ll also need a product key if you install Windows 10 Pro on a device with Windows 10 Home running on it.

Activate Windows 10 after hardware change

If you make significant hardware changes, such as replacing the motherboard, Windows 10 won’t re-activate. However, you can link your Microsoft Account with your Windows 10 digital license before making the changes, and then you can use the new Activation Troubleshooter tool to re-activate the operating system.

Linking your digital license with your account is very straightforward. If you already have a Microsoft Account connected to Windows 10, 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, and 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. You’ll need to contact customer support for assistants if the activation fails.

Update October 14, 2015: Microsoft will make it 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 keys 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 license.”

Update July 9, 2016: On July 29, 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. If you reinstall Windows 10 with the Anniversary Update, your computer will remain activated.

Update July 11, 2022: This guide has been revised to make sure the information is still accurate.

About the author

Mauro Huculak is a Windows How-To Expert who started Pureinfotech in 2010 as an independent online publication. He has also been a Windows Central contributor for nearly a decade. Mauro has over 14 years of experience writing comprehensive guides and creating professional videos about Windows and software, including Android and Linux. Before becoming a technology writer, he was an IT administrator for seven years. In total, Mauro has over 20 years of combined experience in technology. Throughout his career, he achieved different professional certifications from Microsoft (MSCA), Cisco (CCNP), VMware (VCP), and CompTIA (A+ and Network+), and he has been recognized as a Microsoft MVP for many years. You can follow him on X (Twitter), YouTube, LinkedIn and Email him at [email protected].