Windows 10 Guide Updated: 11/14/18

How to Obtain and Install Windows 10

Most Current Version of Windows 10

Topics on this page

Getting, upgrading, or re-installing Windows 10
Digital entitlement vs. product key
What Does "Original Hardware" Mean?
Problems after re-installing
Media Creation Tool
Clean Install

The above links take you through a complete discussion of these topics and then shows you how to use them. If you don't need the discussion, here are some related links that are "shortcuts" to important related topics contained within that longer discussion:

Restoring from a Restore Point
Resetting your PC (Make sure there isn't an easier step before resetting!)
How to Get to Advanced Startup (Follow the link and read the first 2 steps)
How to Get to Startup Repair
Microsoft's Web Page on Windows 10 Recovery Options

Upgrading, re-installing, or obtaining a new copy of Windows 10

If you already have Windows 10, any new version (i.e., any upgrade) will automatically become available for free through Windows Update as it is published - you don't need to do anything about it. Not everyone will get the new version immediately: Microsoft staggers the process of updating the hundreds of millions of existing copies of Windows 10 over a number of weeks, but you will eventually receive the upgrade.

If you already have Windows 10 but, for some reason, need to re-install it, you have several options - follow this link for a discussion of the options.

If you are acquiring an entirely new copy of Windows 10 (i.e., one that is not a re-installation or upgrade of an existing copy), you will need to do one of the following:

  • You can buy a new device, PC, or laptop that has Windows 10 installed on it.
  • You can pay Microsoft for the right to upgrade certain existing, recent versions of Windows (e.g., Windows 7 or Windows 8.1). You will then be able to download and install/upgrade to Windows 10. You can do this by visiting the Microsoft store, where several options are offered.
  • Prior to July 30 2016, it was possible to upgrade from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to Windows 10 for free. That initial offer is no longer in effect. There was an exception for users who make use of assistive technologies, but that has also now expired (Jan 17 2018) - click here for details from Microsoft.

    Re-installing: Digital Entitlement, Product Keys, and Activation

    If you need to re-install Windows 10, you should be able to do so as long as you are re-installing it onto (essentially) the same device, laptop, or desktop. Depending on how your license was obtained, you may additionally be able to re-install Windows 10 onto newer or significantly modified hardware. For the gory details, read on!

    There are two ways in which a copy of Windows 10 can be activated:

    1. digital entitlement
    2. product key

    Let's look at three main cases:

  • If you upgraded a copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to Windows 10, you can expect to have a license activated under digital entitlement. This means that, if you are reinstalling Windows onto the same device (or essentially the same device - details later), you can expect to re-install and re-activate it with few obstacles and at no additional cost. This covers upgrades under both the "free upgrade" process available earlier, or under the current process whereby you buy a Windows 10 license and use it to upgrade an existing Windows 7/Windows 8.1 device.
  • If you purchased a new device from an authorized dealer (e.g., Dell, HP, Asus, etc) with Windows 10 already installed, your copy of Windows 10 is probably activated under a Product Key - however, this product key allows you to re-install and activate Windows 10 only on the equipment it came with (minor modifications are allowed - see discussion below).
  • If you purchased a license to use Windows 10 (separately from any hardware), you have a Product Key, and you can use that key to re-install Windows 10 onto any compatible device (although you can install a single license onto only a single piece of hardware at a time).
  • Under the first two cases, your rights to re-install Windows live and die with the hardware - the device - that Windows was directly installed onto in the first place (this is essentially what was previously referred to as "OEM licensing").

    In the third case, you have purchased a license, and can use that license freely on any compatible device or on a succession of compatible devices, with the restriction that it can only be installed on one device at a time.

    Microsoft has a web page that lists the type of activation that will result from various ways in which a license may have been obtained:

    What Does "Original Hardware" or "Essentially the Same Device" Mean?

    The first two cases mentioned above depend on the idea that you are re-installing Windows onto "the same or essentially the same" hardware, often referred to as the "original hardware". What does "original hardware" mean? This isn't specified in great detail, but Microsoft has communicated at various times that repair-type replacement of hardware (e.g., replacement of a hard drive because the original one failed) will normally not break digital entitlement and will allow re-installation for free.

    Paul Thurrot, who maintains a well-respected website on all things Microsoft, had some valuable comments concerning swapped hard drives and activation. They can be found under "What if my hardware changes? Will I be able to reactivate Windows 10?" on a page covering several questions people have asked concerning activation and re-activation.

    What if Activation after Re-installing Doesn't Work?

    Microsoft offers two mechanisms for resolving activation difficulties: there is the Windows Activation Troubleshooter; and Get Help, which provides online help for all issues and includes a "Virtual Agent" to assist you.

    From descriptions online, the Windows Activation Troubleshooter seems very straightforward and is probably the first technique to use to resolve a problem with re-activating a copy of Windows 10. You should note that the Windows Activation Troubleshooter is not available - i.e., you won't be able to find it - until you have re-installed or upgraded Windows 10 and it has failed to activate. When those conditions have been fulfilled, the Troubleshooter will be accessible through a new setting that will appear in Settings > Update & security > Activation.

    Microsoft has a short page with some additional information at: Using the Activation troubleshooter.

    Get Help is another place to try. Get Help is an app, and can be found in the list of Apps in the Start Menu:

    It is a general help center for almost any issue or question, and presents itself as a "Virtual Agent":

    The Virtual Agent is a plain-language artificial intelligence device: ask it a question or explain your problem (e.g., "I can't activate Windows") and it gives you an answer (or several options), or asks you for a clarification. It will then guide you on what steps to take. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have the ability to print out its advice, so you may need a pencil and paper handy.

    Media Creation Tool

    The Media Creation Tool is a means of manually restoring an existing copy of Windows 10 or upgrading an existing copy of Windows 7 or 8.1 to Windows 10. It is typically for use in cases where a serious problem has rendered a more normal, automated upgrade no longer an option. It can also be used in a "Clean Install" scenario (see the next item). In any case, you will need to be starting with a Windows 10 license (previously existing or recently purchased) or you will end up with a copy of Windows 10 that will not successfully activate.

    The Clean Install Option - Can I reinstall Windows 10 "from scratch"?

    Yes - this is known as the "clean install" option. It may be necessary where you need to install or re-install Windows 10 entirely on a computer that cannot be repaired in any other way. It is sometimes used by people who simply want to "start over" with a "clean" copy of Windows. If you perform a clean install, you will still have to go through an activation step after Windows 10 is installed.

    You can begin exploring what's necessary to perform a clean install by clicking on this link.

    Clean install is often a very lengthy process, and one which requires preparatory steps that you may or may not have done. There are also several other repair/recovery methods that may be both easier and more effective, and you should review these first. See the Recovery Procedures page in this help site for an in-depth look at recovery options.