How to do a clean installation of Windows 10

Windows 10 clean install
Windows 10 clean install (Image credit: Future)

A clean installation of Windows 10 is the process of erasing everything to start with a fresh copy of the operating system when a computer has problems. For example, this method can resolve performance, memory, startup, shutdown, and app issues. Also, it's perhaps the best approach to remove viruses and other types of malware, and it can help to improve battery life.

In addition, it's an excellent solution to remove preloaded bloatware (unnecessary preloaded software) from Windows 10. You can use this method to decommission a computer without giving away your personal information. Or you can set up a new installation after replacing the hard drive.

Furthermore, if you have had the same setup for some time, a clean installation is a great option to upgrade to the latest version of Windows 10 or upgrade from an older version (such as Windows 7 and Windows 8.1), minimizing the risks of problems during and after the process.

This guide will walk you through the complete process of performing a clean installation of Windows 10.

How to prepare PC for clean install of Windows 10

As you prepare to proceed with a clean installation of Windows 10, completing some essential tasks is recommended to minimize issues and potential data loss.

If you already have a backup of the computer and files. You have an activation product key. The device can start from a USB flash drive, and non-essential peripherals are disconnected. Then, you can skip this part and jump to the bootable media creation and a clean install process.

Create backup

The install process of Windows 10 deletes everything on the drive, which means that backing up the entire device (or at least your files) is a crucial step unless you don't have anything important you want to keep.

Back up entire system

You should create a temporary backup to revert the settings or recover files if something goes wrong during the installation.

(Image credit: Future)

You can choose many different solutions, but the easiest way to create a full backup is to use the System Image Backup legacy tool available on Windows 10. It's a deprecated feature, but it continues to work. The tool is also available for Windows 8.1 and Windows 7.

Back up files to OneDrive

If you need to back up your documents, pictures, and other important files, you can upload the data to OneDrive or another cloud storage service.

In case you use OneDrive, you can also use the backup settings page to sync your profile folders, including Documents, Pictures, and Desktop, to the cloud automatically.

To configure OneDrive backup on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Backup.
  4. Under the "Back up files to OneDrive" section, click the "Back up files" option.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. (Optional) Click to clear the folder you don't want to back up in the cloud.
  2. Click the Start backup button.

(Image credit: Future)

Back up files to external storage

If you have a lot of data, syncing the files to the cloud can be expensive and take a long time, and the available space may not even be enough. If this is the case, perhaps the best option would be to copy the files to an external USB hard drive.

To create a file backup manually, connect an external drive with enough storage space to your Windows 10 computer, and use these steps:

  1. Open File Explorer.
  2. Type the following path in the address bar and press Enter: %HOMEPATH%

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Select all button from the "Home" tab.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Copy to button from the "Home" tab.
  2. Select the Choose location option.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Select the destination location.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Copy button.

After you complete the steps, repeat the instructions to back up the remaining accounts (as necessary). In addition to copying your files, creating a list of the installed programs with their respective product keys (if applicable) is also a good idea to know the apps to reinstall after the installation.

If you usually don't sync passwords and bookmarks with an online service, now's a good time to export your browser credentials and links, as you'll need them later to access your online services.

In case you don't have an external hard drive or one without enough space, we recommend the Western Digital Elements Desktop Hard Drive because of its portability, capacity, and price.

Check Windows 10 activation

Although after activating Windows 10, you no longer have to provide a product key for reinstallation on the same computer. Once the new installation completes, the system will automatically reactivate when it connects to the internet.

To confirm whether Windows 10 is properly activated, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Activation.
  4. Under the "Windows" section, confirm the activation. If the computer has been properly activated, you'll see one of these messages:
  • Windows is activated with a digital license: The installation has been activated, but it isn't linked to your Microsoft account.
  • Windows is activated with a digital license linked to your Microsoft account: The installation has been activated, and the license is linked to your Microsoft account.

