This rarely happens, but it can and has happened to some people. It’s frustrating when you’re done driving but you can’t leave your car because the key is stuck in the ignition. Whatever you do, just don’t use brute force to get the key out as you may break it off completely. Chances are if it didn’t come out the first time, it won’t come out no matter how hard you twist and turn. Instead, here are some things that you can check first.
Common Reasons the Key is Stuck in Ignition
There are a few reasons why this happens:
1. You’re not in ‘Park’
If you drive an automatic, make sure that your car is in ‘Park’. Or if you have a manual, then make sure you’re in neutral and aren’t engaging any gears. If the car is still in gear then it may prevent the key from being pulled out. This is a safety feature to prevent you from leaving the car in gear, which can cause the car to roll away and that’s very dangerous.
Not every car has this feature, but you should check just in case. If you drive an automatic, make sure the indicator says you’re in ‘Park’. Sometimes you think you’ve moved the stick far enough but the car hasn’t actually engaged the gear. If you’re sure the gear stick is in ‘Park’ but the indicator doesn’t say so, then you have an issue with your transmission.
However, if you’re sure you’re in ‘Park’ but the key is still stuck in the ignition, then you’ve got a different issue that’s causing it.
2. Steering Wheel Lock
The steering wheel lock activates when you turn off the car and you move the steering wheel slightly. It will often make a click when it locks, and it will prevent you from turning the steering wheel. Sometimes it will also prevent you from pulling out the key from the ignition.
This is because the ignition cylinder locks at the same time as the steering wheel. If the steering wheel lock is active, try wiggling the steering wheel around turning the key to the ‘ON’ position. Once the lock is off, turn the key back to ‘OFF’ and then try to remove the key before you lock the steering wheel. If it still won’t come out, then there’s something else causing the issue.
3. Dead Battery
The next thing you should check if your key is stuck in the ignition is your car’s battery. If the battery is dead, then it may cause the ignition system to lock up. This prevents you from pulling the key out of the ignition. Not all cars have this feature, for example, I can put in and take out the key of my 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander just fine even with a dead battery.
However, some cars might have this feature, so you should check if your battery is dead. If you turn the key to the ‘ON’ position and none of the electronic components in the car comes on, then it’s likely you have a dead battery. If this is the case, ask for someone near you to jumpstart your car or install a new battery. Once the battery is on, try taking the key out again.
4. Debris on the Key
Car keys are not only useful for turning on the car, we often use them to open boxes and packages that contains stuff we bought online. However, using the key to do this may cause pieces of tape to get stuck on the key. If there’s a piece of tape stuck, then pulling the key out of the ignition can be more difficult as the tape may get stuck on the ignition cylinder. If you regularly use your keys to open packages, be sure to check for pieces of tape that might be stuck on it before you use it to turn on your car.
5. Worn Car Key
A lot of us use our cars at least once every day which means we use the keys at least once. Every time you put in and take out the key, this causes slight damage to the key. Eventually, the damage is going to be big enough which will make it harder to take the key out of the ignition cylinder. Even a small bend or crack can cause the key to get stuck. If you notice your key has a crack or has bent, it’s wise to use a replacement key instead.
6. Damaged Ignition Cylinder
The ignition cylinder has several rows of spring-loaded pins that match the shape of your key. Over time, these pins may come out of alignment. If they’re even slightly off-alignment you’ll have trouble inserting and taking out your key.
How to Remove a Key Stuck in Ignition
As mentioned, if your key is stuck in the ignition then you should check the gear position, the steering wheel lock, and the battery first. Any of these three things may prevent you from taking out the key from the ignition. Make sure you’re in ‘Park’, and if the steering wheel is locked, try jiggling it while pulling the key out. And finally, check if your battery is dead.
If you’re sure these three things are not the cause, then you’ll have to try other methods to pull the key out.
Spray A Tiny Amount WD-40
The main purpose of WD-40 is to penetrate tight fittings and remove rust. They’re usually used when you want to remove a rusty bolt or stop a rusty hinge from making noise. However, you can use it to lubricate components as well. If your key is stuck, we recommend spraying a bit of WD-40 to lubricate it, and hopefully, it’ll make the key come out easier.
WD-40 will usually come with a thin plastic straw. Attach that to the sprayer, and it should fit into the space between your key and the ignition cylinder. Spray the WD-40 into the ignition cylinder, wait for a minute or two, and then try to pull out the key. Afterward, if you’re able to remove the key, inspect it for signs of damage. If you see cracks or it’s bent, then it’s time to get a new key.
