The Ultimate Checklist Guide to Reinstalling Windows on Your PC

Reinstalling Windows isn’t as simple as just clicking through an installer. You’ll want to have important data backed up first, and then you’ll need installation media and a product key before continuing—and those are just the basics. This checklist will walk you through reinstalling Windows and ensure you won’t forget anything.

First: Back Up Your Files

You may also want to ensure programs you use are backing up your critical settings, like your browser’s data. For example, if you use Chrome, ensure you’ve signed into Chrome with your Google account and enabled the browser sync features. This ensures your bookmarks and other data can be accessed afterwards. Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge have similar sync features.

Consider all the important data on your computer and ensure it’s backed up. If you’re still using POP3 for your email, which you shouldn’t be, all your emails may be stored on your PC and need to be backed up before continuing. If you’re using web-based email or even just IMAP in a desktop email client, your emails are stored with your email service and you don’t need to back them up. If you play a lot of PC games, check whether those games sync their saves online with a feature like Steam Cloud, or whether you need to back them up yourself.

You can back up many program’s settings at once through backing up your AppData folder, or by backing up individual folders in AppData.

Make a List of Your Installed Programs

You may also want to create a list of your installed programs, just in case. You won’t be left wondering what the name of that useful little utility was. You can just check the list and see what you had installed before you reinstalled Windows.

You can create a list of your installed programs and print it to a text file using the PowerShell tool included in Windows. You don’t need any additional software. However, if you have CCleaner installed, you can also do this by launching CCleaner and clicking Tools > Uninstall > Save to a text file. This feature is in the free version of CCleaner; you don’t need the paid version. Be sure to add the text file to your backups!

If you have any important programs you’ve installed from disc, be sure you’ve found their installation discs. But, these days, many people should be able to download everything from the Internet and won’t need discs to install programs.

Get the Product Keys You Need

Ensure you have any product keys you might need before continuing. At a minimum, you’ll need a product key to install Windows. This is actually more complicated than it seems, as many modern PCs have these product keys “baked in” to the UEFI firmware on their motherboards, and Windows will automatically detect them during installation.

For example, “BIOS OEM Key” in the screenshot above means the product key for the installed version of Windows is embedded in our computer’s BIOS (or UEFI firmware, technically). We don’t have to write it down, and Windows will automatically use it when we reinstall the same version of Windows.

Follow our instructions to track down your Windows product key. If it’s printed on a sticker or your computer itself—or if you purchased Windows and were given a product key—you already know it. Otherwise, you may need to do some digging. This can be a little complicated. Be careful, as the key you see displayed in Windows may not actually be the key you need to activate your PC. This is particularly common on Windows 7. In these cases, you need the key printed on the sticker on your PC instead of the key that appears to be in use on your PC.

You may also have Microsoft Office or other applications installed with a product key, and you’ll need that product key to reinstall them. If you already know all the product keys you need or know you’re just using a service like Office 365, which doesn’t require these product keys, you can skip this part. To see the various product keys used on your PC for applications like Microsoft Office, we recommend NirSoft ProduKey.

Be sure to write down the keys you need or otherwise make a copy before reinstalling your operating system, as they’ll be erased from your drive.

Create Your Windows Installation Media

Microsoft now allows you to create Windows installation media really easily. It’s all official and legal, and all you need is a legitimate product key. You can do this for Windows 7, 8.1, or 10—any version of Windows you might be using. These tools will also guide you through creating a USB installer drive, or burning the installation media to a DVD.

You can even use these tools to create Windows installation media for another PC. Just be sure to choose the correct operating system version, edition (Home or Pro), and 32-bit or 64-bit installation media the PC requires.

If you’re using Windows 10, you can skip the process of creating installation media and use the “Fresh start” feature to wipe everything away and get a fresh installation. Unlike the standard “reset this PC” feature, this will also erase bloatware installed by your manufacturer.

Consider Downloading Drivers Ahead of Time

You may want to consider downloading the hardware drivers your computer requires from its manufacturer’s website before continuing.

This is more useful if you’re using an older version of Windows, such as Windows 7. Windows 10 has more integrated drivers and should be able to automatically get more hardware devices up and running.

This can save a bit of time afterwards, but isn’t absolutely required except in one situation. In some cases, Windows may need you to install Wi-Fi or Ethernet drivers the computer requires before it can connect to the Internet. In this case, you’ll need to have either downloaded the drivers ahead of time, or download them on another PC afterwards and move them to the offline computer using a USB drive. Once your computer has internet access again, you can download all your other drivers whenever you want.

To check for any drivers your PC may require, visit its manufacturer’s website, look for a download page, and download the drivers for the version of Windows you plan to install. Place them on a USB drive or another external storage device. If you built your own PC, you’ll need to check the manufacturer’s website for each individual hardware component.

Deauthorize iTunes

If you’ve purchased content from iTunes, you’ll also want to deauthorize iTunes on your PC before continuing.

Because of the outdated way iTunes DRM works, you must deauthorize iTunes on your PC before uninstalling it. You’re only allowed to have five authorized computers at once, and don’t want to waste one of those on a Windows installation that no longer exists. If you don’t deauthorize it now, the only way you can deauthorize it later is through the “Deauthorize All” button, and you can only use that button once per year.

Yes, it’s annoying and not user friendly. We’re thankful that most other programs have moved on from these outdated DRM schemes and at least allow easier management of authorized computers, so you probably don’t have to worry about other programs. For example, if you have Office 365 installed, you can always go into your Microsoft account online and deauthorize individual computers at any time.

Reinstall Windows

If you’ve followed the above steps and feel ready to continue, it’s now time to reinstall Windows. All the programs you have installed and system settings changes you’ve made will be erased. Any personal files on your computer may or may not be erased, depending on which option you choose while reinstalling Windows.

The process is pretty simple. Take the installation media you created earlier and either plug in the USB drive or insert the disc. Reboot your PC and boot from the removable device. Depending on your PC and its settings, this may happen automatically or you may need to either change your boot order or select a boot device.

Once you’ve launched the Windows installer, reinstalling Windows is just a matter of clicking through the installation wizard. We’ve demonstrated the process of installing Windows 10, and Windows 7 is similar. You may need to enter the product key during the installation process.

Remember, if you’re using Windows 10, you can also just try using the Fresh Start feature instead of doing a full reinstall.

Quickly Install Your Favorite Programs with Ninite

When you’re done reinstalling Windows, we recommend Ninite for quickly installing programs—all at once, without clicking through different installation wizards, and without any annoying bloatware. It can install many of our favorite utilities, including VLC for watching videos, 7-Zip for extracting archives, and Paint.NET for basic image editing.

You can also use portable apps to get up and running more easily on a new PC. Place a number of portable apps in a cloud storage folder on a service like Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive, or place it on a USB drive. You can then run those programs directly from the folder on any PC without any installation required.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.