Microsoft allows anyone to download Windows 10 for free and install it without a product key. It will continue to work for the foreseeable future with only a few minor cosmetic limitations. You can even pay to upgrade to a licensed copy of Windows 10 after you install it.

Whether you want to install Windows 10 in Boot Camp, put it on an old PC that doesn’t qualify for a free upgrade, or create one or more virtual machines, you don’t actually have to pay a cent.

Update, 7/18/22: We have reviewed this article and confirmed that it still works for the latest version of Windows 10.

How to download Windows 10 and install it without a key

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First, you’ll need to download Windows 10. You can download it directly from Microsoft, and you don’t even need a product key to download a copy.

There is Windows 10 Download Tool which works on Windows systems which will help you create a USB drive to install Windows 10. If you are not on Windows, you can visit Windows 10 ISO Download Page to download the ISO directly (say, if you’re installing Windows 10 in Boot Camp on a Mac). If you visit this page on a Windows machine, it will redirect you to the downloader page instead.

Download the 64-bit version of Windows 10.

Just start the installation process and install Windows 10 as usual. One of the first screens you’ll see will ask you to enter your product key so you can “Activate Windows.” However, you can simply click the “I don’t have a product key” link at the bottom of the window and Windows will allow you to continue the installation process. You may be asked to enter a product key later in the process – if you are, just look for a similar little link to skip this screen.

If you don’t see this option, you can also provide a KMS client setup key continue. These keys won’t give you an activated copy of Windows unless you’re in an organization with a key management service, but they will let you go through the Windows installation process.

Choose "I don't have a product key" during the Windows installation process.

When you select this option, you will be able to install Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro. Note that if you plan to pay to upgrade to the paid version later, it will be cheaper to upgrade to Windows 10 Home, so you may want to install the Home version. Whichever version you choose, Windows 10 will install normally.

Cosmetic restrictions

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Once you’ve installed Windows 10 without a key, it won’t actually be activated. However, the non-activated version of Windows 10 does not have many restrictions. With Windows XP, Microsoft actually uses Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) to disable access to your computer. These days, Windows just complains to you in a few small, cosmetic ways.

You won’t notice a difference at first. Eventually, Windows will start to annoy you a bit. First, you will notice a watermark in the lower right corner of the screen. You will also see “Windows is not activated. Activate Windows now. link at the bottom of the Settings app. This is the only form of nagging you’ll see – no popups, for example.

The Windows 10 Settings app.

Second, you won’t be able to change your desktop wallpaper from the Customize > Background screen in the Settings app either. You’ll see a “You must activate Windows before you can customize your PC” message at the top of this window, and the options to change your wallpaper will be inactive.

Personalization options are disabled when your copy of Windows is not valid.

However, you can change your wallpaper in other ways. For example, you can right-click an image in File Explorer and select “Set as Desktop Background.” You can also open an image in the Photos app, click the menu button, click Set as, and then click Set as background. Windows 7 eventually switched you back to a black background, but Windows 10 doesn’t seem to do that.

You’ll find included Windows 10 wallpapers in the C:WindowsWeb folder in File Explorer.

Apart from these basic limitations, your Windows 10 system will continue to work forever. No nagging prompts other than the watermark, you’ll get all system updates and everything else is fully functional. The only thing that can change this is a Windows 10 update, but Microsoft has been getting more lenient since Windows 7.

How to upgrade Windows 10 to an activated version

With Windows 10, you can now pay to upgrade a “non-genuine” copy of Windows to a licensed one. Open the Settings app and go to Update & security > Activation. You will see a “Go to Store” button that will take you to the Windows Store if Windows is not licensed.

The activation window in the Settings app directs you to change your key or purchase one from the Microsoft Store.

In the store, you can purchase an official Windows license that will activate your computer. The Home version of Windows 10 costs $120, while the Pro version costs $200. This is a digital purchase and will instantly activate your current Windows installation. You don’t need to buy a physical license.

We have installed Windows 10 Professional as an example here, so the Windows Store will only allow us to purchase the $200 Windows 10 Pro license.

This option may not be available in all countries. Prices here are for the US Windows Store version. Microsoft charges different prices in different countries and currencies.

The Microsoft Store lists the retail price of Windows 10 at $199.99.

Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 worked roughly the same way. Microsoft simply didn’t allow you to officially download Windows without a product key, and there was no way to fully upgrade to a licensed Windows system. This makes it even more tempting with Windows 10 – for example, you can install Windows 10 in Boot Camp on your Mac for free, and if you find yourself using it often, you can quickly pay to remove the watermark if that’s worth it to you. It’s like a free demo and you can use it to make any virtual machines you like for testing purposes.

Sure, the license agreement might say you shouldn’t use it without a key, but Microsoft’s license agreements say all sorts of confusing things. Microsoft’s license agreement still prohibits the use of the popular “OEM” copies of Windows 10 on PCs you build yourself. If Microsoft doesn’t want people to use non-activated copies of Windows 10 for extended periods of time, it can release a system update that disables this.

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