My experience on buying "grey market" software

UsandThem

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This following personal account does not have anything to do with obviously questionable / fake / stolen $2 Windows licenses sold on places like Ebay. While they might activate, common sense would dictate a legitimate seller would charge more than such a small amount for a Windows license. I personally DO NOT recommend going that route. Those licenses are very likely not "grey market", but instead "black market".

I am not recommending any particular marketplace or seller, I simply went with Kinguin due to the two articles linked to in my personal experience below. Do so at your own risk.


One of the most common questions I've seen asked over the many years I've been on here is "Can't I save money and just buy "grey market" software and games. The answers that follow are a mixture of "I do it all the time, and there hasn't been any problems", to "That cheap key will likely activate, but at some point the company will flag the key and you'll be out the money you spent".

Upgrading my PC recently, I was intrigued enough to try it out. Previously, I had purchased a retail copy of Windows 10 Home at Best Buy, so I could transfer that license to my new PC without any worries. However, I really wanted my new PC to have Windows 10 PRO for features like being able to "sandbox" suspicious links or programs. Microsoft offered me that very option in my settings, all for the low price of $99. Conversely, on "grey market" sites such as Kinguin, I could buy an entire Windows 10 PRO license for around $30 from individual sellers, along with the option to pay an additional $5.50 to Kinguin for some sort of protection that if my license would not work (or if it was deactivated in the future), Kinguin would ensure I would receive another working license.

After reading these articles from Tom's Hardware and Polygon, I decided to try it out and see how it worked, and what my experience would be. At worst, I would be out around $40. After reading the article, what initially had me sold about purchasing a license this way and saving a fair amount of money was this explanation from the article:
Mark Jordan, Kinguin’s VP of communications, told me that their merchants acquire the codes from wholesalers who have surplus copies of Windows they don't need.

"It's not a gray market. It would be like buying Adidas or Puma or Nike from a discounter, from TJ Maxx," Jordan said. "There are no legal issues with buying it from us. It's just another marketplace."
First, I created an account and looked at their payment options. They stated they accepted several forms of payment, including credit card and Paypal. I decided that since I wasn't sure how everything would turn out, I went to a local store and purchased a $40 prepaid Master Card (along with an additional $5.95 activation fee). I then proceeded to look at the individual sellers, and I went with a seller that had a 99% satisfaction rate, and almost 46,000 orders. After inputting all of my info, I placed my order, only to have the transaction denied by the bank who issued the prepaid Master Card. After looking at the fine print of the card, I discovered that it could only be used in the U.S, and with Kinguin located outside of the U.S., it was a no-go. Now being down the $5.95 activation fee I paid for the card, and debating if I wanted to try another payment option, I decided I would use my Paypal account. I proceeded to place another order, and this time it worked just fine.

Within a few minutes, I received an email from Kinguin letting me know my Windows key was now available in my inventory, and they also sent me an image of my license key. After going to my Kinguin account, I noticed they had a guide concerning activating the product key:

4.jpg

5.jpg

I figured I would activate it the way they recommended, so I proceeded to follow their directions and typed SLUI 04 on the PC I was activating the license for, and instead of receiving an option to activate it via phone with the installation ID, all that would come up was a box where I could enter the product key. With this being a 1903 build of Windows 10 PRO, I figured Microsoft must have changed their activation options, so I entered my product key only to be greeted with this:

1.jpg

On the very small chance that there was some type of internet / server error, I proceeded to click on the "Troubleshoot" option, and this is what it returned:

2.jpg

At that point, I went back into my Kinguin, where I had an option to send a message to seller asking for help / letting them know the product key did not work. While waiting to hear back, I wondered if I had incorrectly typed in a wrong character, so I attempted to activate it again online (and making sure I typed everything correctly). This time, I received another frustrating result:

3.jpg

At this point, I was pretty irritated, and sent another message to the seller explaining the latest developments on getting the key activated. Once again, while waiting for a response back, I looked at the FAQ section of Kinguin, and saw that for them to get involved, I had to have an internet chat with a Microsoft agent, and I had to provide them with a screen shot of that agent telling me the key was not a valid / legitimate key. At this point I was not a happy customer and I wished I just spent the $99 directly with Microsoft, as I would not be encountering all of these activation issues. While waiting to get a response back from the seller, I noticed that I now had the option to "Activate by phone" in my settings. As you can see in the first activation attempt above, that option had not previously been there. I figured "What the hell, I guess I should do it so I can prove to Kinguin the key is not activating". I clicked on the option, selected my country, and it gave me an installation ID to provide. After answering a few questions via my phone buttons, I was connected to a customer support agent (likely in India). She asked for my installation ID, and I provided it to her. After that, she provide me the new ID and it finally activated.

