Note: This article was originally published in January 2017. It has been updated multiple times since then to reflect the most current information. The most recent update was on December 20, 2022.
Microsoft's free upgrade offer for Windows 10 ended more than six years ago, but no one told the people who run the Windows activation servers. As a result, you can still upgrade to Windows 10 from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 and claim a free digital license for the latest Windows 10 version, without being forced to jump through any hoops.
You can also still upgrade Windows 10 Home to Windows 10 Pro by using a product key from a previous business edition of Windows 7, 8, or 8.1 (Pro/Ultimate). That can save you as much as $100 in OEM upgrade charges if you buy a new PC with Windows 10 Home preinstalled. (For details, see "How to upgrade from Windows 10 Home to Pro without hassles.")
Every technique I describe in this article works the same for Windows 11 as well, although most older PCs will be blocked from upgrading to Microsoft's newest operating system by the stringent Windows 11 hardware compatibility requirements. For those PCs, Windows 10 remains a viable option until at least October 2025.
In this post, I'll cover the basics of how to install Windows 10 as an upgrade on older hardware. I'll also talk about the licensing issues involved, which are (as always) confusing.
I wrote and published the first version of this post in early 2017, shortly after Microsoft's initial free upgrade offer ended. When I downloaded the Windows 10 upgrade tool and ran it on an old Windows 7 PC, I fully expected that the upgrade would fail activation and I'd be asked for a product key.
Imagine my surprise when, instead, I was greeted with this screen.
For the past five-plus years, I have repeated those steps on test PCs at regular intervals and confirmed that the free upgrade tool still works. I continue to receive email messages regularly from readers offering firsthand reports that their free upgrades were successful, with no purchase or product key required.
Want your own digital license to the latest Windows 10 version? Follow these instructions.
How to upgrade an old PC to Windows 10
If you have a PC running a "genuine" copy of Windows 7/8/8.1 (Windows 7 Home, Pro, or Ultimate edition, or Windows 8.x Home or Business, properly licensed and activated), you can follow the same steps I did to install Windows 10 as an upgrade.
Check for any recent driver updates, especially for network and storage hardware.
Download and install any available BIOS updates for your hardware; this step is especially important for systems that were originally designed in 2017 or earlier, when hardware makers were still shaking out issues with Windows 10.
Back up your data files to an external hard drive or cloud storage (or both). Consider doing a full system backup to an external hard drive using the Windows 7 backup program, which is also available in Windows 8.x and Windows 10. Just run the command Sdclt.exe, and then choose the Create A System Image option.
Temporarily uninstall third-party security software and low-level system utilities that can interfere with the upgrade. You can reinstall those programs after the upgrade is complete.
Finally, disconnect any unnecessary external devices, especially USB flash drives and external hard drives. (Several common installation errors can be traced to the Setup program being confused by these additional drives.)
With those preliminaries out of the way, go to the Download Windows 10 webpage and click the Download now button. After the download completes, double-click the executable file to run the Media Creation Tool.
If you've downloaded the Media Creation Tool on the machine you plan to upgrade, and you plan to upgrade that PC and only that PC, you can choose the Upgrade This PC Now option. That option installs the most recent version of Windows 10. It typically takes about an hour, depending on your hardware. (Having an SSD as your system drive is the best way to speed up the process.)
If you know you'll want to upgrade to Windows 10 on more than one PC, or if you just want more flexibility in the event that the instant upgrade fails, choose the second option and save the installation files to a USB drive or as an ISO file. The download takes a little time but when it's complete, you can run the Windows Setup program manually to install Windows 10 on any PC running any supported Windows version (sorry, this won't work with PCs running Windows Vista or Windows XP). The exact steps depend on which download option you chose:
USB flash drive Insert the USB flash drive you just created into a free USB slot on the PC you want to upgrade. Then open File Explorer (Windows Explorer in Windows 7) and double-click Setup to install Windows 10. Note that you cannot boot from the newly created USB drive or DVD to perform an upgrade to Windows 10. You must run the Windows 10 setup program from your currently installed and activated copy of Windows.
ISO file After the download is complete, you'll need to mount the ISO file and open it in a Windows Explorer/File Explorer window. On a PC running Windows 8.1 or Windows 10, you can double-click the ISO file to open it as a virtual drive. On a PC running Windows 7, you'll need to install a third-party utility such as the free, open-source WinCDEmu. After mounting the ISO file, double-click Setup to start the install process.
Then just follow the prompts to complete the upgrade to Windows 10. You will not be asked for a product key, and when the upgrade is complete and you've connected to the internet, you'll have a digital license that is valid for the most recent Windows 10 version, which you can confirm by going to Settings > Update & Security > Activation. All your apps and data files will be available.
The digital license is associated with that specific device, which means you can reformat the disk and perform a clean installation of the same edition of Windows 10 anytime. (If you're thinking of upgrading your old system drive to an SSD, perform the upgrade to Windows 10 on the old hardware; after confirming that the new Windows 10 version is properly activated, install the SSD and then either restore from a backup image or boot from the USB flash drive to do a clean install. You won't need a product key, and activation is automatic.)
Is your license valid?
And now the big question: If you avail yourself of this upgrade to Windows 10, is the resulting license valid?
The entire "free upgrade" offer was always accompanied by language that was, to put it politely, a bit squishy. And the language around the end of that offer was similarly vague. For example, see the answers I've highlighted here on Microsoft's Windows 10 Upgrade FAQ:
That's very odd language. The free upgrade through the Get Windows 10 app ended on July 29, 2016. Likewise, the discussion of product keys says a key will be necessary "for this tool to work" (not true) but doesn't say a word about licensing.
And unlike the weaselly "Genuine Windows" label on older upgrades, the activation screens for a Windows 10 upgrade specifically confirm the existence of a "digital license."
Anyway, the free upgrade offer was extended briefly, at least for people who use assistive technologies. The FAQ on a separate page even called it a "free upgrade offer extension" and pointedly noted that it was not limited to specific assistive technologies. (I regularly use the Magnifier utility in Windows, which is indisputably an assistive technology.)
Of course, I'm not a lawyer, and this column isn't legal advice. But I will say that I am personally confident in the activation status of any PC upgraded using the tool on that page during the eligibility period.
This extension was, I think, a very large nod and a wink, designed to make it easy for those who wanted a Windows 10 upgrade to still get it while placating the OEM partners who were none too happy about the year-long emphasis on upgrades rather than new PC sales.
Alas, I say "was," because the extension (which was itself extended) officially ended on Jan. 16, 2018. The page that formerly ran an Upgrade Assistant now returns an error message.
The big question now is whether Microsoft will ever turn off the code on its activation servers that dispenses digital licenses after an upgrade from an earlier Windows version. I've continued to test that scenario, and I can confirm, long after the end of support for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, that it still works.
I continue to hear from readers sharing their experiences. If you've used this technique on a PC, send a note to edbott (at) realworldwindows (dot) com to let me know how it went for you.
And a note from the author: After nearly 17 years at ZDNET, I'm leaving at the end of 2022. You can stay in touch by signing up for my newsletter, Ed Bott's READ.ME. It's free (for now) and I'll be doing a lot of the same things I've done here at ZDNET and in my books. To sign up, go to https://edbott.substack.com/.