Microsoft work and personal accounts - finding your way through the maze

(2020/10/08 – click here for an updated, shorter, less snarky version of this article.)

Microsoft has two different types of accounts. Many of you have credentials – an email address and password – for both of them.

Years of marketing and branding blunders have made it very difficult to describe how Microsoft has organized these accounts. Many people are frustrated because they cannot understand what accounts they have or where each one is supposed to be used.

I’m going to describe Microsoft’s work and personal accounts as clearly as possible. For reasons I’ll touch on below, I’m going to refer to them as Microsoft Work and Microsoft Personal.

This affects almost everyone in small businesses. If you have a business Office 365 mailbox, you can’t skip this – it’s one of the articles that you have to read and understand.

It’s a bit of a maze. Let’s see if we can find a way through.

•  A helpful analogy

•  An overview of Microsoft work and personal accounts

–   Work or school account / Created by your IT department

–   Personal account / Created by you

•  The overlap between Microsoft work and personal services

–   Logging into a Windows 10 computer

–   Buying a license for Microsoft Office

–   Storing files online in OneDrive

–   Using Skype

•  Connect Windows 10 to both work and personal accounts

•  A final note


A helpful analogy

A helpful analogy

Let’s say you have a Google account and an Apple ID. Your account login for each is an email address and a password. Those two accounts offer overlapping services. If you have an iPhone, you might upload your photos to iCloud (connected to your Apple ID) and upload your photos to Google Photos (connected to your Google account). Google and Apple both run email services and offer places to store files online. You use the services from each company that make sense for you and ignore the ones you’re not using. For example, if your Google account login is, you could use Gmail for email but it’s not required.

You don’t find that confusing. Google and Apple are different companies, right? It makes sense that logging into a Google account connects you to different things than logging in to Apple services with your Apple ID.

Similarly: imagine that you have an Amazon account and a New York Times account. You log into each one with the same email address. You might use the same password, you might use a different password. Again, it’s obvious that these are two completely separate services. Your login credentials – the email address and password – are just a way to identify you in each system.

Okay, now for the leap of faith. Start out thinking of Microsoft’s work and personal accounts as completely unrelated credentials for two different companies. Microsoft Work is as different from Microsoft Personal as Google is from Apple. Obviously it’s less intuitive because they’re both run by Microsoft, but when you log in with a Microsoft work or school account, you are connected to completely different services than if you log in with a Microsoft personal account.


An overview of Microsoft work and personal accounts

Microsoft login - work or school account vs personal account

Let’s start with the vocabulary, the part that Microsoft handles very poorly. The picture above shows you the words that Microsoft uses today to describe its two different accounts.


“Work or school account / Created by your IT department”

I’m calling it Microsoft Work in this article. Microsoft runs an extensive set of services for businesses – from small business to huge enterprises.  This account is tied to your company. If you change jobs or change your business, your Microsoft Work account will change.

This side of Microsoft includes Office 365 business mailboxes, Azure cloud services, Sharepoint, and much more. If you have a business Office 365 email address, it is a Microsoft Work account.

Microsoft also offers discounted services to college students and runs those through this database. That’s why it has to call it a “work or school account.” Microsoft has also called it an organizational account at times.

At one time it made sense to call this type of account an Office 365 account. That’s no longer accurate. The name “Office 365” is now used for services offered both to businesses and to individuals.


“Personal account / Created by you”

I’m calling it Microsoft Personal in this article. This is frequently referred to as a Microsoft account. This account is intended to be your long-term personal relationship with Microsoft. This is the one that you’ll use continuously regardless of who your employer is from year to year.

If your Windows 10 login screen shows an email address today, you are probably logging in with a Microsoft Personal account. (This may change on new company computers in the next few years, as discussed below.)

If you have an email address, it is a Microsoft Personal account.


The overlap between Microsoft work and personal services

Microsoft - overlapping work and personal services

Your mental picture, then, should be that Microsoft Work is a company on one side of Seattle and Microsoft Personal is a different company on the other side of Seattle. As it happens, both companies offer some very similar services. Your experience with each service depends on whether you log in with your Microsoft Work credentials or your Microsoft Personal credentials. Here are some of the overlapping services.


Logging into a Windows 10 computer

When you log into Windows with a password, some computer somewhere decides whether you’ve put in the right password and have permission to log in.

On an individual Windows 7 computer, it was the computer itself that decided. In a business with a domain server, it’s the server that decides whether you can log in.

When you set up a Windows 10 computer, it strongly suggests that you sign in with a Microsoft personal account. Your computer then checks with the Microsoft personal online servers to see if you’re using the right password. If so, you can log in. It looks like this during setup.

Windows 10 setup - link to Microsoft account

Now, though, there’s another option when you set up a Windows 10 Professional or Enterprise computer. This comes up before the Microsoft account sign-in screen. (You won’t see this on computers running Windows 10 Home.)

Windows 10 setup - who owns this PC?

If you (or your IT department) identify the computer as owned by the organization, then one of the options is to log in with a Microsoft work account. Your computer then checks with the Microsoft work online servers to authenticate you.

(Pro tip: Choosing “organization” allows the PC to be joined to a domain during setup. The next choice is between Azure AD or a local domain. The Azure AD choice is built on Azure Active Directory, which Microsoft is exposing for all companies with a business Office 365 account. Azure Active Directory is the glue that will enable single sign-on for business Office 365, Box, Salesforce, and more cloud services. If you’re supporting confused users, note that the next window does not say anything about “work or school account” or “business Office 365” or anything else comprehensible. Instead it says “Join Azure AD,” which you’ve barely heard of and your users know nothing about. Here’s a longer description.)


