If you’re planning to reinstall Windows, but can’t find your product key, you’re in luck because it’s stored in the Windows Registry. It is simply not easy to find, and it is impossible to read it without help. Fortunately, we are here to help.
Where Windows hides the product key
As you can see in the image above, the product ID is stored in the registry, but it is in a binary format that people cannot read unless you are some kind of Cylon. You didn’t, did you?
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We’re not exactly sure why Microsoft has bothered to make it difficult to see product keys for their software, especially since they’re stored right there in the registry and can be read by software, if not people. We can only assume that they do not want anyone to use the key from the old computer again.
The great thing is that you can even recover the key, even from a computer that no longer starts. All you need is access to the disk drive from a running computer. Keep reading for more.
Three places where you can find the key
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The key you need will be in one of three places:
- Stored in the software on your computer: When you (or your computer manufacturer) install Windows, Windows stores its product key in the registry. You can extract this product key and — often — enter it when you reinstall Windows on your computer. Most importantly, you will need to download it from your operating system before you can reinstall Windows, or it could be deleted if you format your hard drive.
- Printed on a label: Some computers use a technology called “System Locked Pre-Installation” or SLP. If your PC uses this, the product key on your PC – the one stored in the registry, and one view of the key review applications – will be different from the actual key your computer needs. The actual key is located on the Certificate of Authenticity (COA) label on your computer or its power source. The one in the registry and key review application is red herring. This system was common for Windows 7 computers.
- Built-in UEFI firmware of your computer: Many newer computers that come with Windows 8 or 10 use a new method. The key for the version of Windows that comes with the computer is stored in the UEFI firmware or BIOS of the computer. You don’t even have to know that – assuming you install the same edition of Windows that your computer came with, it should automatically activate and work without having to enter a key. Everything will happen automatically.
Be sure to use the same version and edition of Windows that came with your computer. In other words, if it came with Windows 7 Home Premium, you can’t install Windows 7 Professional.
If the key is stored in your computer hardware
Let’s start with the simplest situation. On newer Windows 8, 10, and 11 computers, the key is not stored in software where it can be erased, or on a label where it could be smudged or removed. No one can look at your computer’s label to steal a product key. Instead, the manufacturer is stored in the UEFI firmware or BIOS of the computer.
You don’t have to do anything special if you have this. You should be able to reinstall the same edition of Windows that your computer came with, and it should work even without the need for a key. (Still, it might be best to find the product key using one of the methods below and write it down before reinstalling Windows – just in case.)
If you want to find the key built into UEFI and write it down, you can do it very easily. Just open the Start menu, type “powershell” in the search bar and launch the Powershell app that appears.
Then type the following command and press Enter:
(Get-WmiObject -query 'select * from SoftwareLicensingService').OA3xOriginalProductKey
You should be rewarded with your built-in license key. Write it down and save it in a safe place.
Read the key on the COA label
If you have a Windows 7 computer, there is a good chance that a computer key is one key that the manufacturer uses for all of their computers. Thanks to “System Lock Pre-Installation”, you are not allowed to use this key to install Windows. If you try, you will receive an error message stating that the key is invalid.
To verify, you’ll need to look for the Certificate of Authenticity label on your computer. The COA label confirms that the computer came with an authentic copy of Windows and the product key is printed on that label. You will need this product key to reinstall Windows – and if the manufacturer used a system-locked preinstallation, that key is different from the one your computer came with in the software.
Browse your computer to find the key. The laptop can be on the bottom of the laptop. If your laptop has a removable battery, it may be under the battery. If there’s some kind of compartment you can open, maybe it’s there. He may even be stuck with a laptop charger. If it’s a desktop, look at the side of the desktop case. If not, check the top, back, bottom and anywhere else.
If the key is erased from the label, there is not much you can do. You can try to contact the manufacturer of your computer and explain what happened, but we cannot guarantee that it will help you. However, Microsoft would always be happy to sell you another key!
