How to Legally Download Windows Installation Files for Free

Mihir Patkar 27-08-2015

“Try formatting your hard drive and reinstalling Windows.” It’s a phrase any Microsoft Windows user has heard at least once in their life. But if you actually want to do that, you need a Windows installation disc or USB. Instead of relying on torrents or untrustworthy sources, let’s find out how to download Windows installation media officially from Microsoft.


This guide will help you download Microsoft-certified files to install Windows 7 onwards, but you might still need some other software or tools along the way. This guide doesn’t show how to actually create an installer out of those files. For that, we have a detailed guide, which you might need to refer to often once you have the official files:

How To Make a Bootable USB, CD or DVD to Install Windows Using an ISO File How to Make a Bootable CD/DVD/USB to Install Windows Need installation media to reinstall Windows? Our tips show you how to create a bootable CD, USB, or DVD with an ISO from scratch. Read More

A Few Basics Before You Start


  • Each version has a different key. So if you have a Windows 8 key, that won’t work with a Windows 8.1 installer. You need to download the right version based on your key.
  • Installation media can usually be of two types: a USB drive or a DVD.
  • If you are making a bootable pen drive, you will need a 4GB version or larger. We suggest not having anything else on that pen drive, keep it as a dedicated installer.
  • As far as possible, download the basic version of any version of Windows. Add-ons can be downloaded later.
  • All of these solutions are for existing users who own a legal copy of Windows. If you run a pirated version of the OS, this won’t help you.

Windows 7


Unlike Windows 8 onwards, there is no “Reset” option in Windows 7. So if you are facing one of the common Windows 7 problems Top 5 Most Common Windows 7 Problems and How to Fix Them Read More and want to reinstall the operating system, you will need installation media.


Now, there are two ways you could have got your Windows 7:

  1. You purchased a Windows 7 box in retail or bought a key from a Microsoft-authorized online store.
  2. You bought a PC which came preloaded with official Windows 7.

Depending on your situation, you have different options.

If You Purchased a Windows 7 Box or Key…


Those in category one, good news! Microsoft has made it possible for you to download a Windows 7 ISO from their official site.


Go to Microsoft Software Recovery, enter your 25-character product key, select your preferred language, and click Verify Product Key. Once the key is verified, you will be able to download the ISO file. You can also choose to have an email link for your ISO emailed to you, which is the smarter option so that you don’t have to go through this process again.

Once you have the ISO, use Guy’s guide above to create a bootable USB or DVD and install Windows.

You could even try borrowing a Windows disc When Is It OK To Borrow Or Download A Windows Installation Disk Nowadays, most manufacturers no longer ship their computers with installation discs. Instead they deposit a recovery partition on the hard drive or provide software that allows you to create your own recovery media. Now what... Read More  from a friend, saving you the trouble of downloading and creating that bootable media.

If You Purchased a Windows 7 Laptop or PC…



Saw this message? Unfortunately, the above method doesn’t work if Windows 7 came installed on that Dell or Lenovo laptop you bought. Microsoft Software Recovery does not support OEM copies (What Are OEM Products? What Are OEM Products and Why Are They Cheaper? OEM stands for original equipment manufacturer. Should you buy OEM products, or is there a catch that'll set you up for trouble? Read More ) and that means you need to rely on the company that made the laptop.

Hopefully, your original box came with a Windows Installation Disc. And hopefully, you kept that box intact. Because apart from that installation disc from your manufacturer, your key won’t work on anything else.

While there is no way to download Windows, you can contact your manufacturer and ask them to mail you the installation disc. Some, like Dell, do it for free, while others charge you for basic shipping.



If you need to do this, remember the most important thing: ask for the version of Windows that came installed originally! If you turn your laptop over, you’ll see a Windows sticker somewhere with the product key. On the same sticker, you will see the version of Windows it works on. Make sure you ask only for that version, regardless of whether you have upgraded your Windows to a new version since then.

Windows 8 or Windows 8.1


Thankfully, the OEM nightmare isn’t a problem with Windows 8 and 8.1. With Windows 8, Microsoft introduced the option to restore, refresh or reset your PC How To Restore, Refresh, or Reset Your Windows 8 Installation In addition to the standard System Restore feature, Windows 8 has features for "refreshing" and "resetting" your PC. Think of these as ways of quickly re-installing Windows -- either keeping your personal files or deleting... Read More . That is the easier choice in most cases, but if you want to create a fresh installation after formatting your drive, then Windows 8 can be downloaded for free.

Important: Your Windows 8 product key does not work on Windows 8.1, and vice versa. So you need to download the version of Windows that the product key is valid for.