Buying a license for Microsoft Office

If your company has a business Office 365 account, then the company can buy licenses for the Office programs (Word/Excel/Outlook/etc.) and associate the license with each user’s Microsoft work account. The Office program licenses are included in some business Office 365 plans (Office 365 Business Premium, Office 365 Enterprise E3 and E5) or can be purchased on their own (Office 365 Business, Office 365 ProPlus).

If you are an individual, then you can buy licenses for the Office programs that are associated with your Microsoft personal account. You can buy Office 365 Personal for one computer, or Office 365 Home for up to five computers.

It’s up to you to remember which account you used to license Microsoft Office. It’s frankly not easy to tell after the program is installed; there are clues in the Office programs when you click on File / Account, but it’s not exactly intuitive.

An important point that makes it more confusing: this concerns the license for the Office programs. After they’re licensed, anybody can use the programs on that computer. For example, the Office programs can be licensed through a Microsoft Work account, but then be linked to a Microsoft Personal account by the person using them. The name of the signed-in person in the upper right doesn’t have anything to do with the license.

I know, I know. Hang on, it gets worse.


Storing files online in OneDrive

OneDrive - personal vs work login

There are two OneDrive services to store your files online.

If you log in with your Microsoft Personal account, you will see files in OneDrive.

If you log in with your Microsoft Work account, you will see files in OneDrive for Business.

These are two different places for storing files. You can use either of them or both of them. In Microsoft’s vision, you’ll store personal files in OneDrive and company files in OneDrive for Business.

So far, so good.

The name “OneDrive for Business” is frequently shortened by Microsoft to “OneDrive.” If you log into your business Office 365 webmail, for example, you’ll see this in the upper left corner.


If you log into with your Microsoft Personal account, you’ll see an identical tile in the upper left corner.


Similarly, OneDrive appears identical regardless of whether you log in with your work or personal accounts. This is what OneDrive for Business looks like when you log in with a Microsoft Work account.


This is what OneDrive looks like when you log in with a Microsoft Personal account.


Again, remember that those are two different services holding different files. There is literally no way for anyone other than a Microsoft engineer to tell whether you’re connected to the work or personal service when you’re using OneDrive.

It is up to you to keep track of your work and personal accounts so you know which OneDrive files are being displayed. Those two tiles might look identical but they lead to different files stored in different services. Obviously Microsoft is not making it easy.

So far Microsoft is sticking with its impossible branding. It is working on a “unified sync client” that connects your computer to both the work and personal OneDrive services, which might theoretically make it easier to tell the two services apart on your computer or mobile device. I would guess that it will keep changing the names around to try to make it easier to find your place. Someday. Not today.


Using Skype

Skype is the familiar service for video and audio communication. Microsoft owns Skype and for the last few years has been transitioning users to sign into Skype with their Microsoft Personal accounts.

Last year Microsoft rebranded Lync, its enterprise communication service, as “Skype for Business.” You guessed it. You sign into Skype for Business with your Microsoft Work account.

Skype for Business has almost nothing in common with Skype, which isn’t stopping Microsoft from trying to make them visually similar or merge them completely on Windows computers to maximize your confusion. The good news: most small businesses will not use Skype for Business; it is intended primarily for enterprises and requires significant IT resources.

If you see references to Skype, it will take careful attention to discover whether it concerns the version of Skype that you’re using. A recent announcement about integration of Skype into the Office programs, for example, concerns only Skype for Business. A simple Skype icon will appear in the toolbar of the Office Online programs to implement that initiative, with no visual indication that it does or doesn’t apply to you.


Connect Windows 10 to both work and personal accounts

Most of you have Windows 10 connected to your Microsoft Personal account. Windows 10 can now also be connected simultaneously to your Microsoft Work account.

In Windows 10, click on Settings / Accounts. At the top it will show the logged in account. If you are signed in with a Microsoft Personal account, it will show your Microsoft Personal email address with a link that says “Manage my Microsoft account.”

Windows 10 - log in with Microsoft account

You can add your Microsoft Work account to “Accounts used by other apps.”

Windows 10 - add Microsoft work account

The effect seems to be limited to passing the credentials to Microsoft business services so you don’t have to type in the Work password as often. That can be a valuable timesaver! It can also make it less clear which service you are connected to when the visual cues (as with OneDrive) are not obvious.

That does not change the way you log into the computer. If you have been logging in with your Microsoft Personal email address and password, you will continue to do that.


A final note

Microsoft work and personal accounts - confused?

Confused? Of course you are. I’ve tried to resist editorializing on the poor decisions by Microsoft that led to this baffling mess. I think it’s an important part of why Microsoft has lost ground in the consumer and small business markets. Microsoft has not branded these services with meaningful, distinctive names – and names matter! As a result, even Microsoft’s own descriptions of its accounts and services are inconsistent and difficult to follow. People have no clear idea of how to buy a license for Office or where to look for files in OneDrive. I have found myself recommending Dropbox instead of OneDrive to small business clients simply because it’s easier to describe.

At one time I thought it was a good idea to set up clients with identical credentials for Microsoft work and personal accounts – the same email address and password. In hindsight, that was poor advice. It makes it harder to tell what service is being used at any given time. I have changed my own credentials – my Microsoft Work account is bruceb, my Microsoft Personal account is bruceb In the next article I’ll give you a tip about how to do that. It might help bring some clarity to your life with Microsoft.

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