Backup Your Windows Product Key For Safekeeping

Most people give little thought to recording their Windows product key until they need to reinstall Windows. But by then it may be too late and the alternatives can prove costly…

The Windows Product Key contains 25 alphanumeric characters in 5 groups of 5 – it can be found on a Microsoft label stuck to the computer. This label is also referred to as a COA (Certificate Of Authenticity).

On PCs it may be stuck anywhere to the outside of the case but on laptops/netbooks it is usually stuck to the bottom (or inside the battery compartment for better protection).

To cut a long story short, you should find your label and write down the product key for safekeeping.

The problem with the product key labels is that they can easily be ripped when a PC is moved or, very common on laptops, the characters on the label get worn away over time until the product key itself becomes illegible.

When Is The Product Key Needed?

You will need the product key to activate Windows if you ever have to install (or reinstall) Windows from scratch using a standard Windows installation CD.

This applies equally to a computer repair shop. Don’t assume that a tech can somehow magic a new product key out of thin air – they can’t (unless they install a pirate copy in which case they’re not worthy of their job title, or your money!)

What About Factory Restores?

Computers from major manufacturers usually include an option to do a ‘factory restore’ to reset all the software on the computer back to the day you bought it. Most factory restores do not require the product key on the label to activate as they come pre-activated using the manufacturer’s own product key.

However, if the hard drive dies then you lose the ability to do a factory restore – to use a Windows installation CD you will need the product key on the COA label.

Software To Find The Product Key

If your product key is already illegible, you can find the product key which is installed on the computer using a utility such as ProduKey – the key will only be of use if it matches the product key on the label.

Download ProduKey from NirSoft here – extract (unzip) the zip file and run the produkey.exe utility program.

It should reveal the current Windows product key (and the product keys of MS Office products) as shown below (the example is of Windows 2000 but it works with XP, Vista and Windows 7)

Displaying Windows Product Keys

If the Windows product key it displays is the manufacturer’s product key (i.e. not the one on the label) you can’t use it to activate a new Windows installation.

Typically, the key found will only match the key on the label if:

  • You previously installed Windows from an installation CD using the product key on the label OR
  • The computer was built by a small manufacturer/shop who used the product key on the label to activate Windows [small shops and local techs do not have their own manufacturer’s key – in these cases you will usually have received an OEM Windows installation CD together with the computer].

If the computer is a laptop (or a PC from a major brand like Dell) and Windows has never been reinstalled on it, the product key stored in Windows will most likely be the manufacturer’s key – no use to you :-(

Other Options For Illegible Product Keys

If the product key on the label is illegible and the installed product key is the manufacturer’s (or the hard drive is dead) then you may be able to buy recovery CDs from the manufacturer – like a factory restore, these typically include the pre-activated manufacturer’s key so you do not need to know the one on the label.

Another option is to contact Microsoft for help – but you may have to pay for a new key or buy a new copy of Windows.


A stitch in time and all that…

It only takes seconds to make a note of your product key and keep it safe but it could save you a lot of time, money and frustration.