Two of the more popular articles on my site - my free product key finder list and my commercial product key finder list - both concern, you guessed it, key finder programs. I suppose it's natural then that those articles produce the majority of questions I receive via email.
To help you out a bit quicker, and to cut down on my email, I've put together this FAQ to help answer the most common questions I receive about key finder programs.
Note: In addition to the following questions about key finder programs, you may also be interested in my Windows Product Keys FAQ which answers many common questions about Windows key codes.
"Are the commercial product key finder programs better than the free ones?"
Not necessarily, no. Just because a key finder program costs more than $0.00 doesn't necessarily mean it's any better than any of the free key finders.
As far as finding a Windows product key, any of the free key finder programs will do that. There's no need to purchase a commercial key finder just to find your Windows product key. The main reason I created the commercial product key finder list was to provide additional options for finding product keys and serial numbers for more obscure programs.
"Why did the key finder tool find a different Windows product key than the one on the sticker on my PC?"
If your computer was manufactured by a large company like Dell, Sony, Gateway, etc. then the product key that the key finder found was very, very likely a generic product key that Microsoft allows the manufacturer to use so it's easy for them to mass produce PCs.
This generic product key will NOT work if you use it to reinstall Windows. I should also note here that a commercial key finder program will not find a different key so don't pay money for one thinking you'll get a different product key.
You'll need to use the product key that's on the sticker attached to your PC and not the one that any key finder tool finds. If you can't locate your product key, you may have to request a new one from Microsoft.
If, however, you've already reinstalled Windows yourself using your unique product key, then the key found by any key finder will be the correct one to use to reinstall Windows yet again.
Tip: It's really easy to change your Windows product key from the generic one used by your computer maker to the unique key found on your product key sticker. See instructions from Microsoft here on how to do this.
Note: Computers deployed on large corporate networks often use a Key Management Server (KMS) to automatically activate Windows on those computers. Microsoft publishes these KMS keys here which, like the generic product keys I already mentioned above, will not work when reinstalling Windows.
"None of the key finder programs I use find my product key!"
"All any key finder will show for my product key is BBBBB-BBBBB-BBBBB-BBBBB-BBBBB!"
"The key finder I tried only found the last five digits of my product key but the rest was all B's!"
Some editions of Windows (and some other Microsoft products) are made available via what's called a "volume license." In these types of distributions, a product key is shared among anywhere from five to hundreds or thousands of software installations, depending on the license, so product verification is handled differently.
Basically, this means that your product key is not stored in the registry and no product key finder program will be able to find it. You can't find something that isn't there. Your best bet in this situation is to contact the provider of your copy of Windows and ask for a replacement product key.
"Will a key finder program create a unique product key for my software?"
No. Key finder programs are not key generators. A key finder program will only locate the key of an already-installed program and only if the particular key finder tool supports that program.
"When I use [key finder program], my antivirus program warns me that the program might be a virus or other threat!"
Some antivirus programs incorrectly flag several popular key finder programs as malware. Key finder programs access parts of the Windows Registry that these antivirus programs see as potentially threatening behavior but there's no need to worry.
Important: You should always exercise caution when your antivirus program warns you of a threat. Don't just take my word for the safety of any program that you're warned about. Check the key finder's website for information and do some searching to see if others have had similar experiences. It's always possible that the warning should be taken seriously.
"Will a key finder find a serial number or product key for a program that I've uninstalled?"
Probably not, no. When you properly uninstall a program, its entries in the registry that note the serial number or product key are usually removed. That's not always the case, however, so it certainly doesn't hurt to try out one or more free key finders. You might get lucky.
If you've recently uninstalled the program, you could try to restore the program's registry data using the System Restore utility and then run your favorite key finder after that's complete.
"If I've already formatted my hard drive, will a key finder program still find the Windows product key?"
No. Your only hope in this situation would be to use formatted disk recovery software to restore the data from the drive. You could then attempt to use a key finder.
"How do I use a key finder program to find my Windows product key if I can't boot into Windows?"
Obviously this is a common problem. The most likely reason you would want to reinstall Windows in the first place is because some problem has prevented you from accessing it. Of course you can't run a key finder program if you can't access Windows.
The solution here is to move the hard drive containing the non-bootable Windows partition to a working computer. Install on the working computer a key finder program that supports the loading of a registry hive from another Windows partition (Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder does) and then point the key finder to the Windows installation on your hard drive you just installed.
Assuming the registry isn't damaged, the key finder program should find the product key used to install Windows on that hard drive.