Windows 10: Understanding how product key activation works

Windows 10 activation isn't going away, but Microsoft is introducing changes to make activation an easy process, even for clean installs, but perhaps the biggest change is that you don't have to provide a product key after the upgrade.

Windows 10 activated on a laptop

Although many users had issues trying to activate Windows 10, this is the first version of the operating system that fixes the shortcomings with product activation. With the new version, Microsoft is changing the product key activation process when upgrading to Windows 10. With the new activation process, not only can people upgrade easily, but it also makes it simpler to perform a clean installation – of course, only after you have properly upgraded.

Perhaps the biggest change is that users won’t have to enter a product key anymore after successfully upgrading to Windows 10, as the activation status will be stored in the cloud.

This is a significant step forward coming from the previous version of Windows that required you to manually enter the product key on each new installation.

Even though, this is a good news, many users were caught by surprise, as many people proceeded to move to Windows 10 doing a clean install, instead of performing an in-place upgrade first, and it caused the activation to fail.

It’s worth pointing out that OEM activation and the process of activating value licensing copies didn’t change. Everything here works the same.

The activation process can be a little confusing, so let’s go a step back and go over how the Windows 7 and Windows 8 activation process works.

For years, the process to activate a copy of the operating system was based on a unique ID that was generated by measuring the hardware in your PC. The identification was not reversible and not tied to any Microsoft service, as such it couldn’t be used to identify you.

In Windows 7 and Windows 8, when you activate for the first time, the unique ID calculated using your hardware is stored on the activation database together with your product key. If you need to reinstall the operating system on the same hardware using the same product key, the activation will happen automatically. However, if you try to use the same product key on another machine, the activation will simply fail.

Fast forward to Windows 10, the upgrade setup checks your current activation status and sends the report to Microsoft. If everything checks, meaning if your copy is genuine and not a pirated version, then the activated servers will generate a Windows 10 license certificate, which is something the software giant calls “digital entitlement” and stores it with your unique ID and the edition you are trying to activate (Windows 10 Home or Pro).

Windows 10 licenses are now stored in the cloud therefore you won’t have to enter it manually ever again

As you can see, the setup process didn’t need a product key to activate Windows. The process only checked that your copy was genuine.
After the upgrade is complete, you can reformat or even use a brand-new hard drive and perform a clean installation of Windows 10. Although the Windows Setup will prompt you to enter a product key, you can simply skip the step, and after the installation, you’ll find that Windows 10 will be properly activated.

Keep in mind the following scenarios

  • If you have created a USB media using the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool and then you try to perform a clean install of the operating system, then the activation will fail.
  • If you have a properly activated copy of Windows 7 Service Pack 1 or Windows 8.1 Update, and you use the “Get Windows 10” app to do the upgrade, then the operating system will be activated.
  • After the upgrade, if you try to wipe the hard drive and do a clean install using an USB/DVD installation media, and even after skipping to enter the product key, then you’ll notice that Windows 10 will continue to be activated properly.

Remember that these scenarios are only to illustrate how to activate a free copy of Windows 10, you can always purchase a brand new copy and install it any way you like and the activation should work.

Perform a clean install without upgrading and remain activated

Here’s a trick, if you don’t want to go through the process of upgrading before performing a clean install of Windows 10.

  1. Download Windows 10 and create an installation media USB driver following these directions.

  2. Don’t reboot your computer, instead double-click and start the Setup within Windows.

  3. In the Windows 10 Setup, click Nothing (Everything will be deleted, including files, apps, and settings).

Here is where the magic happens, as part the setup process you’ll get a clean installation of Windows 10, but the setup will also verify the activation status of the previous version of Windows, and it will create a new licensing certificate.

After the installation, you can check Settings > System & update > Activation, and it should read “Windows is Activated”, and just like that you’ll never have to enter the product key again.

Now, if you did a clean install of Windows 10 without upgrading first, you have two choices: use the recovery media that came with your computer or use the full back you created before upgrading to go back to Windows 7 or Windows 8, and then follow try again. Or you can buy a new product key to install Windows 10 – Windows 10 Home costs $119.99 and Windows 10 Pro costs $199.99.

Have you encountered any issues activating your free copy of Windows 10? Tell us in the comments below.

Source ZDNet

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 15 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 21 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].