So, the million dollar question is: "Is it worth it?" and "Would I do it again?". Honestly, I'm not sure if I would as it was not exactly a very smooth process, and it wasted a fair amount of time. I like saving money as much as most people do, but I also like knowing that things I buy will work as they are described.

The pros are that they keys sold on there are much cheaper than buying from places like Newegg and Amazon. As long as a person selects a reputable seller on the the various marketplaces, they appear to be legitimate keys. It should be noted, from what I was able to determine, the key I purchased was labeled "RoW", which means "Rest of World", so it is likely the keys were intended to be sold to people living in other countries. The Microsoft agent never asked me where I bought the key, she just wanted my installation ID. At a minimum, someone who decides to buy one of these licenses shouldn't expect to receive a response from the seller. If there are activation issues like I experienced, be prepared to spend some time trying to get it all sorted out. Finally, if you decided to pay via credit card, be aware that almost all of these "grey markets" are located outside of the U.S., so you would want to see if your particular card will process orders from outside of your country.
 
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WilliamM2

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The only times I have ever had to call MS to activate, is when the key has been previously used. When replacing motherboards, etc. Sounds like you bought a used key, not a new legitimate key. I'm sure Kinguin and other sites like them know exactly what is being sold. If it were legit, it seems like there would also be US based sellers.
 
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Muadib

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May 30, 2000
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I did something similar, but it was for office. I bought the key on ebay after seeing a thread on here not too long ago. To my surprise, it worked! It was only $10 for the key, and I'm still in a state of shock. I'm thinking the guy is selling corporate licenses, but don't know for sure.
 

UsandThem

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The only times I have ever had to call MS to activate, is when the key has been previously used. When replacing motherboards, etc. Sounds like you bought a used key, not a new legitimate key. I'm sure Kinguin and other sites like them know exactly what is being sold. If it were legit, it seems like there would also be US based sellers.
You could be right, and there's just not any way to know for sure. However, if the keys that get sold through Kinguin were previously used, and this was a common occurrence, I imagine there would be a lot more posts about this experience across the internet. Personally, I believe it has to do something with "RoW" licenses trying to be activated on Microsoft's U.S. servers, but that's just my educated guess at this point.

I have had to call in before when when transferring a previously activated license over to another PC, and the one difference between that and what I experienced with this "grey market" license was how it was just slightly different. When calling in to them concerning known legit U.S. licenses, they asked if that license was installed on any other PCs still in use. With this key, they never asked that question at all.
 

balloonshark

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I wonder if things would have been smoother if your router was on a VPN in another country.
 

TheELF

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Dec 22, 2012
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You could be right, and there's just not any way to know for sure. However, if the keys that get sold through Kinguin were previously used, and this was a common occurrence, I imagine there would be a lot more posts about this experience across the internet. Personally, I believe it has to do something with "RoW" licenses trying to be activated on Microsoft's U.S. servers, but that's just my educated guess at this point.

I have had to call in before when when transferring a previously activated license over to another PC, and the one difference between that and what I experienced with this "grey market" license was how it was just slightly different. When calling in to them concerning known legit U.S. licenses, they asked if that license was installed on any other PCs still in use. With this key, they never asked that question at all.
The pic you uploaded said that you should only use the SLUI 04 method IF you have a problem with activation and not use it for activation from the get go.
My guess would be that this is what messed up your activation.
 

UsandThem

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The pic you uploaded said that you should only use the SLUI 04 method IF you have a problem with activation and not use it for activation from the get go.
My guess would be that this is what messed up your activation.
On the product's page, Kinguin recommends activating the license via the "activate by phone" method.

6.jpg

That said, I did not have the phone option at all. At least with the 1903 build of Windows 10, whenever I typed in "SLUI 04", it would only pop up a box to enter the license key to activate on line. I did not get the "activate by phone" option until the online activation was denied for the 3rd time (as shown in the pictures above). Just like Microsoft strongly forcing strongly encouraging users creating a Microsoft account instead of creating a local account on the most recent builds, it appears that Microsoft wants users to activated the licenses online instead of calling in. It could be possible that a someone could leave their PC unconnected to the internet in order to receive the phone activation option (just like being able to get the option to create a local account during Windows installation). If a person allows Windows 10 to update itself during installation, they will not have the option to create a local account): https://forums.anandtech.com/threads/win10-1809-setup-requires-an-ms-account-if-you-connect-to-a-network-first.2568481/

After experiencing this, I have typed in "SLUI 04" on all of my various PCs, and it seems if they are already activated, the SLUI 04 command will actually bring up the phone activation option like this:

5.jpg
 
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whm1974

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@UsandThem Don't you a high paying job? The money you saved wasn't worth the time you wasted on Activation issues. Hell that wouldn't it for someone such as me who's time is almost free.
 

