When Windows 10 first arrived, nabbing a free upgrade was as simple as clicking the “Get Windows 10” notification prompt. Things are a bit different now, however. Microsoft no longer supports Windows 7, which means there’s no more technical support, security updates, or bug-squashing. In other words, Windows 7 is now unsafe to use, making this an excellent time to switch to Windows 10.
Unfortunately, the original free upgrade period for the two older versions officially ended several years ago, and the workaround to get Windows 10 for free with Assistive Technologies ended shortly thereafter. No need to worry, though — there are still ways to get Microsoft’s latest operating system without paying for a new license or breaking any rules.
Product keys and digital licenses
It would be best to have a valid product key or a digital license to get a free upgrade. What’s the difference? When you purchase an operating system from Microsoft or any retailer, it comes with a product key to unlock it. It’s printed and included in the packaging, emailed to you, or stored in the cloud, which is usually the case for system builders.
A digital license connects your installed Windows platform to a key embedded in pre-built systems from Acer, Dell, HP, and so on. For a long time, these manufacturers printed product keys on labels stuck on PCs or printed and inserted them into product packaging. Microsoft’s product keys typically only work once, but hackers sometimes find workarounds to use the same key on multiple PCs.
That led Microsoft and manufacturers to introduce digital licenses in Windows 8 as an anti-piracy measure, so end users aren’t installing the platform on additional machines. However, Microsoft also moved Windows 7 over to this method. This license becomes locked to your Microsoft account.
If you legitimately purchased and no longer use these older versions, Microsoft’s Windows 10 activation servers will accept Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 keys on your PC.
However, if you’re upgrading from Windows 7 and can’t find the key, you can try signing in to your Microsoft account and checking past downloads to see if your product key is there. Sites like Amazon also keep a record of purchased downloads, but these rarely include the product key itself, though it may help narrow down where it could be.
Finally, you can download Windows 10 and perform a clean install. It will then pull the valid Windows 8/8.1 license key from your prebuilt system’s motherboard and move on. In all other cases, you must supply an authentic, genuine product key during the setup process, or you can do it later by visiting Settings > Update & Security > Activation.
If you don’t have a valid Windows 7 license key, you must follow our other guide about how to upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10.
Step 1: Download the Windows 10 Media Creation tool
Despite officially ending the free update promotion in mid-2016, Microsoft quietly keeps this option available so all Windows PC owners can run the latest version. Again, unless you have a valid digital license or product key to get a free upgrade, you will be required to pay for a new Windows 10 Home product key.
Your first step in acquiring a free Windows 10 upgrade is to visit Microsoft’s download Windows 10 webpage.
You’ll see MediaCreationTool2004.exe download onto your PC, which shouldn’t take longer than two minutes. While you wait, disconnect any unnecessary accessories to help reduce the chance of errors.
Step 2: Launch the Media Creation Tool
With the Media Creation Tool downloaded, open it, and accept Microsoft’s terms.
As shown above, you have two options: Upgrade the current PC, or create media that will either upgrade another PC or perform a clean install on the current PC. However, in both cases, the tool will temporarily download a disk image of Windows 10, so be sure you have enough space for the file — around 4GB, at least.
Next, select the Upgrade This PC Now option and follow the prompts. The tool will scan your computer to see if it’s compatible and may present a list of problematic programs or hardware that could stall the upgrade. If needed, uninstall programs to address the installer’s concerns.
With all issues resolved, the installer will try to port over all the data it can. Keep in mind, however, the vast gap between Windows 7 and Windows 10 in terms of the software you use. If you’re ditching Windows 7 after using it for many years, you probably have a lot of data stored in files and apps. We can’t guarantee that all files and apps will be compatible with Windows 10, and some may stop working.
It’s essential to be aware of this and prepare before upgrading. Back up or convert any crucial data before you continue.
Step 3: Finish installation
As the installer progresses, your PC will restart a few times. As part of the process, it will pull your existing digital license from your hardware during the setup — you won’t need to activate. If prompted for a valid product key, enter it now or do so later by visiting Settings > Update & Security > Activation.
Keep in mind that this won’t work for Windows XP or Windows Vista, as these versions of Windows never qualified for the free Windows 10 upgrade.
You’ll also receive the same flavor of Windows that first shipped with your PC — Home, Pro, Enterprise, or Education. If you’d rather use Windows 10 Pro instead of the Windows 10 Home update, you must purchase a new product key.
Other methods for getting Windows 10
The above method is the best way to get Windows 10 for free — at least for now. There are other ways you can get Windows 10 if you need it, including free and low-cost options that may be worth exploring.
Upgrade from Windows 7
Buy a copy of Windows 10 from Microsoft. Please read our guide on how to upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10.
Download Windows 10 without activating
Technically, you can download Windows 10 from Microsoft and not activate it, which means you don’t pay for it. It turns out this is safer than it sounds because Microsoft is pretty lax about enforcing activation. Your copy of Windows shouldn’t shut down, but some limitations kick in after your 30-day evaluation:
- An Activate Windows watermark appears in the bottom-right corner.
- A “Windows Isn’t Activated, Activate Windows Now” notification appears in settings.
- Personalization features such as changing the wallpaper and accent colors are disabled.
- Updates may discontinue in the future.
- Various apps and features stop working.
- You’ll receive daily notifications to activate.
- No technical support.
Keep in mind that using Windows 10 without activation is not sanctioned by Microsoft. While this may look like a great deal, the act violates Microsoft’s licensing agreement. So far, there’s no sign that the company is legally cracking down on customers with PCs running on Windows 10 without activation, but that doesn’t mean it won’t do so in the future. Right now, Microsoft could easily prevent people from using unactivated copies of its OS if they wanted to.
Buy a third-party Windows 10 key
Many third parties sell Windows 10 manufacturer keys for massive discounts so that you can get them for only a fraction of the full Microsoft cost. It seems suspicious, doesn’t it? The trick is finding vendors that sell trustworthy keys for significant discounts.
PCDestination has them for $45. Even Amazon has significant Windows 10 discounts compared to downloading directly from Microsoft. In essence, it’s worth it to shop around.
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