Windows subscription activation

The subscription activation feature enables you to "step-up" from Windows Pro edition to Enterprise or Education editions. You can use this feature if you're subscribed to Windows Enterprise E3 or E5 licenses. Subscription activation also supports step-up from Windows Pro Education edition to Education edition.

If you have devices that are licensed for earlier versions of Windows Professional, Microsoft 365 Business Premium provides an upgrade to Windows Pro edition, which is the prerequisite for deploying Windows Business.

The subscription activation feature eliminates the need to manually deploy Enterprise or Education edition images on each target device, then later standing up on-premises key management services such as KMS or MAK based activation, entering Generic Volume License Keys (GVLKs), and then rebooting client devices.

This article covers the following information:

For more information on how to deploy Enterprise licenses, see Deploy Windows Enterprise licenses.

Subscription activation for Enterprise

Windows Enterprise E3 and E5 are available as online services via subscription. You can deploy Windows Enterprise in your organization without keys and reboots.

  • Devices with a current Windows Pro edition license can be seamlessly upgraded to Windows Enterprise.
  • Product key-based Windows Enterprise software licenses can be transitioned to Windows Enterprise subscriptions.

Organizations that have an enterprise agreement can also benefit from the service, using traditional Active Directory-joined devices. In this scenario, the Active Directory user that signs in on their device must be synchronized with Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) using Azure AD Connect Sync.

Note

Subscription activation is available for qualifying devices running Windows 10 or Windows 11. You can't use subscription activation to upgrade from Windows 10 to Windows 11.

Subscription activation for Education

Subscription activation for Education works the same as the Enterprise edition, but in order to use subscription activation for Education, you must have a device running Windows Pro Education and an active subscription plan with an Enterprise license. For more information, see the requirements section.

Inherited activation

Inherited activation allows Windows virtual machines to inherit activation state from their Windows client host. When a user with a Windows E3/E5 or A3/A5 license assigned creates a new Windows 10 or Windows 11 virtual machine (VM) using a Windows 10 or Windows 11 host, the VM inherits the activation state from a host machine. This behavior is independent of whether the user signs on with a local account or uses an Azure AD account on a VM.

To support inherited activation, both the host computer and the VM must be running a supported version of Windows 10 or Windows 11. The hypervisor platform must also be Windows Hyper-V.

The evolution of deployment

Tip

The original version of this section can be found at Changing between Windows SKUs.

The following list illustrates how deploying Windows client has evolved with each release:

  • Windows 7 required you to redeploy the operating system using a full wipe-and-load process if you wanted to change from Windows 7 Professional to Windows 10 Enterprise.

  • Windows 8.1 added support for a Windows 8.1 Pro to Windows 8.1 Enterprise in-place upgrade. This process was considered a "repair upgrade", because the OS version was the same before and after. This upgrade was a lot easier than wipe-and-load, but it was still time-consuming.

  • Windows 10, version 1507 added the ability to install a new product key using a provisioning package or using MDM to change the SKU. This process required a reboot, which would install the new OS components, and took several minutes to complete. However, it was a lot quicker than in-place upgrade.

  • Windows 10, version 1607 made a large leap forward. You could just change the product key and the edition instantly changed from Windows 10 Pro to Windows 10 Enterprise. In addition to provisioning packages and MDM, you can inject a key using slmgr.vbs, which injects the key into WMI. It became trivial to do this process using a command line.

  • Windows 10, version 1703 made this "step-up" from Windows 10 Pro to Windows 10 Enterprise automatic for devices that subscribed to Windows 10 Enterprise E3 or E5 via the CSP program.

  • Windows 10, version 1709 added support for Windows 10 subscription activation, similar to the CSP support but for large enterprises. This feature enabled the use of Azure AD for assigning licenses to users. When users sign in to a device that's joined to Active Directory or Azure AD, it automatically steps up from Windows 10 Pro to Windows 10 Enterprise.

  • Windows 10, version 1803 updated Windows 10 subscription activation to enable pulling activation keys directly from firmware for devices that support firmware-embedded keys. It was no longer necessary to run a script to activate Windows 10 Pro before activating Enterprise. For virtual machines and hosts running Windows 10, version 1803, inherited activation was also enabled.

  • Windows 10, version 1903 updated Windows 10 subscription activation to enable step-up from Windows 10 Pro Education to Windows 10 Education for devices with a qualifying Windows 10 or Microsoft 365 subscription.