(Image credit: Future)

After you complete the steps, Windows 10 should automatically reactivate after the clean installation if your current setup is activated.

Obtain Windows 10 genuine key

If you have to set up an installation on a computer that never had an activated version of Windows 10, or you plan to upgrade from Windows 8.1 or Windows 7, you will have to purchase a valid license from the Microsoft Store (opens in new tab), Amazon, or another retailer.

Download essential drivers

Windows 10 can detect and install most drivers automatically. However, it's usually recommended to download at least the essential drivers before the process (such as for the network adapter and graphics card), as a precaution, in case the setup fails to add these drivers correctly, especially on custom computer builds.

You can use our guide to install device drivers on Windows 10.

Here's a list of the most popular manufacturers to download the latest device drivers:

Confirm Windows 10 requirements

If the device already has Windows 10, the following major update will likely meet the minimum hardware requirements. However, if you're about to upgrade a computer running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, you want to check that the device meets the minimum requirements.

Here are the minimum requirements to install Windows 10 versions 21H2, 22H2, and higher:

  • Processor: 1GHz or System on a Chip (SoC).
  • Memory: 1GB for 32-bit or 2GB for 64-bit.
  • Storage: 32GB for 64-bit or 32-bit.
  • Graphics card: DirectX 9 or later with WDDM 1.0 driver.
  • Display: 800x600.

You can use these instructions to check the device technical specifications to confirm you can do a clean install of Windows 10.

Change boot order on firmware

It's also important to ensure the computer can boot from a USB flash drive. If this is not the case, you'll need to change the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) or Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) on the motherboard.

Change boot order using UEFI

On computers already running Windows 10 or 8.1, you can access the settings to change the boot order within the desktop interface.

UEFI settings on Windows 10

To change the UEFI settings on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Recovery.
  4. Under the "Advanced startup" section, click the Restart now button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Troubleshoot button.
  2. Click on Advanced options.
  3. Click the "UEFI Firmware Settings" option.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Restart button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Inside the motherboard firmware settings, open the Boot page.
  2. Set the boot order to start from the USB flash drive with the Windows 10 installation files.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Save the changes.

After you complete the steps, the computer should now be able to start from a USB bootable media.

UEFI settings on Windows 8.1

To change the UEFI settings on Windows 8.1, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update and recovery.
  3. Click on Recovery.
  4. Under the "Advanced Startup" section, click the Restart now button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Troubleshoot option.
  2. Click on Advanced options.
  3. Click the UEFI Firmware Settings option.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Restart button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Inside the motherboard firmware settings, open the Boot page.
  2. Set the boot order to start from the USB media with the Windows 10 installation files.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Save the changes.

Once you complete the steps, the device will start from a USB flash drive to proceed with the installation.

UEFI settings on Windows 7

To change the UEFI settings on Windows 7, use these steps:

  1. Start the PC.
  2. As soon as it starts, press the F1, F2, F3, F10, F12, Esc, or Delete keys to access the firmware.
  • Quick tip: You may need to check your manufacturer support website for more specific steps to access the firmware settings.
  1. Inside the motherboard firmware settings, open the Boot page.
  2. Set the boot order to start with the Windows 10 installation files from the USB media.

After you complete the steps, you should be able to start the device using a bootable media.

Configure boot order using BIOS

If you have a legacy BIOS firmware, you can change the boot order with these steps:

  1. Start the PC.
  2. As soon as the computer starts booting up, press one of the function keys (F1, F2, F3, F10, or F12), Esc, or Delete key.
  3. Inside the motherboard firmware settings, open the Boot page.
  4. Set the boot order to start with the Windows 10 installation files from the USB media.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Save the changes.

Once you complete the steps, the computer can now start from the USB flash drive to upgrade to Windows 10.

