If you want to run a copy of Windows in a virtual machine on your computer, you have to pay for a Windows license, right? But did you know that you can actually legally get a pre-built Windows virtual machine directly from Microsoft? These are intended for software developers, but they are not locked behind a paid program or login page. You can have your own copies within minutes of reading this.
Why use a Windows virtual machine?
These pre-built virtual machines are not a permanent solution, but they provide a reliable way for users who need Windows in a virtual machine for some reason to access the operating system to perform a specific task.
There are many reasons to use a virtual machine like this, and we’re sure there are uses we haven’t thought of, but there are a few common use cases.
The most obvious is what these VMs were created for: software development. You can test software you’ve written for these versions of Windows without having to dual boot or run multiple computers.
If you’re not running Windows, but need temporary access to a Windows-only application, this is a viable solution. Although projects such as Wine exist to allow Windows software to also work on operating systems such as macOS and Linux.
A virtual machine like this can be a powerful privacy tool. Since they are all the same, you can browse the web form in the virtual machine without worrying about cookies, browser fingerprinting, or other identifiable data being collected about you. You might want to combine the VM with a VPN and the Tor network to really secure things.
If you want to try out Windows 11, Windows 11 Virtual Machine offers a way to do so that doesn’t involve the complexity of trying to manually install Windows on a virtual machine.
Where to get your free Windows virtual machine?
Microsoft doesn’t exactly advertise its virtual machine pages to the public, but they’re easy to find using a search engine.
You will see two drop-down menus. The first is where you choose the version of Windows you want. You can choose between Windows 7, 8.1 and 10. Here we go with Windows 10.
The second drop-down menu lets you select the virtual machine host software you want to use. We go with Oracle VirtualBox because it’s free and easy to use.
You may notice that there is no Windows 11 version here. For this, you will have to go to the Windows 11 development environment page.
You can click the button of the VM software you are using and get an evaluation copy of Windows 11 Enterprise. Pay attention to the expiry date!
What’s the catch?
Although these are proper versions of Windows running in a virtual machine, pre-installed virtual machines are different from using your own installation media and license key.
They come with a built-in expiration date. They will only work for 90 days before becoming unusable. Microsoft recommends that you save a “snapshot” of the virtual machine when you first start it, although you probably want to configure it as you need it first. Then you can revert to that snapshot when the VM is close to expiration. Remember to back up all data so that you can transfer it to the snapshot.
The Windows 11 Enterprise trial, as we noted above, works a bit differently. It has a fixed date when it will expire, so you’ll need to download a new one if and when Microsoft renews it. The snapshot trick won’t work here.
How to use your virtual machine with VirtualBox
Now that you’ve downloaded the virtual machine you want to run, let’s see how to use it.
- Head to the Oracle VirtualBox Download Page, and download the software version for your host system. We are using a Windows 11 system in this case.
- Run the installer you downloaded and follow the instructions.
- Unzip the VM you downloaded from Microsoft and save it to a folder of your choice.
- Double click on the VM file and it should open in VirtualBox.
- You will see a summary of the virtual machine, if everything seems in order, click on the “Import” button.
- Wait for the import process to complete.
- Now select the virtual machine from the left sidebar and click “Start”.
- The virtual machine should now start in its own window.
- When everything is done, you can log in to Windows. The password is “Passw0rd!”
Can you run these virtual machines on an Apple Silicon computer?
If you have an Intel-based Apple Mac computer, you can use these virtual machines without any problem. However, if you have an Apple Silicon computer (such as the Apple M1 models), there is no way to use these virtual machines.
The only way to run Windows on an Apple Silicon system at the time of writing is to use the commercial Parallels software packages. This version of Windows is written specifically for ARM-based computers.
However, it also cannot run standard Windows applications without performance-destroying emulation. Therefore, unless your application requirements are very modest, Apple Silicon users do not have a viable way to run Windows on their hardware at the time of writing.
You may want to consider renting a cloud-based Windows computer and using remote desktop technology to meet your Windows needs. The only other alternative would be to buy a Windows computer.
You don’t strictly need a license for Windows 10 and 11!
If you want to use Windows 10 or 11 in a virtual machine, you have another option than to download a pre-made virtual machine like the ones we saw above. Although strictly speaking Windows 10 and Windows 11 require activation with a license key to work, in practice this is not the case.
Anyone can download installation media for Windows 10 and 11 directly from Microsoft. You can then install Windows on a computer or virtual machine, install software and use it normally. Although you can’t use the customization options and occasionally get a persistent message to activate Windows, there’s nothing actually preventing you from running your application. So, as long as you’re happy with the minor limitations of an unactivated Windows installation, you can fire up your own virtual machine and use it for as long as you want.
All screenshots by Sydney Butler
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