How to upgrade to Windows 10 and get your new licence key
Windows 7 and Windows 8 users can get Windows 10 for free, here's how to upgrade and avoid any pitfalls
Although Microsoft is letting every Windows 7 and 8 user upgrade to Windows 10 for free, provided they register within one year of Windows 10’s release on 29th July 2015, the upgrade system is, unfortunately, a little bit more complicated than you may have first thought. So, before we take you through how to claim your upgrade, it's worth going through some of the restrictions first. If you want to perform a fresh installation of Windows 10, you still need to read these instructions, as you have to upgrade your existing computer first. We show you how to do this and how to deal with the new licence key that you'll get from Microsoft. We've also got a more in-depth explanation about what happens after the year-long upgrade period is up: it could be bad new for people that bought a boxed copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8.
Jump straight to how to upgrade to Windows 10 for free
Performing a clean install of Windows 10 - new information
Microsoft has finally fixed one of the most annoying parts of Windows 10: the activation. When it first launched, if upgraders wanted a clean install of Windows 10 they had to upgrade their existing PC first and then clean install. As of now, the Windows 10 installation wizard recognises Windows 7 and Windows 8 licence keys, automatically upgrading them to Windows 10 (or recognising previously upgraded codes). This means that you can clean install and upgrade to Windows 10 at the same time, skipping the steps below if you want to start from scratch. Follow the Expert Reviews guide to clean installing Windows 10 for more information.
What happens after one year? Upgrade details explained
One of the biggest questions we've had from readers is, what happens to their copy of Windows 10 after the year-long upgrade offer has expired? We've talked to Microsoft and now have all of the details.
You got Windows 7 or Windows 8 with a new computer
If your computer shipped with Windows 7 or Windows 8, you have an OEM licence that's tied to the computer and can't be transferred to a new one (see Upgrade restrictions for more details). Provided that you've claimed your free Windows 10 upgrade, after the year-long offer expires you will be able to clean install Windows 10 on your computer. If you restore your computer and it reverts to its original OS, you can upgrade it to Windows 10.
Confirmation from Microsoft: "If a customer has already taken the upgrade, they will be able to clean install back to Windows 10 because their device will have been provisioned with the new store-based licence."
You bought Windows 7 or Windows 8 yourself
If you paid for Windows 7 or Windows 8 yourself, you've most likely got a retail licence (see Upgrade restrictions below for more details). This lets you transfer the licence from one computer to another, however you can only transfer Windows 10 within the year-long upgrade offer; after this period is up, you'll have to buy a new copy of Windows 10 if you want to move your OS to a new computer. You can, however, after this date install your boxed copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8 on another computer, provided you're no longer running them or their upgraded Windows 10 versions on another computer. For example, if you install Windows 7 on your PC today and upgrade it to Windows 10, in a year, provided you wipe that computer, you can install Windows 7 on a different computer legally.
If you're not eligible for the upgrade, or you want another copy of Windows 10, you’ll need to buy a copy of the software. Windows 10 will be available as boxed software and should be available to buy as a download, too. These versions of Windows 10 will work like traditional boxed copies of previous versions of Windows, where you’ll be able to install the OS on a computer of your choice, and reinstall it when you build a new model.
If you're upgrading from Windows 7 or 8 to Windows 10, the table below shows you the version of Windows 10 that you'll get. Note that it is possible to upgrade from Windows 10 Home to Windows 10 Pro at a later date, should you want to (see below for more information).
|Current version of Windows||Free upgrade to|
|Windows 7 Starter||Windows 10 Home|
|Windows 7 Home Basic||Windows 10 Home|
|Windows 7 Home Premium||Windows 10 Home|
|Windows 7 Professional||Windows 10 Pro|
|Windows 7 Ultimate||Windows 10 Pro|
|Windows 8||Windows 10 Home|
|Windows 8 Pro||Windows 10 Pro|
|Windows 8.1||Windows 10 Home|
|Windows 8.1 Pro||Windows 10 Pro|
If you can't get the upgrade and need to buy a copy of Windows 10, you'll need to buy the retail version, which will be available as boxed software and as a download. You'll also be able to buy a Windows 10 Pro pack, which will upgrade the Home edition of the operating system to the Pro version.
|Version of Windows 10||Retail price|
|Windows 10 Home||£100|
|Windows 10 Pro||£190|
|Windows 10 Pro Pack||£100|
With the complicated bits out of the way, we can get on with how you claim your free upgrade. As Windows 10 is now available and you can upgrade to the new operating system right now - presuming you’re running a valid version of Windows 7 or Windows 8 (see above), you can also upgrade from a pre-release version of Windows 10. If you booked an upgrade with the Get Windows 10 tool then this will be rolled out shortly, however you can force the upgrade using a manual tool.
These steps can be followed from now up until one year after Windows 10 is officially launched on the 29th July.