Disconnect non-essential peripherals

Typically, peripherals are among the most common reason for problems during a Windows 10 installation. If you have non-essential peripherals connected to the computer (such as removable storage and other USB and Bluetooth devices, printers, scanners, cameras, and others), it's recommended to disconnect them.

You only need a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and internet connection. After the setup, you can reconnect the peripherals (one at a time) to ensure they don't cause any issues.

How to create USB for clean install of Windows 10

You will need a USB bootable media to perform a clean installation of Windows 10. You can easily create one using many tools, including the Microsoft Media Creation Tool and Rufus.

Create Windows 10 USB with Media Creation Tool

To create an installation media using the Media Creation Tool, connect a USB flash drive of at least 8GB of space, and use these steps:

  1. Open the Windows 10 download page (opens in new tab).
  2. Under the "Create Windows 10 installation media" section, click the "Download tool now" button to save the file on the computer.
  3. Double-click the MediaCreationToolxxxx.exe file to launch the tool.
  4. Click the Accept button to agree to the Microsoft terms.
  5. Select the "Create installation media (USB flash drive, DVD, or ISO file) for another PC" option.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Next button.
  2. (Optional) Clear the "Use the recommended options for this PC" option.
  3. Select the correct language, architecture, and edition of Windows 10.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Next button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Next button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Select the USB flash drive (or click the "Refresh drive list" option to make it available).

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Next button.
  2. Click the Finish button.

Once you complete the steps, the tool will download the files and create an installer with the latest installation files, which you can then use to start the device and configure a fresh copy of Windows 10.

Create Windows 10 USB with Rufus

Alternatively, the Rufus tool can help you create an installation media for computers with UEFI or BIOS firmware.

Rufus is a free tool with many options to help you create a bootable media of Windows 10 faster. However, it's important to remember that it's a third-party option, which Microsoft does not support. As a result, use it at your own risk.

To create a Windows 10 USB installer with Rufus, connect a USB flash drive of at least 8GB of space, and then use these steps:

  1. Open the Rufus download page.
  2. Under the "Download" section, click the link to save the latest release on the computer.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Double-click the Rufus-x.xx.exe file to launch the tool.
  2. Click the Settings button (third button from the left) at the bottom of the page.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Under the "Settings" section, use the Check for updates drop-down menu and select the Daily option.
  • Quick tip: These steps are necessary to enable the option to use the tool to download the ISO file of Windows 10.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Close button.
  2. Close the Rufus tool.
  3. Relaunch the Rufus tool.
  4. Under the "Device" section, use the drop-down menu to select the USB flash drive.
  5. Under the "Boot selection" section, click the down arrow button on the right and select the Download option.
  • Quick tip: If you already have an ISO file, click the Select button, choose the Windows 10 ISO file, and continue with step 20.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Download button.
  2. Use the "Version" drop-down menu and select the Windows 10 option.
  3. Click the Continue button.
  4. Select the 21H2 (Build 19044.xxx - xxxx.xx) option to download the Windows 10 November 2021 Update.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Continue button.
  2. Use the "Edition" drop-down menu and select the Windows 10 Home/Pro option.
  3. Click the Continue button.
  4. Use the "Language" drop-down menu and select the installation language.
  • Quick tip: In the United States, choose the "English" option, not "English International."
  1. Click the Continue button.
  2. Use the "Architecture" drop-down menu and select the 32-bit or 64-bit (recommended).
  3. Click the Download button.
  4. Select the location to download the ISO file.
  5. Click the Save button.
  6. Use the "Image option" drop-down menu to select the Standard Windows installation option.
  7. Use the "Partition scheme" drop-down menu to select the GPT option.
  8. Use the "Target system" drop-down menu to select the UEFI (non CSM) option.
  • Quick note: If the computer includes a legacy BIOS, select the MBR option for partition scheme and BIOS (or UEFI-CSM) option target system.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Under the "Show Advanced drive properties" section, don't change the default settings.
  2. (Optional) Under the "Volume label" field, enter a descriptive name for the drive — for example, "win10_usb."
  3. Under the "File system" and "Cluster size" sections, don't change the default settings.
  4. Click the Show advanced format options button.
  5. Select the Quick format and Create extended label and icon files options.
  6. Click the Start button.
  7. Click the OK button to confirm.
  8. Click the Close button.

