What Is Product Activation?

Some software programs require activation before they can be used

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Product activation (often just activation) is the procedure by which a piece of software or operating system is proven to be legitimately installed. 

From a technical perspective, product activation usually means combining a product key or serial number with unique information about a computer and sending that data to the software maker over the internet.

Then, the software manufacturer can validate whether the information matches up with their records of a purchase, and any features (or lack of features) can then be placed on the software.

Why Does Software Need Activated?

Product activation helps prove that the product key or serial number being used is not pirated and that the software is being used on an appropriate number of computers... usually, but not always, one. 

In other words, activating a product prevents users from copying a program to other devices without paying for the additional instances, something that's remarkably easy to do otherwise.

Depending on the software or operating system, choosing not to activate might prevent the software from running entirely, reduce the functionality of the software, watermark any output from the program, cause regular (usually very annoying) reminders, or may not have any effect at all.

For example, while you can most definitely download a free version of the popular Driver Booster driver updater program, you cannot use all of its features because there's a professional version of the same program. Driver Booster Pro lets you download drivers faster and gives you access to a larger collection of drivers, but only if you insert a Driver Booster Pro license key.

How Do I Activate My Software?

Keep in mind that not all programs need activated before they can be used. A general example is most freeware programs. Applications that are 100% free to download and use as often as you like do not normally need to be activated since they are, by definition, free for almost anyone to use.

However, software limited in one or more aspects, like by time or use, often use product activation as a way for the user to lift those restrictions and use the program past its free trial date, use it on more computers than the free edition allows, etc. These programs often fall under the term shareware.

It'd be impossible to provide instructions on how to activate every single program and operating system, but in general, product activation works basically the same no matter what needs activated...

If you're installing an operating system, you're often given the opportunity to provide an activation key during installation, maybe even with the option to delay activation until later. Once you've started the OS and are using it, there's most likely an area in the settings where you can enter the product key to activate it.

Tip: You can see this area of product activation in Windows if you follow our How Do I Change My Windows Product Key? guide.

The same is true for software programs, though most even let you use the professional edition for a period of time (like 30 days) for free, with or without limitations depending on the application. However, when it's time to activate the program, some or all features are completely disabled until you paste in a product key.

If you're not given the chance to enter a series of numbers and/or letters for activation, that program might instead use an activation key file that you get over an email or download from your online account. Some software programs don't use a traditional activation method and might instead make you log in to your account through the program because your activation status is stored in your online account.

In some situations, usually in commercial business settings only, multiple devices connect to a local server on the network to obtain the license information needed for a particular program. The devices are able to use the software in this way because the license server, which communicates directly with the  manufacturer, can validate and activate each instance of the program.

Look for a key icon, lock button, license manager tool, or option in the File menu or in the settings. It's usually there that you're given the option to load a license file, enter an activation code, etc. Activating an operating system or program can sometimes be accomplished over the phone or email as well.

Can a Keygen Provide Product Activation?

Some websites offer free product keys or license files that trick a program into thinking that it's been purchased legally, letting you use a trial or expired program or operating system to its full capacity. They're normally provided through what's known as a keygen, or key generator.

It's important to know that these types of programs do not provide valid licenses, even if they do actually work and let you use the software with no limitations. Entering a product key that works, but that was not purchased legally, is likely illegal in most cases, and certainly unethical.

It's always best to purchase programs from the manufacturer. In most situations, you can get your hands on a free trial copy of any program or OS so that you can test it out for a limited time. Just remember to buy a genuine license if you want to keep using it.

See Is a Keygen a Good Way to Generate a Product Key? for a larger discussion on this.

More Information on Product Activation

Some license files and product keys are designed to be used more than once until a limit is reached, and some can be used as many times as possible but will only work if the simultaneous use of the license remains below a predefined number.

For example, in the second instance where the same key can be used as often as you like, the license may only support, say, 10 seats at once. In this scenario, the key or key file could be loaded into the program on 10 computers and all of them could be activated, but not even a single one more.

However, if three computers closed down the program or withdrew their license information, three more could begin using that same product activation information because the license permits 10 simultaneous uses.