Step 1 - Make sure you're running the latest version of your OS
First, run Windows Update from the Control Panel and make sure that your computer is up to date and running the latest service packs: you need Windows 7 SP1 and Windows 8.1 installed in order to upgrade to Windows 10.
Step 2 - Download the upgrade tool
Get the Windows 10 upgrade tool. You can download both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the tool, so make sure to get the one that matches your current operating system. You can find out which you have by simply typing ‘System’ into the Start Screen on Windows 8 and selecting that options, or by clicking the Start button in Windows 7, right-click Computer and select Properties. Download the correct tool and then run it from your browser or the downloads folder.
While you're waiting for that to download we recommend that you use Belarc Advisor to find out your Windows product key/CD key. This way you've got the original key to hand should you ever need it later on. This bit of software gives you all kinds of information about your computer, including your product key. Once installed, launch Belarc Advisor. You can ignore the prompt about Administrator privileges, as they're not needed. You'll need to agree to the UAC prompt, and don't worry about downloading the new Belarc security definitions. Belarc Advisor will now analyse your computer and produce a local web page with the information it finds. Your version of Windows and its product key will appear towards the bottom of the page. You should copy and paste this into Notepad and save it. It’s worth copying this text file to an external location, just in case something goes wrong with the upgrade and you need to reinstall your original Windows.
Step 3 - Install the upgrade
When it comes to installing the upgrade, you've got two options. The first option the easiest, as it lets Microsoft do everything for you; the second option isn't quite as straightforward, but it gives you a bit more flexibility and gives you the installation media that you need.
Method 1 - Use the upgrade tool
The upgrade tool will ask you if you want to upgrade this PC or create an installation ISO for another PC. Choose the option to ‘Upgrade this PC now’ and the tool will start downloading Windows 10. This may take some time as demand is high for the new operating system. Once you've finished downloading the operating system simply follow the instructions to upgrade.
Method 2 - Create the installation media
The second option is to use the Microsoft upgrade tool to create the installation media. It's straight forward to do so using the wizard, but our how to clean install Windows 10 guide has full instructions if you'd rather follow those. Once you've created the installation media on a USB drive, you can either run Setup straight from Explorer and upgrade your computer, or reboot from the USB drive and perform an installation from the regular Windows 10 installer. The benefit of this method is that you've then got the installation media, which you can use to upgrade other computers or to perform a clean installation with later.
Please note, if you create the USB drive directly from the upgrade tool (you don't download the ISO file), you can only use the USB drive to upgrade PCs that are running the same version of Windows 7 or Windows 8. If you download the ISO file and create the installation media from that, you have the files to upgrade to Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro. The only restriction is that your installation media is set for 32-bit or 64-bit Windows only.
Step 4 - Complete upgrade
After your computer has upgraded to Windows 10 it will connect to Microsoft's activation server and will upgrade your existing licence to a Windows 10 version. For this to happen your computer needs to be connected to the internet. Activation happens quickly in the background without you having to do anything. To check if your computer has been activated click on the Start Menu, click Settings and choose Update & Security, Activation. If your computer is activated, it will clearly say so (see screenshot below).
If your computer has not been activated, then you can force it to do so. Get up a command prompt from the Start Menu and type, slmgr.vbs /ato. This will force your computer to activate its new license with Microsoft. If the process fails, give it a few tries.
What if I don't want to upgrade to Windows 10?
There are some legitimate reasons some people don't want to make the move to Windows 10. Many gamers, for example, are perfectly happy on Windows 7 or 8.1 as some games have been shown to perform worse on the latest operating system. Some people are just more comfortable with older versions and don't want to upgrade. The leap from Windows 7 to Windows 10, in particular, is quite a drastic change in terms of look and feel.
Recently, Microsoft made Windows 10 a 'Recommended' update, which was a change from its 'Optional' status. This means that it will automatically be downloaded, which amounts to a 3GB download. You won't actually get automatically upgraded against your will, you'll have to agree to the upgrade process, so make sure you pay attention to any onscreen prompts if you're averse to the upgrade.
There are ways to stop the upgrade process, as well as block any annoying prompts to upgrade. One popular way is to install third-party software, such as GWX control panel. This tool will remove the Get Windows 10 icon from your notification area, stop Windows Update from downloading upgrade files and remove any secretly downloaded Windows 10 files from your system. Specific instructions on how to block the Windows 10 upgrade process are available on the GWX control panel website.
Another alternative is Gibson's Never10. This straightforward and easy to use tool automates the process of stopping the pesky Windows 10 update if you really don't want to upgrade. As stated on its website, Never10 won't stop regular Windows updates, just the upgrade to Windows 10: "Never10 does NOT prevent the installation of Windows updates, including the infamous Get Windows 10 (GWX) update KB3035583. Never10 simply employs Microsoft's documented and sanctioned configuration settings to instruct it NOT to change the installed version of Windows."
You can even use Never10 to see if Windows has automatically downloaded Windows 10 files and allow you to remove them, potentially freeing up to 6.5GB of data in the process. Any changes can also be undone if you do want to upgrade after all.