After you complete the steps, Rufus will download the ISO file from the Microsoft servers, and it'll create the bootable media to perform a clean install of Windows 10.

How to perform clean install of Windows 10

The installation process of Windows 10 has two main parts, including the setup and out-of-box experience (OOBE). In the setup process, that's where you will select some of the basic settings, and you'll find the options to erase the hard drive, configure the partitions, and install Windows 10. The out-of-box experience happens after the setup is complete, and it's the stage where you'll configure your settings, such as region, network, account, privacy, and other settings.

Windows 10 clean install process

After the preparation, you can proceed with the clean installation of Windows 10.

Warning: This is another friendly reminder that this process will erase everything on the computer. Before proceeding, making a temporary full backup of your PC is always recommended.

To do a clean installation of Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Start the PC with Windows 10 USB media.
  2. On prompt, press any key to boot from the USB flash drive.
  3. On the "Windows Setup," click the Next button.
  • Quick tip: If your language, time and currency, and keyboard are different from the default selections, make sure to select the correct settings.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Install now button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. On a reinstallation, click the "I don't have a product key" option to continue (assuming your device was already activated). Otherwise, if this is your first time installing Windows 10, enter the product key.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Next button.
  2. Select the edition of Windows 10 (If applicable).
  • Quick note: The selection has to match the edition of your product key. If you don't select the correct edition, Windows 10 won't activate, and you'll have to redo the entire process.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Next button.
  2. Select the "I accept the license terms" option to continue.
  3. Click the Next button.
  4. Click the "Custom: Install Windows only (Advanced)" option to continue with a clean installation.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Select the partition with the current installation (usually "Drive 0") and click the Delete button.
  • Quick tip: If "Drive 0" has multiple partitions, you must select and delete each partition to allow the setup to use the entire hard drive for the new clean installation. The setup will create the required partitions automatically during the process. Also, it's not necessary to delete the partitions on secondary drives.
  1. Click the Yes button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Select the empty drive (Drive 0 Unallocated Space).

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Next button.

Once you complete the steps, the setup will install a fresh copy of Windows 10 on the device.

If you plan to decommission the computer, you do not need to continue with the out-of-box experience. If this is an upgrade, continue with the instructions below.

Windows 10 out-of-box experience

After the setup, you must continue with the out-of-box experience to configure your preferences and create a new account.

To complete the OOBE on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Select your Region option.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Yes button.
  2. Select your keyboard layout option.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Yes button.
  2. Click the Skip button (unless you need to add a second keyboard layout).
  • Quick note: If you don't have a wired network connection, you'll have to sign into the wireless network.
  1. Select the "Set up for personal use" option. (This option is only available on Windows 10 Pro.)

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Next button.
  2. Confirm your Microsoft account information to create an account.
  • Quick note: The recommended process is to use a Microsoft account. However, if you want to use a traditional local account, you'll need to click the Offline account option from the bottom-left corner and continue with the on-screen directions.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Next button.
  2. Confirm your account password.
  3. Click the Next button.
  4. Click the Create PIN button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Create a four-digit Windows Hello PIN.
  • Quick tip: If you want to continue using a traditional password, click the Cancel button to skip the process.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Select the privacy settings for the device (and don't forget to scroll down the page to review all the available settings).
  2. Click the Accept button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. (Optional) Click the Skip button, or select how you will be using the device to receive targeted ads, tips, and other recommendations and click the Accept button.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. (Optional) Click the "No, thanks" button to skip the phone link process.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. (Optional) Click the Next button to allow OneDrive to back up the Desktop, Documents, and Pictures folders to the cloud. If you use another cloud service or prefer not to upload files to the cloud, click the "Only save files to this PC" option in the screen's bottom-left corner.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Decline button to skip the Microsoft 365 setup (if applicable).
  • Quick tip: If you have an Office product key, you can click the "I have a product key" option, and then the apps will install automatically.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Decline button to skip the OneDrive storage promotion.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the "No Thanks" button to skip the Game Pass promotion.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. (Optional) Click the "Not now" button to continue without setting up Cortana.

