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How to Recover Windows and Software Keys from a Broken Computer

Product keys are one of the most important parts of your computer. Unfortunately, most people don’t have them backed up. Here is how you can recover your product keys in case your computer crashes.

The methods described below will also work to backup your product keys before your computer crashes. If you are the cautious type, and you should be, use the tools described below to backup your software product keys before it’s to late.

Copy the needed files

The first think you need to do is recover some files from your broken computer’s hard drive. To do that you can either pull out the hard drive and plug it into a second computer using a spare hard drive connector or use a SATA USB docking station like the one below.

If you don’t have any SATA openings and don’t have a SATA docking station you can recover the files with a live Linux USB drive too. Use whatever distribution you feel comfortable with because you just need to copy a folder to the drive.

If you are using Linux, boot the broken machine from the drive, and copy this folder to the USB drive.

C:\Windows\System32\config

Our config folder was only 140 MB in size which will easily fit on most USB drives. Yours may be slightly bigger but you will need to take into account the ~700 MB of space needed for the Linux files.

Once you have the folder, go to another computer running Windows to use the free utility to recover your keys.

Use ProduKey to Recover Your Product Key

ProduKey is made by our friends at Nirsoft and will allow you to recover your product keys from a running version of Windows just the same as a copied C:\Windows\System32\config folder.

Start by downloading ProduKey from the link below and extract the exe file to a place of your choosing. Launch the program and it will immediately recover the available product keys from your current Windows installation.

Now may be a good time to save your current product keys somewhere safe.

To recover the keys from the broken copy of Windows, drop down the file menu and choose select source.

From the new window select “load the product keys from external Windows directory” and then browse to your saved Windows folder.

If you used a live Linux disk to recover the config folder you will need to manually make Windows and System32 folders and then place your config folder inside of them for the keys to be read.

If you are using a USB docking station, you can also just select “load the product keys of external Windows installations from all disks currently plugged to your computer” and the drive will be scanned automatically.

ProduKey will now show you all the keys it was able to find from your broken computer which makes it very handy when needing to re-install.

To make sure your keys stay safe click the save icon and save a text file of your product keys. We would recommend emailing yourself the text file or saving it to an off site location for safe keeping.

ProduKey Download

Justin is a Linux and HTPC enthusiast who loves to try new projects. He isn't scared of bricking a cell phone in the name of freedom.

  • Published 05/31/11

Comments (32)

  1. Eric

    Nice, saved my .txt inside a TrueCrypt volume on an external HDD… :)

  2. john

    After downloading and unzipping ProduKey, AVG said that the file was a virus and wanted me to move it to the vault.

  3. Yoshiyah

    @john None of Nir Sof’s products are viruses or trojans. It is most definitely a false positive. If you want a second opinion just upload the file to Virus Total.

    This is a great tool. I actually had to fix someone’s computer and needed to get the copy of the product key. This tool and Speccy (developed by Piriform) helps.

  4. TheDude

    Produkey is great. The last time I used it I noticed it couldn’t get the correct adobe acrobat key. The utility License Crawler was able too though. The product key finders are a life saver!

  5. dumpsterdivinxxx

    This is good stuff… but I wanna know a better trick. How can I gleen a key off the machine itself? I fix broken laptops and sell them off. Sometimes I get a machine that has no harddrive, and no key on the bottom. Is there a program that will tell me what the key was that was assigned to that machine?

    I have used key finders before, but they all extract the key from Windows- whether working or not. How can I get the key off the machine?
    Any suggestions?

  6. stg5708

    I have an easier way: I use Hotmail so I just email the codes to myself and store them in a specific folder. I can access them from any computer anywhere and never have to worry again about a hard-drive failure. Since I have oodles of games as well as expensive productivity software, it makes it very easy to keep track of them. I’ve had my Hotmail account since 1998 and have also had many different ISP. No issues with storage and no issues with recovery and no issues with changing address books.

  7. JB1288

    Is this helpful when I want to reinstall Windows 7 and/or Office 2010 on the same computer or a new one?
    I’ve always been paranoid that once I install any of these products, I can’t install them again if my hard drive fails or I need to re-partition, or I get a new PC.

  8. Bob

    What about the rest of the keys? Like Adobe Photoshop, CAD programs and any other legit programs you no longer have the keys for in printed form?

  9. Cobaltqube

    I personally prefer Belarc Advisor http://www.belarc.com/free_download.html It gives you a wealth of info about your PC and is a great app to have on your keydrive.. Well worth a look in my knowledgeable opinion.. :-)

  10. tommy2rs

    Belarc is good for finding product keys for software like Photoshop and others.

  11. Greg

    I work on other people’s computers.
    The worst problem I have seen with keys
    are laptops with the key on the bottom and
    is mostly worn off.
    Most people do not make a copy of their
    software and when the hard drive becomes
    useless, the back up files in the second partition
    are not accessible. It is like having two tickets on
    the Titanic.

  12. Ron

    Belarc Advisor is an excellant program since it provides a ton of information about your PC, hardware, software, and your internet connection/network. It is free to download and use. It works with several operating systems and can provide useful information when trouble-shooting problems. Just Google Belarc advisor and find the download site. Skip the sponsored ad links to avoid unwanted downloads as The How To Geek advises.

  13. JLT

    Belarc Advisor for us as well.