Adhesive Remover or Alcohol
Remember when we said a piece of tape stuck on the key can make it difficult to remove the key? If you think you have a piece of tape stuck on the key, you can try using an adhesive remover or alcohol. This method may also work if you suspect you have dirt or gunk on the key. Try inserting alcohol or an adhesive remover into the ignition cylinder and see if it helps.
Key Stuck in Ignition: If the Key Broke Off in the Ignition
Okay, so let’s say you’ve tried all of the methods above. You’ve jiggled the steering wheel and the key endlessly, but then you accidentally broke off the key in the middle of all this jiggling action. Don’t worry, this happens to the best of us. However, don’t whatever you do, try to reinsert the broken top half of the key to get the other half out. You will only push the broken part further into the lock and this makes life more difficult than it already is. Instead, there are some tools that can help you to get it out:
Use a Key Extractor
If you have a key extractor, then try using it to, well, extract your broken keys. You will need a key extractor, a needle nose plier, and a lubricant. Ideally, you should use a lock lubricant, but a WD-40 should do the job just fine. The steps are as follows:
- Before working on this, make sure your car is off and engage the parking brakes.
- Lubricate the ignition cylinder before you start the process.
- Slide the key extractor tool into the ignition cylinder with the hook end facing up.
- When you feel the extractor tool stop, that means it has reached the end of the cylinder and gently turn the tool towards the teeth of the key.
- Slowly pull out the broken key. Ideally, you should catch the hook of the extractor on the key’s teeth.
- Once the broken key is out, remove it using a needle nose plier. But if you can use your hand, that’s fine as well.
If you don’t have a key extractor tool, then you will need to buy one. We’re no expert when it comes to key extractors, but this video below uses an HPC-ES 2000. While they didn’t use a car ignition cylinder as an example, the basic principle of removing a key is the same. Watch the video below if you need a visual guide on how to remove a broken key:
Use a Jigsaw Blade
If you don’t have a key extractor but have a jigsaw blade lying around, then you can try using that as well to remove a broken key. The method is largely similar to using a key extractor:
- Use a lubricant to lubricate the key.
- Slowly insert the jigsaw blade into the ignition cylinder until you reach the end of the cylinder.
- Carefully turn the jigsaw blade towards the key. Just like the key extractor, you want to catch the blades on the key’s teeth. If you feel like you’ve caught the key’s teeth, slowly pull it out.
- Once the broken key is out, pull out the rest of it using your hand or a needle nose plier if necessary.
Try a Thin Wire
If you don’t have either a key extractor or a jigsaw blade, you can make use of a thin wire. This wire needs to be thin enough that it can slide into the ignition cylinder, but strong enough to maintain its shape as you try to pull the key out. The steps are as follows:
- As always, use a lubricant to lubricate the broken key.
- Make a hook at one end of the wire. You can use a needle nose plier to do this.
- Insert the wire into the ignition cylinder. Just like the key extractor, make sure the hook is facing upwards.
- Once you reach the end of the cylinder, slowly turn the hook towards the key to catch the key’s teeth. Then carefully pull the key out.
- If you manage to pull a portion of the broken key out, pull the rest with your hand or a needle nose plier if necessary.
When All Else Fails, Call Someone
If you’ve tried all of the methods we mentioned above and you still can’t get the key out, then it’s time to admit defeat and call someone. You can either call a mechanic or a locksmith to help you and they will get your key out for you. We also recommend you calling them if you don’t feel comfortable removing it on your own in the first place.
A key removal typically costs around $100 – $150, but it can easily be cheaper or more expensive depending on the severity of the damage.
Key Stuck in Ignition: Car Key Replacement Cost
Okay, now that you’ve got the stuck key out of the ignition, there are some things you will need to address. First, check the keys for signs of damage. If there’s damage, then it would be wise to replace the keys so they won’t get stuck again in the future. If you see no damage to the keys, then the ignition cylinder might be faulty. In which case, you will need to replace the ignition cylinder, but we’ll discuss this later. For now, we’ll discuss the key replacement.
If you see damage or the key broke off in the cylinder, then you will need a replacement. You can use the spare key in the meantime, but you will still need to get that broken key replaced. If you have a modern car, then expect the cost to be anywhere between $200 to $400. This is because modern car keys have a transponder, this not only unlocks the car, it also communicates with the car’s anti-theft system and allows it to start. Dealers will typically charge about $150 for the key itself, and another $75 or so to program the transponder.
When the transponder isn’t programmed, you can turn the key and the car will crank, but it won’t start. Leaving you with a pointless key that doesn’t really do anything except running your car’s starting motor. If you want to save money, you can try asking a locksmith or a repair shop. They typically charge you about $20 less than a dealership.