On an existing Windows PC:

Go to Microsoft’s download page for Windows 8/8.1. Click and download Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 setup.

Run the setup file on a Windows PC (not necessarily the one you want to upgrade). Go through the steps, add your product key when prompted for on Windows 8. Windows 8.1 does not have a prompt during this process, but will ask you for the key during the installation process. The setup recognizes which version the key is for and will start downloading that version of Windows. In the Windows 8.1 tool, you can choose whether you want a 32-bit or 64-bit installer, or both—choose both.

Once the download is done, you will be prompted to Install Now, Install By Creating Media, or Install Later From Your Desktop.

Choose Install By Creating Media. Choose USB Flash Drive to create a bootable pen drive, or ISO to create a bootable DVD. Insert your pen drive or DVD and select that. Go through the steps and finish.

This bootable pen drive or DVD can now be used to do a clean install of Windows, provided you are already running Windows on the PC. However, if it’s a new hard drive or you weren’t previously running Windows, this pen drive or DVD can’t be used.

Windows 10


Finally, we come to the new kid on the block. There are some good reasons to upgrade to Windows 10 10 Compelling Reasons to Upgrade to Windows 10 Windows 10 is coming on July 29. Is it worth upgrading for free? If you are looking forward to Cortana, state of the art gaming, or better support for hybrid devices - yes, definitely! And... Read More and we have gone over how you can get Windows 10 while keeping your settings and apps How to Upgrade to Windows 10 & Take Settings and Apps with You Windows 10 is coming and you have a choice to make. Either you upgrade your existing Windows installation, or you can install Windows 10 from scratch. We show you how to migrate to Windows 10... Read More . But if all you want is a Windows 10 ISO or a bootable pen drive, here’s what you need to do:

Important: Several users have reported issues after upgrading to Windows 10. The safest way to ensure you get a legal, activated version of Windows 10 that still allows you to downgrade How to Downgrade from Windows 10 to Windows 7 or 8.1 Windows 10 is here and maybe it's not what you expected. If you already upgraded, you can perform a rollback. And if you haven't yet, create a system backup first. We show you how. Read More  later on, is to upgrade from an ISO file or installation media from within your old Windows version.


On an existing Windows PC:

Go to Microsoft’s download page for Windows 10 ISO and download the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool. Run the tool on a Windows PC (not necessarily the one you want to upgrade) and go through the steps, it’s pretty straightforward.

Choose whether you want a 32-bit or 64-bit installer, or both—choose both. Once the download is done, you will be prompted to Upgrade this PC now or Create installation media for another PC. Choose the second one. Choose USB Flash Drive to create a bootable pen drive, or ISO to create a bootable DVD. Insert your pen drive or DVD, make a respective selection, and go through the subsequent steps as instructed.

And there you have it, Windows 10 on a pen drive or DVD. Remember, you will need to purchase a Windows 10 product key to use this on a new computer. If you want the free upgrade, make sure you are first running an activated Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. If all of this is a little confusing, we have a quick guide: Can you upgrade to Windows 10? Is Your Computer Compatible with Windows 10 & Can You Upgrade? Windows 10 is coming, possibly as soon as July. Are you eager to upgrade and will your system be eligible? In short, if your computer runs Windows 8, it should also run Windows 10. But... Read More

Microsoft Could Make this Easier!

Researching the various hoops you have to jump through to get Windows that you have already paid for, I can’t help but laugh at Microsoft. I am flabbergasted that there isn’t a simple, single program or web app where I can input my product key, get options for the different versions of Windows I am eligible for, and download the one I want. Frankly, downloading other software The Safest Free Software Download Sites for Windows Many software download sites are loaded with malware. We compiled websites you can trust when you need a free software download. Read More isn’t much better. It is infinitely easier to install Ubuntu on a computer How to Install Ubuntu on Windows 10: 3 Simple Methods to Try There are many ways in which you can try Ubuntu. One of them is to install Ubuntu on Windows 10 using one of these methods. Read More , or any other version of Linux—and that’s completely free!

Do you think Microsoft needs to make it simpler to download and install Windows for its legal, paying customers?

Image credits: Microsoft, / Flickr

Related topics: Install Software, Windows 10, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1.

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  1. Anonymous
    August 31, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    I didn't see it mentioned, but it's handy to be able to extract your Windows 8/8.1 product key from the BIOS. has a quick 'n easy method. I have done this myself, works like a charm.

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 31, 2015 at 3:52 pm

      That's pretty cool, thanks for sharing!