  • Windows 11, version 21H2 updated subscription activation to work on both Windows 10 and Windows 11 devices.

    Important

    Subscription activation doesn't update a device from Windows 10 to Windows 11. Only the edition is updated.

Requirements

Windows Enterprise requirements

Note

The following requirements don't apply to general Windows client activation on Azure. Azure activation requires a connection to Azure KMS only. It supports workgroup, hybrid, and Azure AD-joined VMs. In most scenarios, activation of Azure VMs happens automatically. For more information, see Understanding Azure KMS endpoints for Windows product activation of Azure virtual machines.

Important

As of October 1, 2022, subscription activation is available for commercial and GCC tenants. It's currently not available on GCC High or DoD tenants. For more information, see Enable subscription activation with an existing EA.

For Microsoft customers with Enterprise Agreements (EA) or Microsoft Products & Services Agreements (MPSA), you must have the following requirements:

  • A supported version of Windows Pro or Enterprise edition installed on the devices to be upgraded.
  • Azure AD available for identity management.
  • Devices must be Azure AD-joined or hybrid Azure AD joined. Workgroup-joined or Azure AD registered devices aren't supported.

For Microsoft customers that don't have EA or MPSA, you can get Windows Enterprise E3/E5 or A3/A5 licenses through a cloud solution provider (CSP). Identity management and device requirements are the same when you use CSP to manage licenses. For more information about getting Windows Enterprise E3 through your CSP, see Windows Enterprise E3 in CSP.

Windows Education requirements

  • A supported version of Windows Pro Education installed on the devices to be upgraded.
  • A device with a Windows Pro Education digital license. You can confirm this information in Settings > Update & Security > Activation.
  • The Education tenant must have an active subscription to Microsoft 365 with a Windows Enterprise license, or a Windows Enterprise or Education subscription.
  • Devices must be Azure AD-joined or hybrid Azure AD joined. Workgroup-joined or Azure AD registered devices aren't supported.

Important

If Windows 10 Pro is converted to Windows 10 Pro Education by using benefits available in Store for Education, then the feature will not work. You will need to re-image the device using a Windows 10 Pro Education edition.

Benefits

With Windows Enterprise or Education editions, your organization can benefit from enterprise-level security and control. Previously, only organizations with a Microsoft Volume Licensing Agreement could deploy Education or Enterprise editions to their users. With Windows Enterprise E3/E5 or A3/A5 being available as an online service, it's available in select channels thus allowing all organizations to take advantage of enterprise-grade Windows features.

To compare Windows 10 editions and review pricing, see the following sites:

You can benefit by moving to Windows as an online service in the following ways:

  • Licenses for Windows Enterprise and Education are checked based on Azure AD credentials. You have a systematic way to assign licenses to end users and groups in your organization.

  • User sign-in triggers a silent edition upgrade, with no reboot required.

  • Support for mobile worker and "bring your own device" (BYOD) activation. This support transitions away from on-premises KMS and MAK keys.

  • Compliance support via seat assignment.

  • Licenses can be updated to different users dynamically, which allows you to optimize your licensing investment against changing needs.

How it works

Note

The following examples use Windows 10 Pro to Enterprise edition. The examples also apply to Windows 11, and Education editions.

The device is Azure AD-joined from Settings > Accounts > Access work or school.

You assign Windows 10 Enterprise to a user:

A screenshot of assigning a Windows 10 Enterprise license in the Microsoft 365 admin center.

When a licensed user signs in to a device that meets requirements using their Azure AD credentials, Windows steps up from Pro edition to Enterprise. Then all of the Enterprise features are unlocked. When a user's subscription expires or is transferred to another user, the device reverts seamlessly to Windows 10 Pro edition, once the current subscription validity expires.

Note

Devices running a supported version of Windows 10 Pro Education can get Windows 10 Enterprise or Education general availability channel on up to five devices for each user covered by the license. This benefit doesn't include the long term servicing channel.

The following figure summarizes how the subscription activation model works:

Diagram of subscription activation.

Note

  • A Windows 10 Pro Education device will only step-up to Windows 10 Education edition when you assign a Windows 10 Enterprise license from the Microsoft 365 admin center.

  • A Windows 10 Pro device will only step-up to Windows 10 Enterprise edition when you assign a Windows 10 Enterprise license from the Microsoft 365 admin center.

Scenarios

Scenario #1

You're using a supported version of Windows 10. You purchased Windows 10 Enterprise E3 or E5 subscriptions, or you've had an E3 or E5 subscription for a while but haven't yet deployed Windows 10 Enterprise.

