What happens when an Office 365 subscription expires?

If you're using Microsoft's cloud-based Office 365 and the subscription lapses, here's how much time you have to renew — or back up your data and move on.

Office 365 software boxes
Martyn Williams/IDG

Microsoft's pay-as-you-go Office 365 is, first and foremost, a subscription. And like other subscriptions — think newspapers (remember them?) or an online storage service — missing a payment doesn't immediately mean you're cut off.

Because it's less expensive to retain a current subscriber than find a new subscriber as a replacement, providers will go to great lengths to keep customers on the rolls.

When a business misses an Office 365 payment, or cancels the service, the applications and data don't immediately disappear. Instead, Microsoft steps a customer through a three-stage process that gradually decreases both employee and administrator access, but for months leaves the door open to a renewal.

Here are the stages of an Office 365 breakup. And for good measure, here's how to salvage a canceled subscription and get back in Microsoft's good graces.

1-30 days after subscription ends: Expired

Microsoft dubs the first stage "expired," but it could just as well be called "grace period" since everything works as if the customer's payments remain up to date.

Microsoft's pay-as-you-go Office 365 is, first and foremost, a subscription. And like other subscriptions — think newspapers (remember them?) or an online storage service — missing a payment doesn't immediately mean you're cut off

When a business misses an Office 365 payment, or cancels the service, the applications and data don't immediately disappear. Instead, Microsoft steps a customer through a three-stage process that gradually decreases both employee and administrator access, but for months leaves the door open to a renewal.

office365 chart April Montgomery / IDG
office365 chart April Montgomery / IDG

Here are the stages of an Office 365 breakup. And for good measure, here's how to salvage a canceled subscription and get back in Microsoft's good graces.

1-30 days after subscription ends: Expired

Microsoft dubs the first stage "expired," but it could just as well be called "grace period" since everything works as if the customer's payments remain up to date.

Users have normal access to all Office 365 applications and services under the company's plan. Already-installed applications can be launched, no data will be scrubbed from Microsoft's servers — such as email messages or files stored on OneDrive for Business — and additional applications can be added to a user's devices.

Note: macOS versions of Office provided via an Office 365 subscription do not include the 30-day grace period; they immediately enter the "Disabled" state. See below for details

Administrators can access all functions from the Office 365 admin center portal, including assigning licenses to new or existing employees. If the firm plans to depart Office 365, data may be backed up.

The subscription can be renewed by the global or billing administrator during this 30-day span.

Note: Microsoft does things differently with Office 365 subscriptions acquired via all volume licensing plans (with the exception of Microsoft Open). For those subs, the Expired period lasts 90 days. In effect, Microsoft is minimizing the disruption of a payment gap or gaffe for its most important customers, enterprises and other large organizations, just another sign of who really rates in Redmond.

31-120 days after subscription ends: Disabled

During months two through four, the subscription sits in the "disabled" state. Another label could be "admin only," as administrators can continue to access the admin portal. The IT staff can most effectively use this period to back up employee data stored on Microsoft's servers. Admins cannot assign licenses to workers during the 90 days.

Users are unable to log into their Office 365 accounts and so are blocked from Office 365 services included in the plan, ranging from hosted email to OneDrive for Business. The locally-installed applications will drop into what Microsoft calls "reduced functionality," meaning that most features and tools are unavailable. Files may be opened, viewed and printed, but not edited or saved. The applications may not launch from the desktop, but they will open after clicking on an appropriate document.

macOS Office applications provided via an Office 365 subscription immediately enter this state as soon as payment lapses. There is no Expired period for Mac users.

A subscription can still be reactivated by the global or billing administrator during this stretch.

Note: Microsoft balances the extra Expired time for volume licensing customers by limiting their Disabled stretch to just 30 days. Everyone receives the same 120 days before things go completely to pot, but the timelines are flipped for most corporate customers.

121 days and up: Deprovisioned

At the Day 121 mark, the Office 365 subscription is not only dead, it's really, really dead.

No one, administrators included, can access service or applications, so backing up employee data is impossible.

In fact, Microsoft will begin to delete the subscription's data from its servers starting on this date. The company does not provide a done-by deadline, saying, "You can expect data to be permanently deleted in a reasonable timeframe after the 120 days have elapsed." Enterprises that want data erased as soon as possible may request "expedited deprovisioning" by calling support. Microsoft will then issue a "lockout" code, which IT then enters in the admin portal. Microsoft then deletes the pertinent data, documents and mailboxes. Expedited deprovisioning, says Microsoft, "ensures your users' data is deleted within 3 days."

Global or billing admins may not restore a subscription – and thus access to the cloud-based data and the Office applications – during this period. Assuming the firm wants to continue using Office, it must purchase new Office 365 subscriptions or standalone, perpetual Office 2019 licenses.

Restart a subscription

Although it may seem impossible to miss the message about a soon-to-expire Office 365 subscription — Microsoft duns customers with a flood of email as the date approaches and the admin portal also gets in on the act — there may be instances when things slip through the cracks.

To reactivate a subscription in the Expired or Disabled states, select Billing > Subscriptions from the Admin center, select the Office 365 subscription, then choose Reactivate.

If Reactivate does not show, the global or billing administrator will have to phone support instead.

Payment information will have to be re-entered or given to the support representative.