  2. Anonymous
    August 31, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    I also work in IT. I have standard system images using the volume licenses I manage, but I also have ISO files for retail Windows licenses. In my case, the ISOs came from MSDN subscriptions, but I know that retail licensed Windows 7+ install files are readily and legally available from Microsoft for end users.

    It's also not that hard, once you have the installation media, to impregnate that media with the latest Windows updates. People who install Windows more than occasionally will definitely appreciate not having 20 minutes of extra downloads and reboots in the post-installation phase.

    What is more tricky are OEM Windows versions, particularly since Windows 8+ has moved the official OEM product keys into firmware rather than a license sticker. For these, since I'm not willing to hunt down a specific installer, there's the Multi-OEM Project, which allows techs to build a universal installer that supports most globally-recognized OEM Windows media. Getting the actual files is a bit tricky, and you have to either be willing to trust the people providing the files or be willing to do scan after scan to verify that you're getting a product that doesn't contain rootkits, viruses or malware. Having done that several times myself I can say that the tool does seem to be a safe alternative to repeatedly searching and paying for oddball Windows installation media because your co-worker's son's POS Acer had its hard drive die.

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 31, 2015 at 3:54 pm

      Multi OEM Project looks really cool, LFBN. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Anonymous
    August 28, 2015 at 9:30 am

    I totally agree. It should be easier. I work in I.T. and I have to reinstall Windows a few times a week. I have universal discs with every Windows OS on them and several flash drives. I used to use Digital River but all the links have been gone for months (and I haven't checked since May).

    Also I have a theory on why they don't offer download links.. can you imagine a normal user finally burning a disc or flash drive only to find that they are missing most of their drivers? Like ethernet and wireless.. so they can't do updates. That or the Manufacturer has some kind of license or contract with Microsoft that I'm unaware of that prevents Microsoft from distributing clean spam free OSs.

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 28, 2015 at 12:13 pm

      I think your latter reasoning is more plausible. Manufacturers earn money through pre-installed third-party software. MS needs these manufacturers to support them. So MS is fine with not allowing clean installations.

  4. Anonymous
    August 28, 2015 at 9:05 am

    You can still get the Digital River ISOs for OEM versions of Windows 7.

    No need to contact the manufacturer and have to pay for a recovery disk - which, most probably, will contain all the crapware.

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 28, 2015 at 12:18 pm

      Microsoft no longer supports the Digital River ISOs, nor do they work for all OEM versions. Also, DR downloads require you to match the specific version you bought, which really isn't easy for a novice. Given these reasons, while it's technically possible to download DR ISOs, we can't recommend them as a viable solution for our readers.

      • Anonymous
        August 28, 2015 at 2:47 pm

        The specific version is on the sticker with the product key, there is exactly zero difficulty to that.

        Not to mention that the vast majority is just Windows 7 Home Premium for laptops and Windows 7 Starter for netbooks.

        I have been pointing to Digital River ISOs for years on my Greek website and I have yet to have a single incident where an OEM or DSP product key didn't work with Digital River. I am not saying its impossible, but its extremely improbable.

        The phrase "While there is no way to download Windows" is just not true. The plan to contact the manufacturer and pay 30-50$ to receive a recovery disk with all the unwanted software is frankly the worst possible solution. This is the "everything else has failed, so we have no other choice" solution.

        • Mihir Patkar
          August 28, 2015 at 3:34 pm

          I disagree with you, but I'm going to leave this comment up in case other users find it helpful :)

          Note to users: MakeUseOf does not approve of this method. Digital River's Windows 7 ISO downloads are no longer supported by Microsoft; the links you will find above are hosted on torrents and unofficial. While they have not proven to be harmful or malicious, if you download those, that's at your own risk.

  5. Anonymous
    August 28, 2015 at 6:15 am

    Does any one ever check first before they complain something cant be done? It actually is as easy as "googling 'download windows 10 ISO'" and being taken to the correct link" that is just what I did over a week ago, downloaded it, and installed it without a single problem. And am no ITT tech or even close to that either. Actually have no training in using computers . . . just have used trial and error since buying my first computer, have never even purchased any book about how to use them. Whenever I have a question, just searched on the Internet to see if I could find it... Maybe others should actually do that, instead of spending the time complaining...

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 28, 2015 at 9:11 am

      That's *only* for Windows 10, Robert. With Windows 7, 8, and 8.1, the top links are from third-party sites and the first page even has some malicious links. If you don't find this article helpful, that's totally fine though.