UsandThem

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@UsandThem Don't you a high paying job? The money you saved wasn't worth the time you wasted on Activation issues. Hell that wouldn't it for someone such as me who's time is almost free.
It's not how much a person makes, but more for people who like saving money (like myself).

Until I tried out buying a license this way, I had no idea how much time would be involved in buying and activating it. I wasn't aware a prepaid credit wouldn't work (at least for U.S. prepaid gift cards), or that I would only be given the option of activating it online (since SLUI 04 on an un-activated 1903 Build of Windows 10 wouldn't do what the guide said). That said, now that I know how much of a PIA it was, I'm not sure if I would do it again.

They say "hindsight is 20/20", so if I had known all the pitfalls going in, I likely would have just paid the additional $99 to Microsoft to upgrade my license from Home to Pro to save the time and aggravation. This is why I spent the time writing this so people who ask about buying "grey market" software, they can see my experience and decide for themselves if it's worth it.
I wonder if things would have been smoother if your router was on a VPN in another country.
That's a good question.

I'm not sure if it would have gone any differently if my IP showed it was outside of the U.S.
 
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whm1974

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It's not how much a person makes, but more for people who like saving money (like myself).

Until I tried out buying a license this way, I had no idea how much time would be involved in buying and activating it. I wasn't aware a prepaid credit wouldn't work (at least for U.S. prepaid gift cards), or that I would only be given the option of activating it online (since SLUI 04 on an un-activated 1903 Build of Windows 10 wouldn't do what the guide said). That said, now that I know how much of a PIA it was, I'm not sure if I would do it again.

They say "hindsight is 20/20", so if I had known all the pitfalls going in, I likely would have just paid the additional $99 to Microsoft to upgrade my license from Home to Pro to save the time and aggravation. This is why I spent the time writing this so people who ask about buying "grey market" software, they can see my experience and decide for themselves if it's worth it.
I'm kind of wary of "deals" like this. Too many ways of getting screwed over. Which is why I wouldn't buy anything sold out of a van. Yes I know that grey markets are legal, but I still feel cautious that some products may not be entirely legal.
 

UsandThem

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I'm kind of wary of "deals" like this. Too many ways of getting screwed over. Which is why I wouldn't buy anything sold out of a van. Yes I know that grey markets are legal, but I still feel cautious that some products may not be entirely legal.
That's why I "took one for the team" to find out first-hand. Well, that and saving money is always good as well. :p

That said, I don't deal with buying items out of a van, or items that I know are illegal (or likely illegal) like $2 Windows 10 licenses on Ebay, or from some unknown private seller. However, say if there was a legit retailer in another country, and they could sell me an item much cheaper than I could buy it here because they paid less for it (strength of currency against the dollar , tariffs, inflation, labor, cost of living, or whatever), and it didn't violate any law, I would possibly give it a shot. That doesn't mean that I would do it if it was going to be time consuming and headache like my experience was here. Like I said, if I had a time machine and saw what would happen, I probably wouldn't have done it all.

Now I know it would take longer for me to receive the item, or the warranty might be different (or voided), but it would at least be an (legal) option. I mean lots of people go to Mexico and Canada for the same prescription medication we have available here at a much lower price, so there are other legit reasons some people decide to look around and compare what's (legally) available to them.
 
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Micrornd

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You do realize that legitimate Windows 7 - 8.1 keys still activate Windows 10 even today, right ?
 

mikeymikec

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I now regard Amazon (at least UK) as 'grey market' - all except their 'direct download' section, partly due to my most recent experience:

In the past, I've occasionally picked up Win10 retail licences for about £5-10 less than what I normally pay for them, and obviously Win10 retail licences are a good long-term pick for lifetime builders. It's been a while since Amazon sold any retail copies of Win10 (especially physical copies with USB memory sticks), so when I saw one I was quite happy to snap it up for when I next needed one for a customer. It definitely said "dispatched from and sold by amazon".

