You can spend thousands on components and make one of the best PC builds, but it won’t boot without an operating system. Linux is a viable option, but most prefer Windows because it runs all their favorite software, including the latest games. Installing a copy of Windows 11 or 10 for a built-from-scratch computer can be costly – if you do what Microsoft wants. The Redmond software giant charges consumers a whopping $139 for a Windows 10 (opens in new tab) or 11 Home license (opens in new tab) and $199 for Windows 10 (opens in new tab) or 11 Pro (opens in new tab). If you spent $500 on PC parts, that would add at least a 28 percent Windows tax to your build.
This Windows tax is profoundly unfair to PC builders, because large OEMs such as Dell and Lenovo pay much lower licensing fees to put Windows on prebuilt systems (though these costs are not made public). Fortunately, there are many ways to get Windows 10 or 11 for free or for as little as $20 (opens in new tab), depending on what flavor of Windows you want, what you already have and what caveats you’re willing to accept.
Black Friday / Cyber Monday Update (11/26): If you are interested in buying a Windows key, Kinguin is selling a Windows 10 Pro key for just $17 (opens in new tab) if you use the coupon code KINGWIN16 at checkout. Note that a $2 service fee adds to the cost slightly.
How to Download Windows 10 or 11 For Free
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No matter how or whether you pay for it, you can download Windows 10 (opens in new tab) or download Windows 11 (opens in new tab) for free from Microsoft.com. And, in fact, you should only download it from Microsoft, as grabbing it from any other site or from a P2P network could give you malware. Microsoft offers a free media creation tool, which grabs the latest code from the Internet and then burns itself to a USB Flash drive or outputs a Windows 10 or Windows 11 ISO file you can write to a drive yourself.
Once that's done, you can boot from your installation media and start the process. During installation, Microsoft asks you to enter a Windows 10 or 11 product key. If you don’t have a key, you can skip past this step by clicking "I don't have a product key," but there are drawbacks to using an unactivated copy of Windows, which we’ll talk about below.
Below, we’ll also show you the different methods for saving money on Windows and compare them. If you need a product key and don’t have one available already from an existing build or copy, you’ll want to check out method 5, which involves using a low-cost key marketplace.
1. Upgrade from a Prior Windows Version: Free
If you already have a prior version of Windows installed on the computer and you just want a newer version of the OS on the same hardware, you can likely upgrade it for free (obviously this method doesn’t help if you are building a new PC). Windows 7 and 8 will upgrade to 10 and Windows 10 will upgrade to 11, if your computer meets Windows 11’s stringent system requirements, which include TPM 2.0 support, at least 4GB of RAM and at least 64GB of storage space (you can bypass Windows 11’s TPM and RAM requirements but we don't recommend it).
If you are still on Windows 7 or 8, you can upgrade to Windows 10 for free. Whether you’re going from 7 / 8 to 10 or 10 to 11, you can upgrade either by using an install disk (created with the media creation tool) or with Windows update.
2. Use an Old Windows 7, 8 or 10 Key From Another PC: Free
If you have an old, retail (non-OEM) copy of Windows 7, 8 or 10 you are no longer using on another PC, you can likely use the product key when you do a fresh install of Windows on your new PC. However, you must first make sure it's deactivated on the old PC it came from. See our article on how to transfer a Windows 10 or 11 license to a new PC for step-by-step information on how to retrieve and move your key.
The process of transferring a Windows license varies, depending upon whether you have digital or non-digital license. With a the former, you'll need to log into your Microsoft account to deactivate the old PC. And with the latter, you'll want to use a command line command to terminate the activation.
Note that if the product key comes from a prebuilt computer that came from the factory with Windows on it, it has an OEM key that may not work on a different new PC. Feel free to try it, though, because if it works you have Windows 10 or 11 for free.
3. Don’t Activate Windows 10 or 11: Free
If you don’t have a valid product key, you can opt not enter one during the install process and live with an unactivated version. The good news is that you only have two serious disadvantages from not activating Windows 10 or 11. The first is that there’s an embarrassing (if someone is looking over your shoulder) watermark on the lower right corner of the screen, which says that you’re using a non-activated copy of Windows.
The second drawback of using unactivated Windows 10 or 11 is that you can’t use personalization options such as changing the wallpaper, mouse pointer or desktop theme. However, if you are using a Microsoft account that syncs with another computer on which you have custom wallpaper, that wallpaper will appear on your unactivated Windows.
You also can’t get tech support from Microsoft should you call for help with Windows. But come on; does anyone actually do that?
Other than those inconveniences, unactivated Windows should work just fine and receive automatic updates too. We’ve known folks who used unactivated Windows for months or years without a problem, but we can’t guarantee that Microsoft won’t crack down and limit functionality further in the future.
4. Microsoft Student or Teacher Discount: Free
If you’re in college, you may be able to get Windows 11 for free, just by being enrolled. Microsoft offers students attending certain universities and high schools the ability to get Windows 11 Education at no cost (it’s unclear if you can get Windows 10 this way anymore). Windows 11 Education is actually more full-featured than Windows 11 Home and has most of the same features as Windows 11 Pro, including BitLocker encryption, Remote Desktop and Hyper-V virtualization.
Meanwhile, teachers may be able to get Windows 11 Education for $14.99. You can see if your school is eligible and download your free Windows 11 key here (opens in new tab).
5. Buy a Cheap Windows 10 or 11 Key From a Third-Party Seller: $20+
If you don’t have any way to get a Windows 10 or 11 product key for free and you don’t want to live with the drawbacks of an unactivated copy of Windows, there are some third-party sellers that offer keys starting at around $20. At the time of writing, Kinguin, a popular key marketplace, was selling Windows 10 Home for as little as $20.81 (opens in new tab) or Windows 11 Home for $26.76 (opens in new tab). Windows 10 Pro started at $24.28 (opens in new tab)and Windows 11 Pro was $29.70 (opens in new tab). You might be able to get them for less with a Kinguin discount code though. These are all OEM keys and likely can't be used on another computer after you activate them on the first one.