  6. Anonymous
    August 27, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    I didn't have a problem upgrading one laptop from Win 7 to Win 10...OTOH, the former "Genuine Windows 8" laptop of mine was an epic Windows install #FAIL...I could install Windows 10 but couldn't activate it; I'd tested Windows 10 on this laptop and was disappointed M$ decided to make things so danged complicated. I ended up saying, "to heck with it!" and installed Linux Mint on the former Windows 8 laptop. And odds are I'll take the other laptop and move it to Linux Mint too. Smooth move, Micro$oft...

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 28, 2015 at 12:19 pm

      Wow, that's pretty extreme, Brian! The Win 10 installation process was annoying enough for you to switch to Linux instead? What could MS do to change your mind?

      • Anonymous
        August 28, 2015 at 11:31 pm

        my thoughts echo what Ben Stutts said below - MS has become so heck-bent on battling piracy that they make it difficult for everyone else with a proper license to use Windows 10. My laptop originally had Windows 8 on it (which is supposed to have the product key baked into the BIOS) - then I had a preview of Windows 10 Pro since the beginning of this year - I wanted to clean install Windows 10 Home. MS wants me to downgrade back to Windows 8 then upgrade (which I couldn't do because my recovery media didn't work). I ended up stuck with a non-activated version of Windows 10. I didn't want to go through the hokey pokey and turn myself around and jump through the hoops MS wants me to jump through. For a bunch of folks who are supposed to be tech-savvy, MS does some pretty back-a**wards things...

        • Mihir Patkar
          August 30, 2015 at 6:02 am

          I feel your pain, Brian. I completely agree. MS really messed up this one for average joe. It's almost like upgrading without reading articles online is impossible for a lot of folks.

    • Anonymous
      September 12, 2015 at 2:11 pm

      Amen on Linux Mint. I did the same. Microsoft has lost me for good I reckon.

  7. Anonymous
    August 27, 2015 at 11:39 pm

    Microsoft in their zeal to stop piracy has made it more difficult for a legitimate user to install the OS they paid for than for the pirates to steal it. The pirates are laughing at You MS. They are not having the problems installing Windows - ONLY your legitimate paying customers have this problem. MS management, please get your head out of where the sun don't shine and join the real world. I have a license - and yet it is easier to install a working pirate version than to reinstall my legal version.

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 28, 2015 at 12:20 pm

      "The pirates are laughing at You MS. They are not having the problems installing Windows – ONLY your legitimate paying customers have this problem." -- You nailed it Ben. You absolutely nailed it. Thank you for this comment.

  8. Anonymous
    August 27, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    So my computer started out with W7, I then upgraded to 8 then 8.1 and now 10. So which of the methods above would I use?

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 28, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      Whichever is the latest version you *purchased* a key for. So if you purchased a computer with Win 7, that's the key. If you purchased a Windows 8 upgrade key, then that's your latest key. I'm going to assume Windows 8 to 8.1 was the free upgrade for you, which would mean Windows 8 is what you need to use from the above methods.

    • Tina Sieber
      August 28, 2015 at 7:23 pm

      If you are currently running an activated version of Windows 10, you should be able to install Windows 10 on that device without issues. If it's a computer with the Windows license embedded in the UEFI / BIOS (Windows 8), it should activate automatically.

      Replacing the motherboard will break your auto-activation, though. In that case, you'll have to use the original product key of the Windows version that originally came with your computer, as described above.

  9. Anonymous
    August 27, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Mihir, Excellent piece and your opinion was a perfect conclusion!! Agree wholeheartedly

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 28, 2015 at 12:23 pm

      Thanks Joe :)

  10. Anonymous
    August 27, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Great article until the editorial at the bottom!

    • Mihir Patkar
      August 27, 2015 at 4:59 pm

      Haha you don't agree, Chris? Just researching this article, I was super annoyed by how difficult MS has made the process for paying customers to download Windows.

      • Anonymous
        August 27, 2015 at 6:08 pm

        I actually do agree with you. Working in I.T., I've got pretty much every Windows OS burned to disk in my desk drawer because of this. I absolutely love using Linux as well. I only commented because it was such an informative article, and thought the piece at the end just didn't fit.

        • Mihir Patkar
          August 27, 2015 at 6:15 pm

          Fair enough. I just wanted to draw attention to how MS doesn't seem to care about its customer once the sale is made. It really shouldn't be so hard to download a legitimate copy of Windows that I've already paid for. I mean, we have a 1000-word article on it! It should be as easy as Googling "download official Windows 7/8/10" and being taken straight to the correct link, where you can start downloading immediately.

        • John P
          July 4, 2016 at 6:15 pm

          Pretty sure he's talking about " It is infinitely easier to install Ubuntu on a computer, or any other version of Linux—and that’s completely free!" and not the piece about making it easier.