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July 6, 2020

Windows 10 Digital License explained


The number of Windows 10 licensing and activation questions around the tech forums have grown exponentially since Windows 7  hit its End of Life date over two weeks ago. Users keep asking about how to find their Windows 10 product key after upgrading from Windows 7. The short answer is, there’s no need to find the key. That’s because Windows 10 is digitally licensed once a specific edition gets activated for the first time. All future clean installs will be automatically activated based on that existing, edition-specific digital license.

This Digital License is based on the host PC’s so-called hardware ID. The Digital License is stored on Microsoft’s activation servers, and when Windows 10 will be installed and it gets an Internet connection, the license status will be checked.

Hardware IDs

Let’s start with the hardware ID (HWID). For Windows 10 computers, Microsoft has 15 different HWID values, from HWID 0 to HWID 14 (source):

– HardwareID-0: Manufacturer + Family + Product Name + SKU Number + BIOS Vendor + BIOS Version + BIOS Major Release + BIOS Minor Release
– HardwareID-1: Manufacturer + Family + Product Name + BIOS Vendor + BIOS Version + BIOS Major Release + BIOS Minor Release
– HardwareID-2: Manufacturer + Product Name + BIOS Vendor + BIOS Version + BIOS Major Release + BIOS Minor Release
– HardwareID-3: Manufacturer + Family + Product Name + SKU Number + Baseboard Manufacturer + Baseboard Product
– HardwareID-4: Manufacturer + Family + Product Name + SKU Number
– HardwareID-5: Manufacturer + Family + Product Name
– HardwareID-6: Manufacturer + SKU Number + Baseboard Manufacturer + Baseboard Product
– HardwareID-7: Manufacturer + SKU Number
– HardwareID-8: Manufacturer + Product Name + Baseboard Manufacturer + Baseboard Product
– HardwareID-9: Manufacturer + Product Name
– HardwareID-10: Manufacturer + Family + Baseboard Manufacturer + Baseboard Product
– HardwareID-11: Manufacturer + Family
– HardwareID-12: Manufacturer + Enclosure Type
– HardwareID-13: Manufacturer + Baseboard Manufacturer + Baseboard Product
– HardwareID-14: Manufacturer

The Windows 10 Digital License is based on HWID 3. As long as the Windows edition, motherboard and CPU remain the same, once the computer has been activated, all future clean installs on that computer also will activate automatically. Note that all HWIDs exclude storage media entirely. Thus, on a PC with Windows 10 activated, you can replace its storage (HDD / SSD) devices with one or more new ones and clean install Windows 10 on a new disk. Even so, the PC will activate automatically based on that machine’s existing digital license.

The Windows 10 digital License is edition but not bit architecture or language specific. In other words, you can replace an activated 32-bit Swedish Windows 10 Pro edition by clean installing a 64-bit French Windows 10 Pro. It will still activate automatically, because of its existing Digital License.

New PC with preinstalled Windows 10

Simply set up your new PC, and when you get to the desktop, Windows will be activated with a Digital License. If you, like me, don’t like all the bloatware that comes preinstalled on new computers, you can now replace everything. Simply boot from the Windows 10 install media, wipe the storage disks clean, and clean install the same edition. It will activate automatically.

On computers with preinstalled Windows, the product key used for activation and Digital License is a so-called OEM key. It cannot be transferred to another computer.

New PC without OS

On new computers which have never had any Windows version installed, like for instance a self-assembled one, you need a valid Windows 10 product key to activate Windows. Once activated, the Digital License applies. Thus, that key won’t be needed as long as the PC’s HWID does not change. All future clean installs should activate automatically.

If the key used is a Retail key, the digital license can be transferred to another computer.

Upgrading from Windows 7 / 8

The free upgrade is still working: Windows 7 users – it’s time to upgrade. It’s still free!

Any activated Windows 7 or 8 computer with a valid license can be upgraded to Windows 10 without a product key. Simply upgrade, and Windows 10 acquires a Digital License. As soon as you upgrade, if you want to start over from scratch, you can boot from the Windows 10 install media, wipe the disk, and clean install. Your new, fresh Windows 10 will activate automatically.

If the original Windows 7 / 8 key was an OEM key, so is the new digital license.

That’s it. Easy and simple, a logical system. Read more about OEM and Retail product keys, Digital Licenses, and how to transfer and take care of them at: Windows 10 Digital License – How to transfer 

Kari

 

Author: Kari Finn

A former Windows Insider MVP, Kari started in computing in the mid 80’s writing code for VAX / VMS systems. Since then, he’s worked in a variety of IT positions. He specializes in Windows image capture, customization, repair and deployment as well as Hyper-V virtualization. Kari is a proud Team Member at number #1 Windows site TenForums.com.

3 Responses “Windows 10 Digital License explained”

  1. February 3, 2020 at 04:55

    Great explanation Kari.

    So, if I upgraded a retail W7 Ultimate to W10 Pro, and a few years down the track I need to get a new PC (without any pre-installed W10), I can simply clean install W10 Pro, and it activates with the digital licence?

    • February 3, 2020 at 17:04

      No, it would not be automatically activated. In that case, you would need to transfer the license from that W7 upgraded to W10 machine to the new machine, as told here: Windows 10 Digital License – How to transfer

      Automatic activation only applies to when you clean install / reinstall W10 on the same hardware it has already been activated.

  2. February 8, 2020 at 13:10

    Excellent – thanks Kari.

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