We recommend paying a little extra to get a key that has "online activation," which means that it should activate automatically over the Internet. Keys that aren't marked for "online activation" may force you to call Microsoft, wait on hold and ask a phone representative for help activating. The representative may even ask for your Microsoft account, which is not great for your privacy.
Now, let's address the elephant in the room. While we can't vouch for all of them, websites selling cheap Windows 10 or 11 keys are likely offering legitimate codes. Kinguin has more than three dozen merchants worldwide selling Windows keys. Mark Jordan, Kinguin’s VP of communications, told Tom's Hardware in 2019 that Kinguin's merchants acquire the codes from wholesalers who have surplus copies of Windows they don't need.
"It's not a gray market. It would be like buying Adidas or Puma or Nike from a discounter, from TJ Maxx," Jordan said. "There are no legal issues with buying it from us. It's just another marketplace."
Once you complete a purchase, you’ll be emailed a product key that you can use either during the Windows install process or to activate an unactivated copy of the operating system you already have installed.
We've bought keys from Kinguin a few times. At one time, we bought a Windows 10 Home key from Kinguin to activate a copy of the OS on a newly-built PC. This was not an "online activation" version so the instructions on the product page warned that we might need to call Microsoft’s activation phone number to make the key work and, indeed, the first time we tried using the key, Windows wouldn’t accept it. So we tried calling the number and waited on hold for a few minutes.
We thought activating via phone would be an automated process where we just punched in the key and got an approval code, but instead we got a live representative who immediately asked for our Microsoft account ID. Though these are supposed to be legitimate keys and we shouldn’t get in trouble for using one, we were uncomfortable giving out personal information so we hung up and tried the key again and strangely it now worked.
Another time, we paid a few dollars more for an online activation key. Lo and behold, it activated as soon as we entered the code, with no phone call required.
Are you likely to be ripped off? According to Jordan, Kinguin's merchants have sold “several hundred thousand” keys and are not one-time sellers posting listings for codes they don’t want. As part of its fraud protection, a Kinguin employee randomly buys a key “every now and then” to make sure they’re legitimate, he said. Jordan added that it’s rare for a customer to get a key that’s been resold, but if they did, customer support would help them get a new one for free.
“If there's ever a problem with a key being already activated or something like that, our customer support team helps you get a new key… And that merchant would be in deep trouble, so they are very careful with it,” Jordan said.
6. Buy Discounted Windows 10 or 11 From Amazon: Not Recommended
If you’re not comfortable with buying from a key marketplace like Kinguin, you might think you’d be better off buying a slightly-discounted boxed or downloadable copy of Windows from Amazon or Newegg. However, both sites play host to a number of third-party sellers whose product keys may or may not be legit.
At first glance, it looks like you can get Windows 10 Home for as little as $98 on a USB Flash drive from Amazon. However, if you look at the seller’s name, you might notice that it’s not Microsoft or Amazon but a third-party named UNILOVO and there are several complaints in the user reviews about the key not working. You can find Windows 11 Home on a Flash drive for $139 on Amazon and Microsoft is listed as the seller so that’s probably legit, but no cheaper than what Microsoft.com charges.
7. Buy Windows from Microsoft: $139 - $199
The easiest but most expensive way to get Windows is to buy your key directly from Microsoft.com. You can get Windows 10 Home (opens in new tab) or Windows 11 Home for $139 (opens in new tab). And you can get Windows 10 Pro (opens in new tab) or Windows 11 Pro for $199 (opens in new tab). You can get these either as downloads or on USB drives.
What's the Best Way to Get Windows 10 or 11?
|Header Cell - Column 0||Upgrade From Windows 7, 8 or 10||Don't Activate Windows||Student Discount||Buy a Cheap Key From a Third Party||Buy a Key From Microsoft|
|Price||Free||Free||Free (Windows 10 Education)||$18+||Home: $139, Pro: $199|
|Pros||Access to all personalization options; Microsoft support access; Free||Free||Access to all personalization options; Microsoft support access; Equivalent to Windows 10 Enterprise; Free||Access to all personalization options; Microsoft support access||Access to all personalization options; Microsoft support access; Refunds|
|Cons||None||Desktop watermark; Personalization options restricted; Can't use Microsoft support||You have to be enrolled in an eligible school||There's a chance your key won't work, and you'll need to get customer service||Expensive|
If you have an old Windows key you can carry over from a previous build, that's your best option and effectively gives you Windows 10 or Windows 11 for free. If you don't have a key on hand, you need to decide whether you're comfortable using an unactivated version of Windows 10 or 11, which limits your customization options, has an ugly watermark and leaves you ineligible for Microsoft support.
Many would argue that downloading Windows without paying for or already owning a product key is ethically wrong. That said, Microsoft has made this process easier over various Windows iterations and lessened the limitations and nagging that happens when you don't activate. The company isn't trying to close this loophole, probably because it’s more interested in driving user numbers. We've even seen well-known vendors and Microsoft partners do press presentations with watermarks on their desktop.
If you need to buy a Windows 10 or Windows 11 key, you can save a lot with a low-cost seller such as Kinguin (opens in new tab). We strongly recommend that you buy a key with online activation so you don’t have to explain yourself and give out personal info to a Microsoft operator.
It’s hard to recommend paying MSRP for Windows 10 or 11, because Microsoft's price is astronomically high. You can save $100 or more by buying a key from one of these third-party sites, which is money you can spend on one of the best graphics cards, one of the fastest SSDs or a few AAA games for your new PC.