Why is Windows free

Use Windows 10 for free forever - that's how it works!

Peter Stelzel-Morawietz

We keep getting questions about switching to Windows 10, activation and license, the supposedly missing installation key and binding to certain hardware. A guide to the depths of preactivation, installation ID & Co.

EnlargeThe upgrade for Windows 7 and 8.1 is still free - without any detours or tricks.
© Psconsultoria - Fotolia.com

It has now been a year since Microsoft finally ended its support for Windows 7 at the beginning of 2020, forcing users of the operating system that was so popular up to then to switch to Windows 10. New security gaps have not been and will no longer be closed, so a PC with Windows 7 is no longer suitable for online use. Only corporate customers receive patches for their systems with Windows 7 Professional and Enterprise as part of the paid Extended Security Updates for a further two years. Private users, on the other hand, are left out of this program, even if they wanted to pay.

So it is not surprising that those who have switched over keep asking questions about the license, the product key and the activation of the current version of the Microsoft operating system.

This guide looks into these questions. At this point, we explain the most important scenarios for switching, upgrading, replacing hardware and simply setting up a new computer. After all, nobody wants to spend more than 250 euros - that's actually how much Windows 10 Pro costs at Microsoft - just because some information may not be available.

Windows 10 upgrade still free of charge:Microsoftler reveals reason

If you still have a PC with Windows 7, you can continue to upgrade for free

EnlargeComputers with Windows 7 or 8.1 installed can still be upgraded to Windows 10 free of charge. The previous license activates the new system automatically.

We start with good news: every computer with Windows 7 (or 8.1) installed can still be upgraded to the current version free of charge. Microsoft had actually only promised the free upgrade for twelve months when Windows 10 was launched in mid-2015. The aim was to get as many users as possible to upgrade. But since then, many more deadlines have passed without any actual restrictions. You don't even need tricks in the gray area for the free upgrade, rather both the official update tool and the media creation tool start the version change, accept the license key of the previous system and activate the new Windows automatically - and all without noting it down or turning it off the system.

If you took a computer out of operation after the end of support for Windows 7 at the beginning of last year, you can upgrade it to Windows 10 now at no cost. And because the hardware requirements for Windows 7 and 10 are practically the same, the process rarely fails in practice.

The free upgrade to Windows 10 from one of the two previous versions does not only work when updating an installed system, but also with a new installation. Because the current Windows version not only accepts an installation key for Windows 10, but also those for Windows 7 or 8 and 8.1.

The only requirement is that the key of the old edition also matches the new one: The product keys of Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic and Home Premium are suitable for the home version of Windows 10, and only those of Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate for the pro version.

Because the manufacturers used to affix a license key sticker ("Certificate of Authenticity": COA) to their devices with a pre-installed operating system, even this works for the reinstallation of Windows 10.

EnlargeFor five euros on Ebay classifieds: Reselling and using a Windows license are only legally permissible under certain conditions.

In terms of licensing law, however, this is only okay on the computer with the respective sticker, especially since the imprint actually represents a kind of replacement key. The computers were used and activated with special license keys from Microsoft, which the manufacturers dug with the BIOS of the mainboard. For PC buyers, the so-called OEM preactivation had the advantage that they did not have to activate their devices themselves. If you need a new license for Windows 10, you may be able to save money by purchasing a suitable previous key: These are sometimes offered more cheaply than those for the current operating system.

However, caution is advised with particularly cheap offers on the Internet, because the installation keys offered there usually activate the operating system, but you should rarely get a valid license in this way!

Windows 10 automatically saves the product key after activation

EnlargeIf Windows 10 was already running on one computer, the operating system can be reinstalled on the same hardware without having to worry about the license and activation.

Even with Windows 10, product activation is still required, which automatically checks the license key used over the Internet and then releases the Windows installation as "activated" for permanent use. At the same time, however, Microsoft has simplified product activation so much that new PCs or notebooks with a pre-installed operating system (OEM) no longer have a COA sticker with a license key. In fact, you hardly need it anymore, as the more than five years of experience since Windows 10 appeared in 2015 shows.

As soon as such an OEM computer is set up for the first time, Windows 10 reads the installation key from the BIOS / Uefi or the Microsoft Data Management Table (MSDM). From this, the operating system generates a license certificate and saves it together with a PC and hardware-specific hash value (installation ID) in an online database. This not only activates the current Windows installation, the license is also linked to the respective computer.

As a result, you can set up your system again at any time without having to worry about reactivating it. If Windows 10 is reinstalled on the same hardware later, the system automatically reads the digital authorization including the information about the Home or Pro version from the Microsoft activation database. A license key is therefore not required, it is only required for full and upgrade licenses and for the mostly somewhat cheaper system builder versions.

EnlargeWith pre-installed Windows, the Windows 10 OEM Product Key Tool reads the license key from the BIOS / Uefi (above), with full versions other tools help.