Yes, you can get a properly activated version of Windows for free.
By Alaina Yee
PCWorldOct 3, 2023 4:30 am PDT
Image: Adam Patrick Murray / IDG
Windows licenses are expensive—almost painfully so. Shelling out $139 for Windows 11 Home or $200 for Windows 11 Pro feels rough when Linux is free, since that much cash is easily a third of a budget PC build. But with less developer support for Linux, Windows is an inescapable necessity for most of us. What’s not a given is paying full retail.
Yes, it’s possible to snag a discount on Windows 11. The amount you’ll save depends on how much hassle you can tolerate—as well as your circumstances. If you’re lucky, you could technically get it for free. Legitimately for free, since installing Windows without ever activating it doesn’t count as getting a full, sanctioned copy of Windows.
Here’s how, in several different ways. Better yet, these often apply for Windows 10 licenses too, although that operating system will stop receiving updates in 2025.
Simple upgrade: Trade up from Windows 10 to Windows 11
If you’re curious about Windows 11, you don’t need to pay to upgrade from Windows 10. You can make the jump for free.
You can only trade up to the same kind of edition—so if you have a Windows 10 Home license, you’ll move up to Windows 11 Home. Likewise if you have a Pro license.
Our Windows 11 upgrade checklist explains how to make a successful transition, but in a nutshell: First verify that your PC meets Windows 11’s requirements. Then either run the Windows 11 installation assistant or create Windows 11 installation media for a clean install. Before performing a clean install, make sure you have your Windows 10 license key written down somewhere, in case your hardware isn’t automatically recognized and you need to manually activate Windows. If you’re not sure what your key is, run a program like Magical Jelly Bean Product KeyFinder in Windows 10. (Our step-by-step guide explains how it works.) And when performing a clean install of Windows 11, remember to match your edition type (Home or Pro) to what you had in Windows 10.
Our next suggestion is a method that’s available to everyone and has the least amount of hassle: purchasing an OEM license.
License types are different than operating system versions. They dictate what you can do with the software, while OS versions are distinguished by the features available. Multiple Windows license types exist, but the two commonly available to a home user are the retail and OEM varieties.
Get windows 11 pro for cheap in pcworld's software store
When you walk into a store or pop over to Microsoft’s website, handing over that $139 for Windows 10 Home (or $200 for Windows 10 Pro) gets you the retail license. If you visit an online retailer like AmazonRemove non-product link or Newegg, you can find both retail and OEM licenses for sale. You can usually spot an OEM license by its price, which tends to run about $110 for a Windows 10 Home license and $150 to $200 for a Windows 10 Pro license.
All the features of the operating system version are the same for both license types. The difference is that with a retail license, you can transfer the license key to a different PC later on.
You can’t do that with an OEM license. In exchange for a lower price, you get to use the license key on only one PC, period. If you build a system but roll a new one four years later, you can’t transfer the license to the new machine.
Also, if the hardware used to identify your system fails—namely, the motherboard—Microsoft’s registration servers won’t recognize your license as valid after you replace the dead part. Microsoft has historically been kind about such situations, however. You can usually call to reactivate the license after replacing a fried mobo. But it is an extra hassle.
For further savings through a retailer, you’ll have to wait for the rare sale or Black Friday, when you can get an OEM license in the neighborhood of $85 (Windows Home) to $120 (Windows Pro).
Not all student discounts are reserved for the under-24 set. Your local community college might be a source for a free or extremely discounted copy of Windows—and nearly the equivalent of Windows Enterprise, to boot. You’ll just have to put in some legwork (perhaps literally) to get it.
As mentioned above, license types determine what you can do with Windows—and who can use it, as well. Through the Academic Volume Licensing agreements, schools can purchase access to Windows 10 or 11 Education for their students, faculty, and staff. Some make it available only on campus machines. Others will grant a license for use on a home machine.
In that latter camp are a number of community colleges, and they often make the Windows license free or supremely affordable (usually $15). The catch: You have to sign up for at least one course to qualify for campus discounts.
To get access to the software, you’ll typically need to register for your class first, then find and register separately at whatever online store your campus uses for software purchases. (Many community colleges use OnTheHub as their distributor, so you can use their lookup tool to begin research about your school’s options.) The storefront will require verification of your student status before you can “buy” Windows.
A one-unit class usually counts though, and depending on your state, it can cost as little as $76 including administrative fees. Typical options are usually of the physical education or dance variety (swim, ballet, jazz, boot camp workouts, etc.), but you can also find the occasional class on topics like Beginning Drawing, Intro to HTML & CSS, and Video for the Web.
If you were already planning on taking a class in one of these subjects, you’re getting an amazing deal. The Education edition of Windows, which is similar to the Enterprise edition, includes popular Windows Pro features like Bitlocker encryption and the Sandbox feature. You’re essentially getting Windows Pro (and then some) for as much as 60 percent off and you get to learn something new.
Even if you aren’t interested in the classes, you’re still paying considerably less than what you would for even a Windows Pro OEM license. We don’t encourage truancy, but there’s nothing saying you have to show up for class, so long as you’re comfortable with a failing grade on your record.
Obviously, if your local community college doesn’t have an agreement with Microsoft in place, this strategy won’t work. Also, if the total cost of the class, administrative fees, and license fee adds up to more than the retail cost of a Windows Pro license, and you wouldn’t have otherwise taken the class, that negates this deal, too. In those cases, your main options are the OEM license (outlined above) or buying through a reseller (detailed below).
Note: If you use this method, also keep an eye out for other software deals through your school. For example, your school might offer a free Microsoft 365 account, or a heavily discounted Adobe Creative Cloud account (usually $20 per month, but we’ve seen it for as little as $80 per year).
Low prices with a big caveat: Resellers
Price: Under $30 (Windows 10 Home and Pro)
Scoring Windows 10 at an 85-percent discount (or more) is possible, and it’s not even difficult. But this approach comes with a salt mine of caution.
Platforms like eBay and Kinguin allow buyers to purchase product keys from third-party sellers. Some sites, like Kinguin, specialize in digital software sales—to buy Windows, you’ll find the listings for Windows 10 or 11 Home (or Windows 10 or 11 Pro), pick a seller from the list, then add their product to your cart and check out.
What makes the license keys so cheap is that they’re gray market at best. In other words, the keys aren’t illegal, but they’re likely extras from a volume licensing agreement and not meant to be sold individually to home users. So they come with risk. Critics of this method rightly point out that you can buy keys that don’t work, or eventually lose their activation status because of their unknown origins. And that has happened to some people. Customer service is often poor for these kinds of sites, too, leaving you high and dry.
Fans of this method say many people never run into issues, and in fact urge you to find the keys as cheap as possible (usually through eBay) to minimize problems. You can also buy with a credit card for some added protection. If you go this route, you should only get Windows Pro keys. The cost difference is often negligible from Home and you get better features like Bitlocker encryption and other Pro features.
But what we actually recommend is to buy through reputable sources of cheaper keys instead. For example, some professional organizations are able to negotiate deals for their members—we suggest starting there. You can also check to see if your favorite media sites have special pricing for readers. PCWorld’s own software store is a good place to investigate—it offers Windows Home and Pro keys at sizable discounts (often it’s regularly as low as $60 for Home and $80 for Pro), and the keys are guaranteed to work.