Briefly For the longest time, Windows PCs have come with a product key sticker that was affixed outside of the computer or with your computer’s manuals. In recent years, manufacturers have started to store this license in the computer’s UEFI / BIOS. The information is automatically obtained and applied when the operating system is reinstalled. Certainly a better approach overall. In other cases, e.g. For example, when you have created and installed your operating system, your key is associated with your Microsoft account so you can no longer “lose” it. Read on for more details.
Microsoft has changed and improved the way Windows licenses are handled. This article will walk you through everything you need to know, from ancient methods of getting keys to more modern approaches to getting the most from your licenses, and what restrictions might apply depending on your license type.
Windows 10 has included a “Digital Entitlement” element in the Microsoft license that links your Windows key to an ID based on your PC’s hardware. However, because your hardware can change significantly when you upgrade your hardware, this privilege has been increased to a “Digital license” when the anniversary update 2016 (1607) arrived.
This means that your Windows 10 license will now associate Windows keys with Microsoft accounts so that you can activate a copy of the operating system simply by signing in with valid online credentials. So, in general, if you have a newer Windows PC or are already signed in with your Microsoft account, you shouldn’t have to look for your original Windows 10 key. We’ll explain this in more detail in a moment.
There may be other scenarios where you may still want to manually find a Windows key stored in your UEFI / BIOS or prevent that key from being automatically applied during installation. Not to mention, terms and conditions are different for non-OEM retail keys and people who upgraded to Windows 10 for free. Worst-case scenario, you might be trying to find the license for a copy of Windows that won’t start anymore.
Editor’s note:This feature was originally released in December 2018. She’s just as relevant today, so we came across her as part of our # ThrowbackThursday initiative.
Windows OEM key vs. Retail vs. free upgrade
- OEM keys come with a specific computer and tilt transferred to another machine. These should also be used automatically by your UEFI / BIOS when you reinstall Windows on a modern box PC. However, you can also get them manually.
- Sales keys are bought directly from Microsoft, Amazon, etc. – these can to another computer and this process should be automatic for a digital license. However, you can also “uninstall” a Windows key from a specific PC.
- Those who upgraded from Windows 7 and 8 to Windows 10 for free do not have a unique Windows 10 key. This can only be transferred to another computer (not if you upgraded from an OEM key). Free upgrade licenses are a digital entitlement.
Do I have a digital license?
The Windows 10 Settings app has a page to view your activation information, including asking if you have a digital license, even though your key is not listed here:
Go to:Settings> Update & Security> Activation
If you have a digital license, you should see “Windows will be activated with a digital license” or “Windows will be activated with a digital license associated with your Microsoft account”.
You can also link a Microsoft account to a Windows license by clicking “Add Microsoft Account” at the bottom of the same page and providing your credentials.
Find your key in Windows
Entering the following lines in an administrator command prompt or in PowerShell showed the OEM key embedded in our system’s UEFI / BIOS. However, these commands did not return keys on the other two computers we used for testing even though Windows 10 was activated.
wmic path softwarelicensingservice get OA3xOriginalProductKey
Powershell “(Get-WmiObject -query ‘select * from SoftwareLicensingService’). OA3xOriginalProductKey”
There is also a commonly cited Visual Basic script that gets Windows registry-based keys (not those stored in the UEFI / BIOS). You can download the script here. Copy and paste this text into Notepad and save it as a .vbs file. Then double click to launch the file.
Third party tools that find Windows keys
We have downloaded a number of utilities that can be used to get retail keys from the Windows registry, as well as those that are UEFI / BIOS bound. Upon testing, some applications found both the registry and UEFI / BIOS key, while others only worked for one or the other:
Nirsoft ProduKey – We found both the embedded OEM key and the retail key from our currently running version of Windows. Also contains keys for many other applications such as Microsoft Office and Adobe products (strangely enough, Internet Explorer was also included in our results even though no key was provided). As with some of the other tools on this list, ProduKey can load Windows keys from external sources / drives.
ShowKey Plus – This utility also found our retail and OEM keys and can load the SOFTWARE hive file from another Windows installation.
