When Windows 10 first arrived in 2015, a free upgrade was as simple as clicking on the “Get Windows 10” notification prompt. Things are a bit different now.
Windows 7 support officially ended on January 14, 2020. That means no more technical support, no more security updates, and no more bug squashing. In other words, Windows 7 is now unsafe to use, making this an excellent time to switch to Windows 10. Windows 8 will encounter the same fate in a few years.
Unfortunately, the original free upgrade period from these two older versions officially ended in mid-2016. The workaround to get Windows 10 for free with Assistive Technologies ended in December 2017. No need to worry, however, as there are still ways to get Windows 10 for free without paying for a new license or breaking any rules.
Product keys and digital licenses
You need a valid product key or a digital license to get the free upgrade. What’s the difference? A product key is supplied when you purchase an operating system from Microsoft or any retailer. It’s either printed and included in the packaging, emailed to you, or stored in the cloud. This is usually the case for system builders.
A digital license ties a pre-installed Windows platform to a key embedded in pre-built systems from Acer, Dell, HP, and so on. For a long time, these OEMs 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 found workarounds so the same key could be used on multiple PCs.
That led Microsoft and OEMs 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” is locked to your Microsoft account.
If you properly 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 you 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 held there. Sites like Amazon also keep a record of purchased downloads, but these don’t usually include the product key itself, though it may be helpful in narrowing 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 pre-built system’s motherboard and move on. In all other cases, you’ll need to supply a valid, genuine product key during the setup process, or later by visiting Settings > Update & Security > Activation.
If you don’t have a valid Windows 7 license key, you’ll need to follow our other guide, 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 ongoing so all Windows PC owners are running the latest version. Again, you must have a valid digital license or product key in order to get a free upgrade, else you will be required to pay $105 at the very least for a new Windows 10 Home product key.
Your first step in acquiring a free Windows 10 upgrade is by visiting Microsoft’s Download Windows 10 webpage. Scroll down to the Create Windows 10 Installation Media section and click the blue Download Tool Now button. 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 to 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 the least.
Next, select the Upgrade this PC now option and follow through 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. Uninstall programs if needed 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 huge 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. Not all of these files and apps are guaranteed to be compatible with Windows 10. Some of them may simply stop working.
It’s important to be aware of this and be prepared before upgrading. Back up or convert any important 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 you’re prompted for a valid product key, enter it now or do so later by visiting Settings > Update & Security > Activation.
Keep in mind, however, 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 originally 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. But there are other ways you can get Windows 10 if you really 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. 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 simply not activate it, which means you don’t actually pay for 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 there are limitations that kick in after your 30-day “evaluation.” Here they are:
- An “Activate Windows” watermark appears in the bottom right corner.
- A “Windows isn’t activated, Activate Windows now” notification appears in Settings.
- Personalization features, like 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 unactivated isn’t sanctioned by Microsoft. This may look like a great deal, but the act violates Microsoft’s licensing agreement. So far there’s no sign that the company is legally cracking down on customers with unactivated PCs, but that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. Right now, Microsoft could easily prevent people from using unactivated copies, but doesn’t.
Buy a third-party Windows 10 key
There are a lot of third parties that sell Windows 10 OEM keys for massive discounts so you can get them for only a fraction of the full Microsoft cost. This seems suspicious, doesn’t it? The trick is finding vendors that actually sell trustworthy keys for big discounts.
PCDestination has them for $45. Even Amazon has significant Windows 10 discounts compared to downloading directly from Microsoft. In other words, it’s worth it to shop around.