Use NirSoft’s ProduKey to recover product keys (even if you can’t start your PC)
Note: Nirsoft’s ProduKey will almost certainly run your antivirus because of what it does and how it works. ShowKeyPlus is an option if you want a solution that works for Windows 10 and Windows 11 will not turn on your antivirus.
The easiest way to gain access to the product key is through a third-party utility, and there is no one better than NirSoft. Their utilities are always crapware free and are always really useful. The only problem with this special utility is that some antivirus program will detect it as false positive, because some malware could try to steal your product key.
Note: NirSoft’s utility will not always work for OEMs, depending on how they choose to activate licenses. If your OEM installed your computer and used one key for all of your computers, this will not work. It also doesn’t work for Office 2013 and newer versions of Microsoft Office.
All you have to do is download ProduKey, unpack it, and then run it to see all your product keys right away. It’s that simple.
If you want to recover a key from a dead computer, you can connect the hard drive to a running computer, then run ProduKey and use File> Select Source to point to an external Windows directory. Then you can easily download the keys from that computer.
You can also use a Linux live CD to pull a Windows directory from another computer and to a flash drive, or simply grab registry files if you want. If you need help, we have a guide to retrieving data from a dead computer.
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Use ShowKeyPlus to recover lost keys
Nirsoft’s program works – but it can cause an alert in your antivirus program, or even in your browser. If you don’t want to deal with it, ShowKeyPlus is a good alternative. ShowKeyPlus is available directly from the Microsoft Store for Windows 10 and Windows 11.
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Open the Microsoft Store, find ShowKeyPlus, then click the “Install” button and wait for it to download and install. It shouldn’t take long; the program is quite small.
Click “Open” after the download and the product keys on your system will be displayed.
It is important to note that there may be both an installed key and an OEM key. OEM, or original equipment manufacturer, keys are tied to the hardware of the device. If you’re using a pre-built desktop or laptop, the OEM key and installed key will be the same unless you purchase another Windows license separately.
If you purchased and installed a separate Windows license for a pre-built laptop or (for a computer you built yourself), be sure to get installed key, not OEM key. OEM keys are subject to more restrictions than retail keys, so you don’t want to accidentally use the wrong one.
Find a Windows key without any software (advanced users only)
Assuming you can start your computer without any problems, you can easily create a simple VBscript that will read the value from the registry and then translate it into the format you need to reinstall. We’re not sure where this script came from, but a raphoenix reader posted it on our forum a long time ago, so we’re sharing it for you here.
Copy and paste the following into the Notepad window:
Set WshShell = CreateObject("WScript.Shell") MsgBox ConvertToKey(WshShell.RegRead("HKLMSOFTWAREMicrosoftWindows NTCurrentVersionDigitalProductId")) Function ConvertToKey(Key) Const KeyOffset = 52 i = 28 Chars = "BCDFGHJKMPQRTVWXY2346789" Do Cur = 0 x = 14 Do Cur = Cur * 256 Cur = Key(x + KeyOffset) + Cur Key(x + KeyOffset) = (Cur 24) And 255 Cur = Cur Mod 24 x = x -1 Loop While x >= 0 i = i -1 KeyOutput = Mid(Chars, Cur + 1, 1) & KeyOutput If (((29 - i) Mod 6) = 0) And (i <> -1) Then i = i -1 KeyOutput = "-" & KeyOutput End If Loop While i >= 0 ConvertToKey = KeyOutput End Function
You will need to use File -> Save As, change “Save as type” to “All Files” and then call it productkey.vbs or something similar with the vbs extension. We recommend that you save to your desktop for easy access.
Once you’ve saved it, you can just double-click it and a pop-up window will show you the product key.
Tip: If you use CTRL + C when the pop-up is active, it will copy the contents of the window to the clipboard, and then you can paste it into Notepad or elsewhere.
The product key system is complicated to understand because Microsoft doesn’t really want typical Windows users to reinstall Windows on their computers. Instead, you would prefer to use the recovery media of your computer manufacturer. But recovery media is full of software you don’t want on your computer – so many nerds often decide to reinstall Windows on their new computers.