Instead, what arrived in the post was a padded envelope without any MS Windows cardboard box branding, a loose Win10 OEM product key and a memory stick, along with a note saying "if you have any trouble activating, e-mail this <not amazon but gmail> address".

I got on to Amazon live chat support, basically saying WTF but nicely. Initially the person told me that it was a third party seller called 'Amazon', then when I asked for the call to be escalated they got back to me after a long delay and said they were mistaken, but they assured me it was legit. I tried to explain the difference between an OEM licence and retail licence but to no avail. They accepted the return however and refunded without any difficulty.

Combine this with Amazon's attitude to obviously bootleg licensing (on Amazon UK one can see "Windows/Office for £30" being sold all over the place, and I've raised it with Amazon to no avail), and I basically couldn't trust them as far as I can throw them. Maybe they'll let me down with the 'direct download' licences at some point too, but as they're reasonably priced (ie. £10 difference to other suppliers, often a more similar price though) I'll chance it for as long as I can.
 
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UsandThem

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You do realize that legitimate Windows 7 - 8.1 keys still activate Windows 10 even today, right ?
Yes, I have seen posts here where people are still able to that. A good thing for users with Windows 7 licenses.
 

balloonshark

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I respect that instead of someone telling us "no, don't do this", UsandThem gave it a try and posted his experience. It's always good to have facts versus rigid rules or conjecture.

Even some physical products have a grey market. You can save about 25% or more on a grey market Nikon camera but it won't have a US warranty. If I remember right Nikon US may not even repair it even if you pay for those repairs. Most items like this carry a warranty from the store that sold it whatever that means. You have balance savings over whether or not your going to need repairs during the short warranty period.
 
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Micrornd

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Yes, I have seen posts here where people are still able to that. A good thing for users with Windows 7 licenses.
What I meant was, there are many places still that you can buy brand new unopened copies of Windows 7 - 8.1 (with a real virgin COA) at a much cheaper price than what Windows 10 is selling for.
Since Microsoft is still allowing activation using legit Windows 7 - 8.1, this is a cheaper alternative for someone just needing to add the OS to a homebuilt PC.
Many local shops are practically giving away (relatively speaking) new old stock of Windows 7 - 8.1 to get rid of that inventory.
This is a 100% legal way with no doubt or worries.
Note: I don't advocate buying black or grey market copies, but rather genuine unopened copies with a genuine COA.
 

UsandThem

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What I meant was, there are many places still that you can buy brand new unopened copies of Windows 7 - 8.1 (with a real virgin COA) at a much cheaper price than what Windows 10 is selling for.
Since Microsoft is still allowing activation using legit Windows 7 - 8.1, this is a cheaper alternative for someone just needing to add the OS to a homebuilt PC.
Many local shops are practically giving away (relatively speaking) new old stock of Windows 7 - 8.1 to get rid of that inventory.
This is a 100% legal way with no doubt or worries.
Note: I don't advocate buying black or grey market copies, but rather genuine unopened copies with a genuine COA.
While there are some sellers who still sell new Window 7 licenses, that is beginning to become more rare. For example, Newegg no longer sells them, so a person would need to buy one from a 3rd party seller. I just don't see any new Windows 7 licenses being available from businesses a lot of people here use (sold directly by places like Micro Center, Best Buy, B&H Photo, Walmart, Amazon, Newegg, etc).

Also, the Windows 7 license could very well be one from that was intended to be bought overseas. It might activate just fine, but that would come down to what the individual sellers actually send.
 

Mantrid-Drone

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The bottom line is surely that nobody is being denied their due monies are they? These gray licences have been around for years, genuine unused OEM versions with original install discs too, even though marked for reinstall only. They have all been bought from MS or officially recognised vendors and paid for in full at some point.

The absurdity of OEM disc/licence resellers having to say in eBay and Amazon listings they will supply the original hardware the OS/licence was intended for has long been recognised.

MS might not like it but they've been well paid and so whoever uses that licence, even is it not the precise, original intended user, that is mere incidental detail. Nothing has been stolen.

If you bother to read the precise terms and conditions for an OEM version it says you should have pre-installation software on the HDD installed using an official MS pre-installation kit.

I wonder just how many of the thousands of small PC building firms worldwide have actually ever complied with this requirement?

Even MS seem to have given up with the pages relating to the pre-installation kit end at Win7 referring to it as a useful tool set not a prerequisite.
 

corkyg

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  • There is another side of grey market risk. It can also include cameras and such that have not had the customs duty as imports paid. The buyer can then travel abroad and run into trouble on return by having to pay the import duty. I have seen it happen. :)
 
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