In an enterprise environment, users do not need to worry about Windows activation on their work devices. That’s one of the many jobs for the IT department. It’s another story with personal devices. Every user should be prepared: a laptop might be lost, a PC motherboard stop working, and so on. In such cases, actually in any case when you have a valid, transferable digital license, you can reactivate your device after major hardware changes, or activate Windows 10 on a new device. You just need to be prepared.
Many of you geeks have a Visual Studio subscription (formerly known as MSDN), with lots of product keys to use. Taking care of your digital licenses is equally important whether you have just one device, or a complex home network with multiple devices.
OEM, Retail, MAK?
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If a Windows 10 device comes with Windows preinstalled , it is a so-called OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) license. If Windows 10 was purchased from Microsoft or some licensed retailer, it is a Retail license. One exception: so-called System Builder versions which are also OEM licenses. All single use Visual Studio subscription keys are also Retail keys. Multiple Activation Keys (MAK) are also shown as Retail in the Windows Software License Manager (slmgr.vbs).
OEM licenses can’t be transferred to new devices, and they cannot be used to reactivate Windows 10 when major hardware changes such as replacing motherboards occur. One somewhat grey area is Microsoft’s tech support: on various tech sites and forums you can read about users claiming that talking to the activation helpline succeeded, and an OEM license reactivated even after both motherboard and CPU were swapped out and automatic activation failed.
To check if you have an OEM, non-transferrable license, enter the following command in an elevated PowerShell or Command Prompt:
Software License Manager opens a prompt telling about your license. If it shows that your license is from OEM channel, you cannot transfer the license:
What is a Digital License?
When Windows 10 is activated for the first time, that device gets a valid digital license for the activated edition, for the lifetime of that device. However, its hardware ID (HWID) must remain the same (no major hardware changes). Microsoft has 15 different hardware IDs to be used in various scenarios, the one that determines if a digital license on a device is valid is hardware ID 3. See the full list: Specifying Hardware IDs for a Computer.
Notice that disk drives are not included in the HWID. This means that a user is free to replace an HDD or SSD without losing his or her Windows 10 license. That said, a digital license is edition specific, but not language, version or bit architecture specific. You can replace your HDD containing a licensed 64-bit Windows 10 Pro version 1809 in English, and install a 32-bit Windows 10 Pro version 1909 in Swedish on a new HDD. Windows 10 will be automatically activated, based on the HWID and the existing digital license.
Taking care of Digital Licenses
Even if you use only a local account to sign in to Windows 10, it is important to create a Microsoft account, if you do not have one already. This is the only way to be sure that license can be reused for reactivation after replacing hardware or transferring that license to a new device. As an example, I have just performed a clean install of W10 Pro on a Hyper-V virtual machine, although exactly the same applies to physical devices, too. The first thing to do is to change the device name to something that will later clearly tell me which machine this is. I renamed the machine to VM-W10PRO07, it being the seventh W10 Pro VM I have activated. When transferring the license, it is important that you know the device name for the license you wish to transfer.
After the restart required by renaming the machine, I activated this VM using one of my MAK keys for the Windows 10 Pro edition. At this point, activation status is shown as Activated with a digital license:
If I now clicked the Add a Microsoft Account link, my local account would be switched to a Microsoft Account, and this license would be registered for that MS account. If a Microsoft account is what you want to use, click Add an account and follow the on-screen instructions to sign in. However, if you are like me and want to continue using a local account, do not click that link! See this earlier Win10.guru story, scroll down to title Why not best of both?, and see how to add a Microsoft account to Windows 10 without switching a local account to a Microsoft account: Microsoft Account vs. Local Account – Why not both?
Whichever method you choose, after switching to a Microsoft account or adding an MS account to a local account, the activation status changes to Activated with a digital license linked to your Microsoft account:
One last check: I will go to https://account.microsoft.com/devices/ and check that the new machine, and its digital license have been added to my MS account:
That’s it, the digital license is now ready to be transferred.
Transferring a Digital License
Let’s say that my sample machine was a real, physical machine, and that it died. A Retail license registered on my MS account now belongs to a device that does not exist anymore. I can assemble a new PC, clean-install Windows 10 Pro on it selecting I don’t have a product key, and when I get to its desktop for the first time, rename that PC and restart. Then, I can either switch to a Microsoft account or add an MS account to a local account.
When all that is done, I go to Activation settings, and select the activation troubleshooter:
At the next prompt, I select I recently changed hardware on this device link:
A list of devices registered to my MS account is then shown. I select my sample VM, and click Activate:
The new clean installation on the new device is now activated:
Easy and fast!
That’s it, geeks. Take care of your licenses, register them on your MS account using a clear, explanatory device name.
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.