Windows 10 Product Key Tool – This tool created by the developer of EasyBCD found our UEFI OEM key, but couldn’t find the retail license on our Windows To Go drive.
Winkeyfinder – We found our retail key, but Dell’s UEFI OEM key was not showing up.
Magical Jelly Bean KeyFinder – Returns the sales key but not the UEFI OEM key. This software can also load registry keys from Windows installations to other drives (Tools>Load Hive). Listed our Windows 10 Pro installation as Enterprise.
Find your key from outside Windows
If you can’t start Windows and want to get this key, you can still access this data from an external environment like a Windows To Go drive or by attaching your non-booting Windows drive to another computer.
Note that the non-booting drive with your Windows key is offline by default and must be activated in Disk Management (diskmgmt.msc) if you are restoring the key from a Windows To Go workspace. Right click on the drive and set it as “online”. As mentioned above, several of the third-party tools already listed allow you to load the registry hive file from another Windows installation.
You can also navigate to your license directly from the Windows registry (regedit via Start), although the key is not in plain text. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE SOFTWARE Microsoft Windows NT CurrentVersionand look for “DigitalProductId” in the right pane.
This registry hive is saved in a file on your operating system drive under Windows System32 Config – Look for the SOFTWARE file.
During testing, both ProduKey and ShowKey Plus loaded the SOFTWARE hive file and displayed the key for an external Windows installation via Windows To Go. Also note that ProduKey can, among other things, search computers in remote domains for Windows keys on computers and that the Windows Registry Editor can load Hive files from other installations:
- Open the Windows Registry Editor (enter regedit via start)
- click HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE so it is selected
- Click File>Load Hive and navigate to the SOFTWARE file in Windows System32 Config on your other drive
- Enter a name for this external hive file
- The hive should appear as a sub-entry in HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE
- To unload the hive, select the name you chose and go to File>Unload Hive
Getting the UEFI / BIOS bound Windows key through Linux was as easy as typing the following line into a terminal, although we couldn’t find any GUI applications like ProduKey or ShowKey Plus that would get the license from a registry hive file:
sudo strings / sys / firmware / acpi / tables / MSDM | Tail -1
The Chntpw command line tool can be installed on Linux and loads Windows registry files. This software did not return a valid key when decoding the product ID within the tool. However, if you had to, you could extract the hex data and decode it elsewhere.
If you have a boot CD nearby, Chntpw (also known as Offline NT Password & Registry Editor) is part of many all-in-one recovery solutions like Ultimate Boot CD and Hiren’s Boot CD.
Here’s how to load a Windows registry file in chntpw from a Linux terminal and then display the hex value for the key in this structure (use dpi instead of hex however, to decode the key in chntpw this did not give us a valid key):
chntpw -e YourDrive/ Windows / System32 / config / SOFTWARE
hex Microsoft Windows NT CurrentVersion DigitalProductId
Although it is convenient to have the UEFI / BIOS automatically detect your Windows key, you will need to optimize the Windows installation media if you want to use a different license.
Open the installation media in File Explorer, navigate to the Sources folder, and create a new text file named PID.txt in the Sources folder. In PID.txt you want the following text where the Xs correspond to your license key.
Value = XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX
Uninstalling a sales key from a specific computer is also possible. This will not automatically update the information on Microsoft’s servers, but will prevent future conflicts from multiple computers with the same key.
Enter the following line in an administrator command prompt to uninstall the currently active product license and delete this key from the Windows registry (more information) slmgr commands):
slmgr.vbs / upk
slmgr / cpky
As a final anecdote from the test, after uninstalling and deleting the key from our Windows installation, we were able to reactivate this Windows copy by simply clicking on “Troubleshoot” on the activation page.
With one click, this wizard retrieved our digital license even though it wasn’t linked to a Microsoft account. Again, this was a retail key that was originally used on a desktop that was cloned as a Windows To Go drive and connected to another computer with a different hardware profile. In other words, with a bit of luck, Microsoft’s activation is sufficiently forgiving and you shouldn’t have any problems validating your operating system license on a new computer or after several hardware changes.
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