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9 Commonly Asked Questions About Windows 10 Product Keys and Activation

Microsoft changed the way activation works on Windows 10 and Windows 11. Here are 9 Commonly Asked Questions About Windows 10 and Windows 11 Product Keys and Activation.

Windows 10 product key

Microsoft changed the way activation works on Windows 10. While some versions still need a product key, Microsoft also introduced a different method called “digital entitlement”.

It’s also possible to use a limited version of Windows 10 without activating it at all. While the Windows 10 free upgrade offer expired in 2018, many users still ask how activation works and whether they need a new product key to use Windows 10.

Windows Product Keys FAQ

first, what are product keys? A Product Key enables using a software product you have licensed under a specific Volume Licensing program. The Product Keys listed in the VLSC should be used with only Volume License products and are intended for use by your organization only.

An Online Service Activation (OSA) Key is a type of Product Key. It is a single-use redemption key to activate Microsoft Online Services subscriptions.

To help clear some of the confusion, here are the answers to four commonly asked questions about Windows 10 activation and product keys:

1] Where is the Windows 11, Windows 10, and Windows 8.1 Product Key?

Factory-installed Windows [11, 10, and 8.1] computers differ from previous versions of Windows. The OEM product key for Windows was previously attached as a label on the computer. This key could be referenced for activation if the operating system must be reinstalled.

The OEM product key for current Windows 11, Windows 10, and Windows 8.1 is "injected" into the computer motherboard at the factory. Installation and activation of Windows see the information in the computer's BIOS to verify authenticity. Owners of these computers do not need a physical key to input.

2] Can I Install and Use Windows 10 without Activation?

Microsoft allows absolutely anyone to download and install Windows 10 on their computers for free. Even if you don’t have a product key, you’ll still be able to use an unactivated version of Windows 10, although some features may be limited.

Step 1: Download Windows 10 directly from Microsoft’s website

Step 2: Open the downloaded file and begin the installation

Step 3: A window will pop up asking you to enter a product key during the installation. Click I don’t have a product key and the installation will continue. If you’re prompted again, just do the same until installation is complete

Inactivated versions of Windows 10 have a watermark in the bottom right saying, “Activate Windows”. You also can’t personalize any colors, themes, backgrounds, etc. Otherwise, it basically works like a normal fully functional copy of Windows 10.

If you ever do want to activate your copy of Windows 10, open Settings from the toolbar at the bottom of your screen. Click Update & Security then Activation and select Go to Store. You can pay for Windows 10 here to unlock your current copy.

3] Do I need a product Key to Activate Windows 10?

If you buy or upgrade to Windows 10 directly from Microsoft, you won’t need a product key. Instead, when you install Windows 10, it will come with a Digital License. This is called “digital entitlement”.

The installation will then automatically create a special significance for your computer and store it on Microsoft’s servers online. This means if you ever need to reinstall Windows 10 on that same computer, Microsoft will automatically recognize and approve it.

However, if you bought Windows 10 from an authorized reseller, not from Microsoft, then it will still come with a regular Product Key.

4] Can I Upgrade from Older Versions of Windows Without a Product Key?

When Microsoft released Windows 10 in 2015, it allowed Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users to upgrade for free.

So long as you already have a legitimate copy of an older Windows version installed and activated with its own unique product key on your computer then you could upgrade to a fully activated Windows 10 operating system without a new product key.

Users either received a prompt to upgrade from within their current version of Windows or could download the upgrade from Microsoft directly. Once upgraded, Windows 10 automatically comes with a Digital License instead of entering a Product Key.

Note: if you need to reboot your computer and haven’t yet upgraded to Windows 10 then you’ll still need to enter the Product Key for your original version of Windows before you can upgrade. If you already upgraded before rebooting, then it should automatically work with the digital license

Technically, this free upgrade offer expired in January 2018, but there are still a few tricks for how to upgrade. 

If you don’t have a legitimate copy of Windows 7 or 8.1 however, the upgrade won’t work. You’ll first need to buy and install a new copy with a legitimate product key.

5] Can I Use the Same Copy of Windows 10 on my Other Computers?

Whether you have a product key or digital license for your copy of Windows 10, you can only install and use it on one computer at a time. If you want to install Windows 10 on other computers, you’ll need to buy a new copy with its own product key for each one.

However, businesses that need to use Windows on multiple computers can buy a commercial “Volume License” that will work on more than one device.

6] How to locate Product Keys in VLSC?

  1. Sign into the VLSC Volume Licensing Service Center
  2. Select Licenses > Relationship Summary > Licensing ID > Product Keys.

You will find product key information for each product, the type of licensing (Volume Licensing Key, KMS, and MAK) and the number of used and available Multiple Activation Key (MAK) activations.

You can also select the Download all product keys link to download the keys displayed for an entitlement to a local drive.

You can also locate product keys in VLSC for individual products on the Downloads and Keys tab in VLSC.

7] What is the Key Management Service (KMS)?

Microsoft's Key Management Service (KMS) is an activation service that allows organizations to activate Windows systems within their own network, eliminating the need for individual computers to connect to Microsoft for product activation. It doesn't require a dedicated system and can be easily co-hosted on a system that provides other services.

KMS requires a minimum number of either physical or virtual computers in a network environment. These minimums, called activation thresholds, are set so that Enterprise customers easily meet them.

  • Activation Thresholds for Windows
    • Your organization must have at least 5 computers to activate servers running Windows Server.
    • Your organization must have at least 25 computers to activate Windows client systems.
  • Activation Thresholds for Office
    • Your organization must have at least 5 computers running an edition of Office to activate installed Office products using KMS.

8] What is a KMS Host Key?

A KMS Key activates the KMS host computer with a Microsoft activation server. It can activate up to 6 KMS hosts with 10 activations per host. Each KMS host can activate an unlimited number of computers.

9] What is a Multiple Activation Key (MAK)

A Multiple Activation Key (MAK) activates systems on a one-time basis, using Microsoft's hosted activation services (which require connection with a Microsoft activation server). Once computers are activated, no further communication with Microsoft is required.

Final Thoughts 

We hope we've answered your frequently asked questions about Windows product keys.

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Further Reading

» How to Use Your Product Keys in Microsoft Office
» How to Upgrade Windows 10 Home to Pro Using an OEM Key
» How to Plug in Your Product Key with SLMGR and SLUI
» How To Remove the Activate Windows 10 Watermark
»How to Fix Windows 10 Login Problems