Have you ever tried reinstalling Windows software but had no idea what the license keys and serial numbers were? Sure, they were probably on the packaging or in an email, but they might be gone now. There are multiple ways to recover a Windows 10 product key, depending on your situation, as you’ll see below.
1. Recover Windows Product Keys Using Purchase Details
If you purchased Windows 10 online as a digital download or physical media, your license key may still be stored on the retailer’s site. While there are other sellers online that claim to sell digital licenses, the only authorized Windows 10 retailers are Microsoft and Amazon. In many cases, product keys purchased elsewhere won’t work correctly.
If you purchased from Microsoft, check your email for a purchase confirmation message. This will contain your product key. If you can’t find it, log in to your Microsoft account, open “Payments & Billing,” and select “Digital” in the left pane. By default, the page only shows orders from the last three months. Change the filter to “All Available” to view older orders.
If you purchased from Amazon, visit Your Digital Items to find product keys and re-download past purchases.
Naturally, there is a wide variety of ways you can purchase Windows 10. Microsoft lists the most common and legal methods along with where you would find your product key.
2. Locate the Product Key on the Packaging
If you purchased a physical copy of Windows 10, the product key is located on the packaging. It would either be on a sticker inside the package or a small card within the package. Naturally, if you threw away all the packaging, you might not still have this.
If you purchased a new computer with Windows 10 installed, the product key may be on the computer itself or stored in the booklets that come with your new PC.
3. Recover Windows Product Key Using Command Prompt
If you don’t have the product packaging on a new computer that shipped with Windows pre-installed, don’t worry. The Windows product key is still stored on the computer; it’s tied to your motherboard’s firmware.
Press Win + R, type
cmd, and hit Enter to open Command Prompt. Enter the following at the prompt and hit Enter:
This will show you the product key. If you get an error, go to Start, type
cmd, and select “Run as administrator” under Command Prompt.
4. Recover a Pro Pack License
If you upgraded Windows using the Pro Pack option, your license is tied directly to your Microsoft account. There is no product key; instead, your account details are the license.
If you need to recover your Windows product key because you want to transfer to a new PC, you do have the option to transfer the license to a new computer. Use the Activation Troubleshooter, just like you would when replacing your motherboard.
Go to “Settings -> Update & Security -> Activation” on your new computer. The Troubleshoot option will only appear on the Activation window if Windows isn’t currently activated. Click Troubleshoot and sign in with the Microsoft account tied to your Windows 10 Pro Pack license. Select “Activate Windows” when prompted to transfer the license. This means your old PC will no longer be activated.
If you’re having issues and your old PC still works well, open the Activation window and click “Learn More” under Windows in the right pane. This will guide you through deactivating Windows on this PC to avoid activation errors on your new PC.
5. Recovering Other Windows License Types
The type of Windows you use determines the best way to recover your Windows product key. So far, the methods above work for most individual/personal installations. The methods for businesses, campuses, and Software Developer Network installs are different.
5.1. Business or Volume Licensing
Businesses often use volume licensing agreements. The system administrators use a key management service for activations. This applies for business copies of Pro and Enterprise.
All licensing details should be listed on the business’s Microsoft account in the Volume Licensing Service Center page. All Microsoft products are listed here. Choose Licenses and select the correct product.
Students and educators often get free or discount access to Microsoft products, including Windows. You’ll receive an email with the product key if you’re required to download or purchase it through your school. Your product key may also be included in your student account details on the purchase page.
Some schools use a volume licensing method. In this instance, new downloads are activated automatically. You’ll need to contact the system administrator if you’re having trouble activating a new PC or reactivating an existing PC.
5.3. Software Developer Network
If you’ve downloaded Windows through MSDN (Microsoft Software Developer Network), you’ll need to log in to your MSDN account. Select your product and choose Product Keys to view the key.
6. Getting Help From Microsoft
Microsoft isn’t the most helpful when it comes to recovering product keys. However, in cases where the hard drive or motherboard has failed and you’ve replaced it, you can usually get a customer support representative to help you activate Windows since it’s the same PC. Even if you’ve done everything right and Windows still won’t activate, it’s still worth contacting support.
