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Welcome to the latest installment of Ask ZDNet, where we answer the questions that make your IT guy reach for the Tums.
In the mailbag this week: A user paid for an upgrade to Windows 10 Pro but has no idea where that product key is now. How to get the upgrade back?
When I reset my Windows PC, I ended up with Home edition. How do I get my Pro upgrade back?
I decided to give my Windows 10 PC a fresh start by using the reset option. When everything finished up, I discovered that I was running Windows Home edition. That's the edition that was on this PC when I bought it, but I paid for an upgrade to Windows 10 Pro. I have no idea where that product key is now. How do I get my upgrade back?
This is a surprisingly common occurrence, especially given how many PC makers try to shave a few dollars off the price of their hardware by installing the much less expensive Home edition. When the OEM built that PC, they embedded the licensing information for the preinstalled Home edition in the BIOS of the system. When you do a full reset, that's the information that's used for the installation. As far as Windows is concerned, it's putting things back to where they were when you bought the system, based on the embedded version information it found.
The good news is that Microsoft's activation servers also contain details for your Windows Pro upgrade. When you entered the product key to perform that upgrade the first time, those servers created a second activation record along with a hash that identifies your system based on its unique hardware. If you reinstall Windows Pro on that system, even without a product key, the activation servers will restore the activation without a squawk.
In this case, the simplest solution is to use Microsoft's generic product key for Windows Pro to quickly upgrade from Home to Pro.
Go to Settings > System > Activation. Click to expand the section labeled Upgrade your edition of Windows, and then click the button labeled Change next to Change product key as shown here:
Enter this product key in the dialog box that appears next:
Follow the prompts to complete the upgrade. After you restart and connect to the Internet, you should have a fully activated Windows Pro installation.
There's nothing magical about that product key. If you use it to upgrade a system running Home edition that has never been activated for Windows 10 or Windows 11 Pro, you'll get an activation error, and the only way to recover is to enter a non-generic product key that entitles you to the upgrade.
And if you want to skip this song and dance in the future, try reinstalling from a bootable USB flash drive. When you run the setup, choose the option to skip entering a product key, which then lets you choose the exact edition you want to install.
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