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Retrieving a Lost Windows Install Key
Here's the situation: you want or need to reinstall Windows, but you
discover that you have lost your Windows install key.
Note the word "reinstall". This is about retrieving your own serial
from an existing Windows 95,98, 98se, 2000, or XP installation, which may or
may not be corrupt. This is not about getting a cracked serial.
So what to do? Well, it depends on your operating system and the condition
it is in, but regardless, you will see, that in all cases, it is quite a
simple matter to recover your lost key, even if your only access to your
system is with a boot disk to DOS.
Windows 9X (click
here to download a ready made file that will find your Win9x/ME key)
The first thing to know is that in Windows 9x only, your Windows key is
viewable in the Registry and stored in the file system.dat. Regedit.exe
makes it possible to view your registry in an organized and legible format,
but you should understand that regedit is not your actual registry. Regedit,
as the name implies, is just a convenient editor that allows you to view and
edit system.dat and user.dat which are the files that make up your real
registry. Windows 2000 and XP do not use the registry or any registry
related file to store your Windows key.
You should also know that, unless you're using Windows 95, Product Key and
Product ID are not the same. The Product Key is a 25 alphanumeric code
grouped in five sections of five characters each, ie:
CJ321-TJ9N6-JVB2R-50BQP, and is the one needed to install Windows 98 and Me.
The Product ID is produced when you install Windows.
You don't need to enter the Registry to see your Product ID. You can see
it under the general tab of System Properties (right click My Computer and
choose Properties to see it). You cannot install Windows with the
Product ID in Windows 98 and up. Only in Windows 95 can you do this.
In Windows 95, your install key is the same as the Product ID you see in
System Properties , which is the same Product ID you see in the Registry.
The Windows 95 ProductID is made of 20 characters, in four groups consisting
of 5, 3, 7, and 5 characters. The 3 character set will be the letters OEM if
you have an OEM system. ie: 12345-OEM-1234567-12345.
To find your Windows key using regedit:
Click Start>Run and type regedit. Click OK and make your way down to this
If you are using Windows 98/Me, look in the right hand pane for the value
ProductKey. If you are using Windows 95, you would look for ProductID,
instead, as was already explained.
And there you have it.
Though that was simple, an even easier method of getting your Product Key is
by having a pre-created bat file that will retrieve it for you with just a
double click. No need to enter that scary registry at all. Try this
demo to see for yourself how it works. (click
here to download the premade bat file)
NOTE: Because of word wrap the files
below may not show correctly. Make sure the line beginning with
"start.." and the line beginning with "HKEY.." are just one long line.
(ie: start /w regedit /e key.txt HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\
start /w regedit /e key.txt HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion
type key.txt|find "ProductKey"
If you never made a batch file before, copy and paste the above commands
into a Notepad document (with Word Wrap turned OFF) and save the file
with a .bat extension, ie: key.bat
To use, simply double click and in an instant you will see your Product Key
displayed on the screen.
The file can also be easily run in Windows Dos mode (not native dos mode) if
you can't access it in Windows. Place the file in your Windows folder and
then all you have to do is enter the name of the file at the WIndows prompt,
ie: C:\WINDOWS\>KEY No need to enter the bat extension.
You can vary the bat file to produce for you a text document with your
Product key in it. ie:
start /w regedit /e key.txt HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion
type key.txt|find "ProductKey">mykey.txt
Double clicking the above file will create a text document named mykey.txt
with your Windows key in it. The file will be created in whatever directory
you run the bat file from.
So, as you can see it appears to be quite a simple matter to recover a lost
But what if you are in a situation where you're having computer problems and
need to reinstall Windows, and though you can access Windows, you can't
access the registry to find the Product Key and the above bat files don't
work? Well, nothing to worry about. It's just as easy - if not easier - to
find your key. All you have to do is open up System.dat with a text editor
(Notepad isn't big enough to hold System dat, but Wordpad is) and doing a
search for the word ProductKey (or ProductID if you're using Windows 95).
You'll be surprised by how fast you find it. First try should get you there.