  14. TopClub PC Repair

    AVG is junk – flags most everything as a Trojan. If your running a legit Windows installation and want a free Anti-virus then use WSE (Windows Security Essentials) it does a better job than AVG — But another GREAT Program and Free is COMODO!!! You can choose just anti-virus or Firewall or both!

    Product Key is a Great Program and I have used it to fix many computers it is one of the best tools in my toolbox! The only thing I have had a problem with is XP (any Edition) with SP3 (some of my clients still run XP cuz that’s what they like, despite my efforts to influence them otherwise) – The key pulled from “Product Key” will not work if you try to install XP with all service packs included (time saver – modified installation jacket) – it will not recognize the Key as a legit Key during instillation. You have to install XP core then activate then install your service packs.

    Just a useful note for some of you!

  15. CEO

    Anyone have a solution for a hard drive to which you don’t have administrative rights? My son’s laptop blew up and we are trying to recover the keys to MS Office, but he was set up ad admin and I am getting an error message stating “A required privilege not held by client” when I try to access his old drive on my laptop.

  16. M Henri Day

    I’ve found that Gmail draughts are a good place to save product keys, passwords, etc ; just compose the text and then save instead of sending….

    Henri

  17. Bill

    Belarc Advisor has been in my toolbox thru many OS’s, many PCs, many years. Has never failed.

  18. Tony

    I also use Belarc advisor, have done for years and find it extremely useful. I especially like the way it checks that all of the necessary windows updates have been installed correctly.

    AVG – I have the paid for version and find it absolutely brilliant. I do not get any false alarms with it and have never had any problems in many years of use. Far better than Norton which I had previously used.

    Great tips for cleaning keyboards, many thanks.

  19. Anonymous

    To CEO: Assuming the files you want access to are not encrypted, you can probably reboot into safe mode, log on as the system administrator and get to the file(s) you want that way. Otherwise, you might instead just take ownership of the file(s) if your account is of equal or higher level than the user who created them. Sometimes, you may even have to resort to using another operating system which may even involve removing the hard drive and connecting it to another computer before you can take or change a files ownership. Point is, (and we’re not talking about encryption) you can do it.

    Now as far as software keys go, I never use those apps that promise to “recover” your keys since they almost never work when it comes time to restore. In fact, it’s almost always possible to find out what a key is before a complete re-installation without those apps anyway! And due to blacklists, checksums, file signatures, etc. that certain software publishers like to keep records of, it’s rather pointless to even try to use an app like that since you can’t restore after a complete drive wipe. (Thanks Microsoft, for your assistance in promoting this greedy culture of code arm twisting too, by the way. Thanks a LOT for not even providing a way to “release” or uninstall a license too!)

    Unless someone can come up with a foolproof app or way to totally restore/re-instate software WHICH PEOPLE PAY FOR to full operation including any needed keys, using restore apps like that is usually just a waste of time. If you still/already have the installation media, you really just need to look in the registry or other places and write those keys down BEFORE you wipe the drive. You may even have to resort to pulling a drive out and looking at it with a different computer, but there are ways to do it. There are also about a half dozen other free apps other than Nirsoft’s which are better at this too. The only hard part after re-installing will be convincing the software publisher/owner that you are an authorized consumer with a valid license.

    … And if you’ve every had to deal with someone like InterVideo, they don’t care! Cause once you install their app that’s it. No more installations allowed – even on the same system. So READ THE EULA!

  20. Ashok

    Not just AVG, a lot of anti-virus report Product Key as a security threat but it is a false positive. See http://www.nirsoft.net/false_positive_report.html and http://www.siteadvisor.com/sites/nirsoft.net.

  21. takdog

    …good suff…worth teh read especially comment above thanx

  22. Matri

    Just want “TopClub PC Repair” to be aware that Comodo is incapable of detecting Sality as of 1st June 2011. It’s gleefully certifying this Sality-stuffed laptop as “Clean” after a full, deep whole system scan.

    Just FYI. I’ll be replacing it once I eradicate it by whatever means necessary.

  23. TLW

    Yay! I found my keys. Thank you so much. That was just way too easy :)

  24. Clayton

    I use SIW (System Information for Windows). Similar to Belarc Advisor.

  25. Aaron

    Puppy Linux is better to use and under 300 mbs!

  26. Kris

    Dose anyone know if this will recover Adobe keys? I have a machine that won’t boot and it has Adobe captivate on it. I really need the key. Called Adobe and they are of no help.

  27. MaxPFC

    Or you could just google “Windows Serial” LOL

  28. Scotjack

    Although one has to read through a lot of chaff to get to it, now and again a gem like this makes it worthwhile.
    Excellent article. Kudos to the author.

  29. Bryan

    I got my copy of Windows 7 through the MSDN Academic Alliance (through school) and apparently the key isn’t recoverable with this strategy. Is there any tweak or workaround?

  30. Marcel Maisonneuve

    Dose any body know how to Delete a .MKV file from a computer.
    I have a windows 7 When I try to delete it says the file is open in window explorer.
    I tried in soft mode and did not work.
    Some help please
    Marcel Maisonneuve

  31. lesle

    On software that comes on a DVD, write the Product Key on the DVD with a Sharpie.

  32. Paul K

    Belarc advisor, SIW, and the Nirsoft tools are always with me.
    When I do a remote consultation, the first thing I do is have the client run Belarc Advisor and send the report to me ( Or I run it right away as soon as I get remote control. Great to know what you may be up against, and what the user may not tell you or even know.

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