What Happens If You Don’t Activate Windows?

Windows Activation Hero

Before Windows 10, you needed to activate your operating system. You had to pay for a license if you wanted a full and smooth experience while using your computer. Windows 10 and Windows 11 handle things very differently. So what actually happens when you don’t activate a modern copy of Microsoft Windows?

What Does Activation Even Mean?

Activating Windows means registering your status as a paid, licensed user. When you buy a new copy of Windows, it usually comes with a license key. Alternatively, you can have a digital entitlement linked to your Microsoft account. Some computers have a hardware-based entitlement built-in. For example, you don’t have to activate Windows when you reinstall it on modern laptops. That’s because Windows “knows” that laptop is entitled to a license.

When you install Windows on a clean computer, you have the option to “skip” activation and get a code later. If you upgrade from an eligible licensed version of Windows, that license is transferred over and activation happens instantly.

Windows Activation Skip

So the only time the issue of activation ever rears its head is during a clean install of Windows. That’s if there’s no hardware-based entitlement and no digital entitlements. The normal reaction to this situation is to buy a Windows license and activate your copy. If you choose not to, a number of key things will happen.

The Activation Watermark

After 30 days of running Windows without activating it, you’ll notice a watermark appear at the bottom-right of the desktop.

The watermark simply says “Activate Windows. Go to Settings to activate Windows”. This is a constant reminder that Windows needs activation. Beyond simply being visible on the desktop, this watermark doesn’t interfere with normal Windows operation.

Windows Watermark Remove

Personalization Options Are Disabled

Everyone loves to personalize their operating system so that it really feels like “your” computer. Therefore it makes sense that the ability to customize how Windows looks and feels is disabled unless you activate it. In the non-activated scenario, you can choose between a small set of themes that ship with Windows. However, all of the individual customization options are disabled such as wallpaper, theme, Start menu color, transparency etc.

Windows Activation Personal

When you try to change any individual settings you’ll see all options grayed out. There’s also a message reminding you that you need to activate Windows.

Activation Reminders in the Settings App

Windows Activation Settings

The Windows Settings app is the central place you’ll go to make any changes to Windows. Every time you open this app there will be a notice that you haven’t yet activated Windows. There’s also a handy “Activate now” button where you can enter a key, or buy a license.

Activation Banner Popups

On a system that’s not activated, you’ll see an activation reminder pop up from time to time. This is a large banner that fills the center of the screen. It lets you know that the trial license is about to expire and that Windows needs activation.

You can dismiss this message every time it pops up but it will return periodically, interrupting whatever you were doing.

Potentially Limited Updates

At the time of writing, we were able to download system and security updates on an inactivated copy of Windows 11 with no issues. However, there’s no guarantee that this will remain the case in the future. Microsoft can choose to block updates for unlicensed copies of Windows at any time.

Windows Activation Updates

Should critical security updates no longer be available to unlicensed copies of Windows, you may fall victim to malware. Malicious software that takes advantage of any new exploits hackers may discover in the operating system.

“Freemium” Windows Isn’t Official

Microsoft stipulates that only those with a paid Windows license are entitled to use it. In other words, Microsoft may choose to look the other way at the moment. Officially, however, they can change their minds at any time and lock users with unlicensed copies out.

However, having such “soft” restrictions is nothing new for the company. For example, although the official free upgrade window for Windows 10 from earlier versions has closed, users could still go ahead and upgrade. Microsoft was clearly aware of the loophole being used but made no efforts to close it.

We can only speculate why the company has decided to relax its attitude towards Windows activation. Still, since Windows 10 it has clearly moved to a subscription-based software model. After all, you can still buy Windows Store apps, subscribe to Office 365, or play Game Pass titles. Even on a copy of Windows that hasn’t been activated. So even these machines represent a source of income.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long can Windows run without activation?

With Windows 10 and Windows 11, there’s no limit to how long you can use the operating system without activating it. Although, Microsoft may change this in the future.

Can I work around the personalization block?

Yes, it is possible in certain cases. For example, you can change the wallpaper in Windows 10 without activation. You may find additional workarounds by searching on the internet, although be warned that some may be illegal or carry the risk of malware.

Is Windows usable without activation?

Windows is almost as usable as when activated. The reminders and popups can be annoying, but they don’t actually get in the way of your tasks. They aren’t great if you need to cast your screen or give a presentation, however. Apart from occasional nagging, you can still do everything you would usually do, apart from the limitations noted in the article above.

How much does it cost to activate Windows 11?

The price of a Windows 11 license can vary by region and also varies by edition. The standard Windows 11 Home edition costs $139.99 and Windows 11 Pro costs $199 if you buy them directly from Microsoft. You may find keys for lower prices from third-party sites, but be to do some research about their legitimacy first.

Can the watermarks be removed?

There are numerous guides on the internet on how to remove the activation watermarks and prevent reminder popups. However, they either require software that may contain malware or that you make changes to key Windows files and Registry settings, which can lead to data loss and other computer problems. So it’s easier to just buy the cheapest legal Windows key you can find.

Can I use my old Windows key?

You can use your Windows 10 key to activate Windows 11. We’ve also seen reports that you can use your Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 key to activate Windows 11, but there’s no guarantee this will work. However, there’s no harm in trying to use these keys if you have them. Alternatively, you can activate Windows 10 with a Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 key and then use the Windows 11 Installation Assistant to upgrade to an activated copy of Windows 11.

Image credit: Pixabay | All screenshots by Sydney Butler

Sydney Butler
Sydney Butler

Sydney Butler is a technology writer with a background in Psychology who has written for a wide variety of technology outlets including How-To-Geek, Online Tech Tips, Helpdesk Geek, 9to5Mac, 9to5Google, and many more. He has 25 years of technology troubleshooting experience as a technician and user-education practitioner.

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