By the way, you will find system.dat in your Windows folders, but make sure
you have Show All Files enabled.
Now, a more serious situation. You can't access Windows 9x at all, not even
safe mode. Your only access is through native dos and a Windows startup
disk. Again, nothing to worry about. Here's two ways you can use to retrieve
your lost key, a manual way and an automated way.
The manual way:
Boot up your computer with your startup disk, without cdrom support. When
you get to the A:\> prompt, type the following commands, pressing Enter
FIND "PRODUCTKEY" SYSTEM.DAT
Again, if it's Windows 95, substitute PRODUCTID for PRODUCTKEY.
This will search system.dat for the word entered and output the results on
the screen for you. Your Windows key will be right there in front of you.
Write it down on a piece of paper and you'll be all set to begin your
The auto way: Via a batch file, of course.
If you prepare this in advance, it will make it even easier to retrieve your
key in such a situation. Make a batch file with the following command lines:
find "ProductKey" c:\windows\system.dat
or, if you're using 95,
find "ProductID" c:\windows\system.dat
Save it as key.bat and place it on your bootup disk.
This will now allow you to find your Windows key by just typing KEY at the
A:> prompt. You may also want to place a copy in your c: drive. This would
be handy if you boot to your c: drive in native dos mode, without your
And that's about as difficult as it gets to recover your ProductKey or
ProductID, in a situation where Windows is already installed on your
Now a bit about pidgen.dll in Windows 9x, to help you understand how
ProductID and ProductKey are related.
Pidgen.dll, as the name implies, is the file that GENerates your PID (ProductID)
When you install Windows 9x, Windows looks for this dll which is located in
Precopy1.cab. Pidgen.dll then creates for you a unique ProductID based on
the valid ProductKey you entered. If there is no valid key entered, it can't
produce a PID, and thus you cannot continue installing.
In a desperate situation, where one has a Windows 98 CD with no key or
identity at all, it could be possible to debug pidgen.dll so that Windows
could be installed with any characters you want, except all 0's.
You would have to copy your Windows cd to your hard drive, extract
pidgen.dll from precopy1.cab, and then debug it from the dos prompt. ie:
xxxx:1ED7 39. 8b
xxxx:1EDF 39. 8b
A hex editor can do the job too.
However, this doesn't work on all versions or releases of Windows and you
should be aware that debugging a Windows file is considered illegal and
doing so would void any warranty.
Windows 2000 and XP
(NOTE: If you have problems with these methods, you can
download utilities here that will find your 2k or XP key for you
If you have permission or Administrator status, in Windows 2000 and XP,
retrieving your key may be a simple matter of opening up the file $WINNT$.INF.
in your Windows\System32 folder. This file is used for unattended or
automated installs of Windows NT/2000/XP and you will find your Windows key
under the section [User Data] which should be right at the top. Your key can
be named ProductKey or ProductID (in my 2k install, the key is listed as
If you can't access Windows, you can retrieve your own key via the
command line or using a Windows 9x boot disk, if the partition is FAT.
At the prompt you would type:
If you're accessing from a Windows 9x disk, run the command from the 9x C:
prompt with the MORE switch added.
type C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\$WINNT$.INF | MORE
This will display the info one page at a time. Windows XP doesn't include
the More command, so that's why you should run it from the Win9x command
An alternative is to copy the file to a floppy disk.
However, if you
have an attended install of the Corporate version of XP, you will
have to use a little proggie that you can
download here to reveal your key automatically.
It should go without saying, that in XP, the key will only allow you to
install, not activate, unless you are using the Corporate version which
requires no activation.
Vic Ferri owns the very popular
Registry Answers. Subscribe to either and receive free Windows and Registry
Tips. He is also in charge of the
Printing Tips pages at Linda's Computer Stop. Vic has also created a program
which allows you to Lock & Hide desktop folders in Windows 9X/ME.
Read more and get the free demo here. And, he now offers a service to
convert PowerPoint presentations to .exe files which can be viewed on
computers which do not have PowerPoint installed.