Why is Microsoft Office product activation so difficult?

If you get an error message when trying to activate Microsoft Office, settle in for a difficult time.  Microsoft doesn’t make activation easy to understand, let alone fix activation problems.

Office activation is where newly installed Office software is authorized by Microsoft’s servers.  Without activation the software only has very limited features.

For Office 365 users, product activation checks that you have a current Office 365 ‘subscription’.   There are regular checks by the software but it’s usually the one after installation that has trouble.

Perpetual licence Office takes the Product Key entered at installation and verifies with Microsoft that the Key is valid and not misused.

That’s all fine when product activation works properly.  It should only take a few seconds with an internet connection.

When product activation goes wrong

When product activation doesn’t work, Microsoft let’s its customers down badly.  The error messages, such as they are, tell you very little.

All you have is an error code like 0x800706BA, 0x80070005, 0x4004f00c, 0x80072ee2 or many others.

Looking up that error code online isn’t a lot of help. There are plenty of online forum discussions and suggested fixes.  You’ll look in vain for anything official from Microsoft.

Why?  Microsoft is always reluctant to admit there’s anything wrong with their products and especially unwilling to talk about product activation.  There’s little advantage to Microsoft in making it easier for people to understand product activation problems.

What to do when product activation goes wrong

You can try the suggestions on the Microsoft Office support page. These aren’t specific to any error code and are mostly aimed at clearing away more obvious problems.

In short, Microsoft’s suggestions are:

  • Sign in with right account. Make sure the Microsoft account you’re logged into is the one linked to your Office 365 entitlement or plan.
  • Avoid multiple copies of Office. Microsoft might officially support installing more than one Office version on the same computer, but it’s troublesome.  Better to use virtual machines.
  • Subscribed? Is your Office 365 plan still current?  Check online?

Office for Mac activation problems

Though the Microsoft support page applies to Office for Windows, the same tips above apply to Office for Mac.

Beyond that, there’s little help for Mac users.  Calling Microsoft Support is your best bet.

Support and Recovery Troubleshooter.

For Office 365 ‘subscription’ products Microsoft has a Support and Recovery Troubleshooter that you can download and run.

There’s also an activation troubleshooter for non-subscription versions of Office 2016 for Windows

In theory, it should identify and repair activation problems.  Maybe it’ll work for you.

We’ve used this troubleshooter many, many times and it’s rarely (if ever) worked to clear activation problems.  It’s either (wrongly) said there’s no problem or done some repairs which made no difference.

Call Microsoft Support

Failing all that, call Microsoft Support in your country.

Be at your computer with a note of the exact error code you’re seeing.

Tell them what you’ve tried to do and hopefully they’ll find more details in Microsoft’s private Knowledge Base.


We’re inspired by the Houston Chronicle’s “Dr Mac” who had the devil’s own time getting his Office for Mac software activated.  It appears he struck an activation bug in Office for Mac because Microsoft emailed saying he “should be able to activate successfully now.”

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