If you plan 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 cannot be read without help. Fortunately, we are here to help.
Where Windows hides the Product Key
As you can see in the screenshot above, the product ID is stored in the registry, but in a binary format that cannot be read by humans unless you are a Cylon. You’re not, are you?
RELATED: Getting Started Geek: How to reinstall Windows on your computer
We’re not sure why Microsoft has worked so hard to make it difficult to see product keys for their software, especially since they’re stored in a registry and can be read by software, if not by humans. We can only assume that they do not want anyone to use the key on the old computer again.
The best thing is that you can recover the key even from a computer that is no longer open. All you need to do is access the disk drive from the working 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:
- It is stored in the software on your computer: When you (or your computer manufacturer) installs Windows, Windows keeps its product key in the registry. You can remove this product key and enter it often when reinstalling Windows on your computer. The main thing is that before you start reinstalling Windows, you must remove it from your operating system, otherwise it can be deleted if you format your hard drive.
- Printed on a sticker: Some personal computers use a technology called “System Lock Preset” or SLP. If your computer uses this, the product key on your computer – a key stored in the registry and a key display screen – will be different from the actual key your computer needs. The actual key is on the Certificate of Authenticity (COA) sticker on your computer or its power supply. One of the notebooks and key imaging software is the red herring. This system was common to Windows 7 computers.
- Included in your computer’s UEFI software: Many new computers that come with Windows 8 or 10 use a new method. The key for the Windows version that came with the PC is stored in the computer’s UEFI firmware or BIOS. You don’t even need to know this – if we assume that you have installed the same version of Windows that came with your computer, it should activate automatically and work without entering a key. Everything will happen automatically.
Make sure you use the same version and edition of Windows with your computer. In other words, if it comes with Windows 7 Home Premium, you can’t install Windows 7 Professional.
If the key is stored on your computer’s hardware
Let’s start with the simplest situation. On newer Windows 8, 10, and 11 computers, the key is not stored in removable software or on a sticker that can be stained or erased. No one can look at your computer’s sticker to steal a product key. Instead, the key is stored by the manufacturer in the computer’s UEFI firmware or BIOS.
If you have this, you don’t need to do anything special. You just need to be able to reinstall the same version of Windows that came with your PC, and it will work without asking you for a key. (Again, it may be best to find the product key using one of the following methods and write it down before reinstalling Windows.)
If you want to find the key included in UEFI and write it down, you can do it very simply. Simply open the Start menu, type “powershell” in the search bar, and launch the resulting Powershell program.
Then enter the following command and press Enter:
(Get-WmiObject -query 'select * from SoftwareLicensingService').OA3xOriginalProductKey
You must be rewarded with your entered license key. Write it down and keep it in a safe place.
Read the key from the Certificate of Authenticity
If you have a Windows 7 computer, chances are that the computer key is the only key the manufacturer uses for all personal computers. You do not have permission to use this button to install Windows, thanks to System Preinstallation. If you try, you will receive error messages stating that the key is invalid.
You will need to look for a certificate of authenticity on your computer to verify. The COA sticker confirms that the computer came with an original copy of Windows and that the sticker contained the product key printed on it. You’ll need that product key to reinstall Windows – and if the manufacturer used System Unlocked Pre-installed, this key is different from the one your computer provided with the software.
Check your computer to find the key. On a laptop, it can be under the laptop. If your laptop has a removable battery, it may be under the battery. If there is a section you can open, it may be there. It may even be stuck to the brick of the laptop’s charger. If this is a desktop, look at the side of the desktop box. If it is not there, check up, back, down and any other possible location.
There is not much you can do if the key is removed from the sticker. You can contact the manufacturer of your computer and try to explain what happened, but we can not guarantee that they will help. 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 computer)
Note: Because of what Nirsoft ProduKey does and how it works, it will almost certainly run your antivirus. ShowKeyPlus is an option if you want a solution that works for Windows 10 and Windows 11 will not run your antivirus.
The easiest way to access your product key is with a third-party utility, and there is no one better than NirSoft. Their utilities are always free of crapware and are always really useful. The only problem with this particular utility is that some antiviruses detect it as a false positive, as some malware may try to steal your product key.
Note: NirSoft’s utility will not always work for OEM computers, depending on how they decide to activate licenses. This will not work if your OEM has installed your computer and used a single button for all computers. It also does not work for Office 2013 and later versions of Microsoft Office.
All you have to do is download ProduKey, open it and launch it to see all your product keys instantly. It’s that simple.
If you want to recover a key from a dead computer, connect the hard drive to a running computer, and then launch ProduKey and select File> Source to point to an external Windows folder. You can then easily remove the keys from that computer.
You can also use a Linux live CD to take a Windows folder from another computer and burn it to your thumb drive, or you can take a notebook if you wish. If you need help, we have instructions for extracting data from a dead computer.
RELATED: How to recover files from a dead computer
Use ShowKeyPlus to recover lost keys
Nirsoft works, but it can alert your antivirus or even your browser. If you don’t want to deal with this, ShowKeyPlus is a good alternative. ShowKeyPlus is available directly from the Microsoft Store for Windows 10 and Windows 11.
RELATED: How to Find Your Windows 11 Product Key
Open the Microsoft Store, find ShowKeyPlus, then click the “Install” button and wait for the download and installation. It shouldn’t take too long; the program is quite small.
After downloading, click “Open” and product keys will appear on your system.
It is important to note that it can be both a built-in key and an OEM key. OEM or Original Equipment Manufacturer, the keys are connected to the device hardware. If you use a pre-installed desktop computer or laptop, the OEM key and the installed key will be the same unless you have a separate Windows license.
If you have a pre-installed or separate Windows license for a laptop (or a home-made computer), installed key, not an OEM key. OEM keys are subject to more restrictions than retail keys, so you don’t want to accidentally use the wrong one.
Find Windows key without any software (for advanced users only)
Assuming that you can boot your computer without any problems, you can easily create a simple VBscript that will read the value from the registry and then convert it to the format needed to reinstall. We don’t know where this script came from, but reader raphoenix has been posting it on our forum for a long time, so we’re sharing it here for you.
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 need to use the File -> Save As option, change “Save as Last Name” to “All Files” and then name it something similar, ending with the extension productkey.vbs or vbs. We recommend that you memorize the desktop for easy access.
After saving it, you can just double-click it and the window that opens will show you your product key.
Tip: If the pop-up window is active, use CTRL + C to copy the contents of the window to the clipboard, and then paste it into Notepad or elsewhere.
The product key system is hard to understand because Microsoft doesn’t really want ordinary Windows users to reinstall Windows on their computers. Instead, they prefer to use your computer manufacturer’s recovery media. However, recovery media is full of unwanted bloat software on your computer – so many geeks often prefer to reinstall Windows on their new computers.