(Image credit: Future)

After you complete the steps, the settings will apply to the clean installation of Windows 10, and you should be able to see the default desktop experience.

How to complete setup after installation of Windows 10

Once the installation is complete, it's also good to check that Windows 10 isn't missing any critical updates or drivers and is properly activated.

Install updates

To download and install the latest updates, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Windows Update.
  4. Click the Check for updates button.

(Image credit: Future)

Once you complete the steps, any available updates will automatically download and install. Also, a restart may be required to complete the update process.

Check missing drivers

To determine whether drivers are missing on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Open Start.
  2. Search for Device Manager and click the top result to open the app.
  3. Confirm that none of the devices has a yellow or red mark, and make sure nothing is listed as unknown.

(Image credit: Future)

If some hardware components have problems, you may need to manually install the latest drivers from your computer manufacturer's support website. You can use this guide to install device drivers on Windows 10.

Install missing drivers

On Windows 10, drivers can also be part of the optional updates. If the computer doesn't have all the required drivers, you may be able to download them from Windows Update.

To download missing drivers on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Windows Update.
  4. Click the "View optional updates" option. If the option isn't available, it means that Windows Update doesn't have any driver updates for the computer.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the Driver updates section.
  2. Select the missing driver.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Click the "Download and install" button.

After you complete the steps, Windows Update will download and install the missing drivers automatically.

Confirm activation

To confirm Windows 10 was activated correctly, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Activation.
  4. If Windows 10 is activated successfully, you will see one of these messages:
  • Windows is activated with a digital license: The installation has been activated, but it isn't linked to your Microsoft account.
  • Windows is activated with a digital license linked to your Microsoft account: The installation has been activated, and the license is linked to your Microsoft account.

(Image credit: Future)

In case Windows 10 didn't activate, the device will try to reactivate at a later time. If you're still having issues after a couple of days, you can use the Activation Troubleshooter to activate.

Reinstall apps

Now, it's time to reinstall the apps, including your preferred web browser, such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Opera (opens in new tab), to browse the web.

If you use Spotify (opens in new tab) or iTunes (opens in new tab) to listen to tunes while working or surfing the internet, you can download these apps and others from the Microsoft Store.

Also, it's now a good time to download and install the Microsoft Office apps (opens in new tab) to start working with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint and managing your emails with Outlook.

Restore files from backup

The last thing left is restoring your documents from a previous backup. If you previously configured file backup with OneDrive, the data should already be available inside the OneDrive folder, but if the app didn't configure automatically, use this guide.

If you have a backup of your files on an external drive, reconnect the storage to restore the data into the default folders (Documents, Downloads, Pictures, etc.).

To restore files from a previous backup on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Open File Explorer.
  2. Under the This PC section in the left pane, select the external drive with the file backup.
  3. Select the folders with the file to restore.
  4. Click the Copy to menu from the "Home" tab.

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Select the Choose location option.
  2. Select the destination to restore the files — for example, the Documents folder.
  3. Click the Copy button.

After you complete the steps, the files will restore to the new location.

Although you can start a clean installation using the Media Creation Tool without a USB media and even the "Reset this PC" option from the recovery settings, these methods have limitations and do not always work as expected. The bootable media is the alternative if you want the best possible clean installation method.

More resources

For more helpful articles, coverage, and answers to common questions about Windows 10 and Windows 11, visit the following resources: