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I had a windows laptop that bit the dust, but the hard drive works fine (booted up in another pc that wasn't mine as an external disk with my SATA to USB 3 adapter).

I'd like to use this drive on my iMac (2011 27 inch) without reformatting it and without having to go out and buy a new windows license key. Is there a way I could use the existing and functional license in boot camp, or better yet boot the OS from the drive?

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Windows licenses, unlike Mac, do not belong to the person but to the machine. They are not transferrable between machines.

Sometimes just changing a hard drive or graphics card would be enough to trigger the 'you appear to be using a different computer' warning, needing you to ring Microsoft to re-authorise.

So, aside from any actual surmountable issues of persuading Windows to run from an external drive [which only Windows 10 will do, iirc] or setting up a fresh Boot Camp partition then making a bare-metal backup/restore to it using Acronis [the only software I know of that can move a Windows install between different physical hardware & still have it arrive in a bootable state] - once it arrives it will not be licensed.

You could, I suppose, at that point buy a new license.

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With the 2011 iMac, you can not boot Windows from an external drive. Generally, this is true for any Mac that was shipped with a built-in optical drive.

Winclone is a software package you can run under macOs to transfer Windows from an external disk to the internal disk. You have to pay for this software, but the vendor does offer to refund your money if the transfer fails.

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