Is It Safe to Buy Cheap / Free Windows 10 Keys From Third Parties?

Key Takeaways

There are risks involved in buying cheap Windows 10 keys. Microsoft does not allow keys to be sold as a stand-alone product, so it is unlikely that a free or deep-discount key came from an authorized source. Being cautious can mitigate the risks but never remove them entirely.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites that offer Windows 10 keys for sale, often at almost unbelievable prices. Few, if any, are authorized resellers, so how safe is it to buy cheap Windows keys from these third-party vendors?

How Much Should Windows 10 Cost?

Microsoft stopped selling Windows 10 Home and Pro licenses directly in January 2023. Before they did so, the Windows 10 price on the Microsoft Store was $139 for Home and $199 for Pro. Since then, the only genuine Windows 10 keys available for these editions have been the remaining stocks held by authorized resellers.

Aside from occasional discounts and special offers, legitimate Windows 10 licenses for sale by retailers like Amazon and Best Buy were similarly priced. As those stocks have dwindled, you might be able to find an authentic copy of Windows 10 for much less, if you can find one at all.

Buying a cheap Windows 10 key is legal, so long as it is a genuine license. You can even buy an OEM key, designed to be sold only as pre-installed software on a PC, as long as the key is not stolen, cracked, or otherwise a non-genuine product.

The potential problems with the legality of buying cheap keys may occur if they have been obtained for sale through illegal means. While prosecution for an individual is unlikely, purchasing stolen, pirated, or cracked software such as Windows 10 is against the law in most countries.

Selling pirated or stolen software, particularly in bulk, is also very illegal. This side of the transaction is commonly the focus for software companies and law enforcement, rather than someone buying a single software key. But that doesn’t completely absolve the buyer from blame.

Where Cheap Windows Keys Come From

There are many places from which the cheap Windows keys you see for sale could have been obtained. Where these keys originate from isn’t all equally suspect, but the problem with buying from third-party websites or eBay sellers is you often won’t know where it came from until it’s too late to do anything about it.

  • MAK keys – Multiple Activation Keys (MAK) are part of a large bundle of Windows licenses sold to large companies by Microsoft. They should only be used to activate copies of Windows within the terms of the MAK license agreement.
  • OEM keys – Original Equipment Manufacturer keys are purchased by PC and laptop makers, such as Dell, to be pre-installed on a device before it is sold. OEM keys cannot be transferred to a different PC, so used ones are useless.
  • Used Retail keys – Retail keys can be swapped to a different computer, but can only be activated on one PC at a time.
  • Foreign Keys – Windows keys purchased in a country where they cost less at retail, and then resold in countries where genuine keys are expensive.
  • Pirated keys – Keys that have been duplicated and cracked (the software protection is broken or circumvented) to work on multiple computers.

On the subject of Windows keys being available for sale as a standalone product, Microsoft says:

With the exception of Product Key Cards (PKC’s) distributed with COA’s [Certificates of Authentcity], Microsoft does not distribute products keys as standalone products. If you see a listing on an auction site, online classified ad, or other online page advertising product keys for sale, it’s a good indication that the keys are likely stolen or counterfeit.

Windows 10 activated with a digital license linked to a Microsoft account.

Related: Watch Out For These Dirty Tricks From Discounted Software Resellers

Risks of Buying Cheap Keys from Third Parties

Buying a Windows 10 key from a third-party vendor can involve some risk. But as you can no longer buy from Microsoft, it might be your only option if you want Windows 10 on your PC.

Understanding the potential risks of buying cheap Windows 10 keys from third-party websites will help inform your purchasing choices, and hopefully let you sidestep the worst problems.

1. Windows Key Doesn’t Work

The most obvious problem you could face when buying a key from an unknown or untrusted third party is that it simply doesn’t work. That could be because the key is entirely fake, or because it is a duplicate of a key already in use or a used OEM key.

Websites selling Windows keys pop up all the time and it isn’t always easy to spot the overnight scam websites among the established software key sellers. Good luck getting a refund from a website or eBay seller that only appeared a week ago and might be gone again just as quickly. Sure, you might have only lost the $10 or $15 you paid, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

2. No Security Updates If the Key Is Deactivated

A key bought from a third party might work at first, and may even continue working for months. But that doesn’t mean that it will remain working forever. If the key is not genuine or has been used in situations outside of its license agreement, Microsoft can and will deactivate it at some point.

You can continue to use a PC with a deactivated key, or even without activating the software at all, but certain features will be unavailable to you. This potentially includes important security updates, leaving your computer open to malicious software and viruses.

Installing updates for Edge and other software via Windows Update.

Related: You Can Install and Use Windows 11 Without a Product Key

3. Danger of Credit Card Scams

It’s not uncommon for criminals to create a website offering expensive products at appealingly low prices just to harvest the credit card details of anyone who buys. They won’t care if they only make $3 on the initial sale, because your data and payment details are much more valuable to them.

We aren’t saying every website selling Windows keys is a shadowy criminal enterprise, but you should certainly question the motivation behind a site that sells Windows keys for a couple of bucks.

4. Key Activation Could Inject Malware

Although perhaps not as likely as some of the other risks listed here, it is possible that using keys from third-party vendors could lead to malware being injected alongside the activation.

There have been cases where software key sellers have used third-party activation software that was infected with malware. The keys activated Windows correctly, but malware called CryptBot was installed in the background and proceeded to steal users’ data.

Therefore, it’s important to be very wary if you’re asked to install additional software just to be able to use an activation key.

5. Receiving the Incorrect Version of Windows

Just because a website listing says it’s a Windows 10 Pro key, that doesn’t mean it actually is. Windows activation keys will only work with the edition of the software they are made for, so you won’t be able to activate Windows 10 Pro with a Windows 10 Home key and vice versa.

There is also a risk that you will pay for a Retail key and receive an OEM key. That might be fine until you try to upgrade your PC and find the key no longer activates Windows.

How to Check Your Windows Key is Legit

If you have activated your copy of Windows 10, but are concerned the key may not be genuine, there is an easy way to check.

Open Command Prompt with elevated privileges (choose Run as an Administrator.) Type “slmgr /dli” and press “Enter.” A new window will pop up, showing details of your Windows license. This includes the current activation status and whether it is an OEM, MAK, or Retail key.

viewing Windows 10 license details

Legitimate Windows 10 copies are only going to get harder to find as time goes on, so you might consider upgrading to Windows 11. Don’t forget you can technically use Windows 10 without a key (and the same is true for Windows 11)—if you don’t mind some cosmetic limitations and annoyances.

Related: How to Find Your Lost Windows or Office Product Keys

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