While you can call, it’s easier to just use the chat option if you have an Internet connection.
Go to “Start -> Get Help.” Alternatively, visit Microsoft’s Contact page.
7. Using Product Key Recovery Tools
If you can’t recover your Windows 10 product key using the above methods, you may still be able to find it using a product key recovery tool. These scan your system to locate licensed software and the product keys they’re using.
While there is a variety of tools available, there are two that stand out. The first is completely free, while the other is a premium tool but more robust. As a side note, be careful when downloading free product key finder tools, as many contain malware. Test sites and download links using VirusTotal to be safe.
Also, avoid using any tools designed to bypass the product key. These are usually completely fake or contain dangerous malware.
7.1. Belarc Advisor
A long-time favorite for quickly finding Windows product keys on your computer is Belarc Advisor. I was actually using this tool in the early 2000s, and it’s still actively maintained. As long as you’re only using it for personal use, it’s free. Businesses are required to buy a license.
What’s great about Belarc Advisor is it doesn’t just help you access your license keys and serial numbers. It’ll also give you a detailed overview of your computer specs and what’s installed.
When you download the tool, you’re asked to provide an email address, name, and organization. If you don’t want to provide these details, use a temporary email address – any name you want – and “Personal” for your organization. This takes you directly to the download link.
As soon as you install the program, it asks to analyze your PC – even checking your security definitions.
The analyzing step can take several minutes, so be patient. Your entire system is being analyzed to give you a full overview of your system, including license keys.
When finished, the results pop up in your default browser. The results are also stored as a temporary file on your system.
To the left, you can jump to different sections, including Software Licenses. You’ll also see a full list of installed software.
Print this page or save it to always have your keys available. Save them on a flash drive, external hard drive, or even a secure cloud service.
Whenever you install something new that requires a license key, run Belarc Advisor again for an updated report.
7.2. Use Recover Keys
As great as Belarc Advisor is, it doesn’t always find every license key. It works great for Windows software and more popular tools, though. For a deeper scan, try Recover Keys. A free trial only shows you the first four digits of product keys
but will let you know whether a key was found for the software you need. The program is $29.95 for a single license. That’s much cheaper than buying a new license for expensive software or Windows OS.
While it doesn’t give you an overview of your entire system, it does a great job of scanning for thousands of possible programs that might have a product key attached.
Once installed, choose what you want to scan.
For most users, Scan local computer works best. The scan takes just a minute or two to complete, t
hen you’re given a full list of product keys. As you can tell, the demo version, or free trial, just shows the beginning of the key.
You can even save keys to the Product Key Database within the program. However, it may be best to save a copy to an external source. After all, if your system gets corrupted, you can’t access the database. Above the results, you’ll find options for printing and saving your results.
Common Issues You May Encounter When Recovering Windows Product Keys
Windows 10 Upgrades
If you upgraded from an earlier version of Windows, your product key will be “YTMG3-N6DKC-DKB77-7M9GH-8HVX7.” This is a generic key assigned to all upgraded systems. It’s tied to your motherboard, so moving it to a new system is almost impossible. If you have a full retail copy of Windows 10, though, you should be able to transfer it just fine.
Microsoft Office 2013/2016
While these programs still use product keys, they are not fully stored in your registry. You will only be able to see the last five digits with keyfinder software. The rest of the key is pretty much unfindable unless you have it saved somewhere. If you didn’t save the key, you’ll have to call Microsoft Support to get things sorted out.
Some Microsoft products, especially those sold in bulk to companies, are activated using a “volume license,” which means none of the individual copies have their own unique license. If you can’t find a key, or it shows up as “BBBB,” you probably have a volume license and won’t be able to get the key without contacting Microsoft.
You never know when you may need these important numbers. Before it’s too late, use one of the above tools to create a file to help you quickly access your license keys and serial numbers. The best solution is still to create a recovery drive so that you have a backup in case your PC crashes.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Skyman248