All of your Windows 10 Pro devices will step-up to Windows 10 Enterprise. When a subscription activation-enabled user signs in, devices that are already running Windows 10 Enterprise will migrate from KMS or MAK activated Enterprise edition to subscription activated Enterprise edition.

Scenario #2

You're using Azure AD-joined devices or Active Directory-joined devices running a supported version of Windows 10. You configured Azure AD synchronization. You follow the steps in Deploy Windows Enterprise licenses to get a $0 SKU, and get a new Windows 10 Enterprise E3 or E5 license in Azure AD. You then assign that license to all of your Azure AD users, which can be Active Directory-synced accounts. When that user signs in, the device will automatically change from Windows 10 Pro to Windows 10 Enterprise.

Earlier versions of Windows

If devices are running Windows 7, more steps are required. A wipe-and-load approach still works, but it can be easier to upgrade from Windows 7 Pro directly to Windows 10 Enterprise edition. This path is supported, and completes the move in one step. This method also works for devices with Windows 8.1 Pro.

Licenses

The following policies apply to acquisition and renewal of licenses on devices:

  • Devices that have been upgraded will attempt to renew licenses about every 30 days. They must be connected to the internet to successfully acquire or renew a license.

  • If a device is disconnected from the internet, until its current subscription expires Windows will revert to Pro or Pro Education. As soon as the device is connected to the internet again, the license will automatically renew.

  • Up to five devices can be upgraded for each user license. If the user license is used for a sixth device, on the computer to which a user hasn't logged for the longest time, Windows will revert to Pro or Pro Education.

  • If a device meets the requirements and a licensed user signs in on that device, it will be upgraded.

Licenses can be reallocated from one user to another user, allowing you to optimize your licensing investment against changing needs.

When you have the required Azure AD subscription, group-based licensing is the preferred method to assign Enterprise E3 and E5 licenses to users. For more information, see Group-based licensing basics in Azure AD.

Existing Enterprise deployments

If you're running a supported version of Windows 10 or Windows 11, subscription activation will automatically pull the firmware-embedded Windows activation key and activate the underlying Pro license. The license will then step-up to Enterprise using subscription activation. This behavior automatically migrates your devices from KMS or MAK activated Enterprise to subscription activated Enterprise.

Subscription activation doesn't remove the need to activate the underlying OS. This requirement still exists for running a genuine installation of Windows.

Caution

Firmware-embedded Windows activation happens automatically only during Windows Setup out of box experience (OOBE).

If the computer has never been activated with a Pro key, use the following script from an elevated PowerShell console:

$(Get-WmiObject SoftwareLicensingService).OA3xOriginalProductKey | foreach{ if ( $null -ne $_ ) { Write-Host "Installing"$_;changepk.exe /Productkey $_ } else { Write-Host "No key present" } }

Obtaining an Azure AD license

If your organization has an Enterprise Agreement (EA) or Software Assurance (SA):

  • Organizations with a traditional EA must order a $0 SKU, process e-mails sent to the license administrator for the company, and assign licenses using Azure AD. Ideally, you assign the licenses to groups using the Azure AD Premium feature for group assignment. For more information, see Enable subscription activation with an existing EA.

  • The license administrator can assign seats to Azure AD users with the same process that's used for Microsoft 365 Apps.

  • New EA/SA Windows Enterprise customers can acquire both an SA subscription and an associated $0 cloud subscription.

If your organization has a Microsoft Products & Services Agreement (MPSA):

  • New customers are automatically emailed the details of the service. Take steps to process the instructions.

  • Existing MPSA customers will receive service activation emails that allow their customer administrator to assign users to the service.

  • New MPSA customers who purchase the Software Subscription Windows Enterprise E3 and E5 will be enabled for both the traditional key-based and new subscriptions activation method.

Deploying licenses

For more information, see Deploy Windows Enterprise licenses.

Virtual Desktop Access (VDA)

Subscriptions to Windows Enterprise are also available for virtualized clients. Enterprise E3 and E5 are available for Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) in Microsoft Azure or in another qualified multitenant hoster (QMTH).

Virtual machines (VMs) must be configured to enable Windows 10 Enterprise subscriptions for VDA. Active Directory-joined and Azure Active Directory-joined clients are supported. See Enable VDA for Subscription Activation.

Connect domain-joined devices to Azure AD for Windows experiences. For more information, see Plan your hybrid Azure Active Directory join implementation

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