Don’t Lose Your Keys
Okay, we’re going off-topic a bit here but we think this is important to note. While researching this article, we found out just how expensive it is to replace a broken or lost key. For example, a blank master key for an old 1990s Nissan Maxima costs a whopping $139. Yikes.
We also checked just how expensive it would be to replace the keys for luxury car brands. If you drive a Mercedes-Benz, while their key isn’t really a “traditional” key and won’t get stuck or broken in the ignition, you will need to pay a hefty $362 for the electric key if you lose it. And judging from the diagram, this doesn’t seem to include the emergency key that fits in the electric key, which you will need to open the door of your car if the car’s battery dies and you’re locked out of the car. This costs an extra $20. Not to mention the transponder programming fee.
If you drive a luxury brand like Mercedes, BMW, or even Lexus, expect to pay anywhere between $300 – $500 for a key replacement. We would like to take this opportunity to remind you to be mindful of your belongings and not lose your keys.
Key Stuck in Ignition: Ignition Cylinder Replacement
So, what if your key was stuck and now you got it out but upon inspection, it seems fine and not damaged? Well, you might have a faulty ignition cylinder, which you will need to replace. If you don’t, you run the risk of getting your key stuck again and we’re sure you don’t want that to happen again.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a simple job. It doesn’t require specialized tools, but it can be complicated if you’re not particularly good with tools. If you don’t feel like doing this yourself, you can have your mechanic do it for you. Most mechanics will charge around $250 for an ignition cylinder replacement. But depending on your car’s make and model, you may pay more for the job.
How to Replace Ignition Cylinder
For those of you who want to do this yourself, you will need to verify that you have a removable cylinder. If your ignition cylinder is non-removable, you will need the help of a professional mechanic. But otherwise, you should be able to do this yourself. The tools you will need include:
- Regular and small size Flathead and Philips head screwdriver.
- Boxed end wrench or ratchet sets.
- OBD scanner.
Removing the Ignition Cylinder
- Disconnect the battery before you start as you’ll be working with electrical components.
- Loosen and remove the steering column cover bolts to access the ignition cylinder.
- After removing the bolts, remove the cover. Most cars will have two covers, one at the top and one at the bottom. Use the adjustable arm to move the steering wheel up and down to help loosen the covers.
- Remove the small screw that holds the ignition cylinder cover. Once the screw is removed, slide the cover off the ignition cylinder.
- Remove the ignition cylinder. The process will vary depending on your car’s make and model, but generally, they will all require you to insert the key and sometimes turn the key to the ‘ACC’ position. Then use a flat head screwdriver to press a small metal pin underneath the cylinder. When you press this pin, the cylinder should pop out from the housing.
- Remove the ignition cylinder from the housing. If the cylinder won’t come out, there are usually two screws on the top that secures the ignition cylinder to the housing. Loosen these screws and you should be able to remove the ignition cylinder. Don’t forget to carefully remove the key from the ignition cylinder afterward.
Installing the New Ignition Cylinder
- You will obviously need to acquire a new ignition cylinder. It will typically cost you around $150 to buy a new ignition cylinder.
- Install the new ignition cylinder. However, each carmaker has unique procedures for installing a new ignition cylinder. Make sure to check your manual before installing the new ignition cylinder.
- Once installed, we recommend testing the new ignition cylinder first before reinstalling the interior trim. Insert your key and make sure the ignition cylinder moves to all four positions. Test this several times to make sure there’s no problem.
- Once you verify the new ignition cylinder works, reinstall the column covers and the rest of the interior trim.
- Reconnect the car’s battery.
- Try turning on your car. If the ignition cylinder works just fine but the car won’t start and you have a check engine light, then you will need to clear the error codes. Some cars will register an error code if they detect the ignition cylinder was removed and treat it as an issue even when you install a new one. You will need to scan and clear these error codes using an OBD scanner to get rid of the check engine light and get your car to start.
Learn how to reset a check engine light using an OBD scan tool with our guide here. If you need a visual guide on how to replace an ignition cylinder, watch the video below:
Key Stuck in Ignition: In Conclusion…
Car keys aren’t really something we pay attention to since they don’t really require any maintenance. However, they may become damaged over time and this can cause them to get stuck in the ignition cylinder. The good news is that carmakers are moving away from traditional keys and are now using fobs that simply stick into a port or can even communicate wirelessly and all you need to do is press a button.
If you have an older car or still have conventional keys for your car, check your key condition regularly for signs of damage and bending. Also check if there is any tape or adhesive residue on the key, as these can cause the key to get stuck in the ignition cylinder.
Also, since car keys are quite expensive to replace, we remind you to be mindful of your belongings and not lose your car keys. A replacement key is anywhere between $200 – $500 and that is a high price to pay just because you lost a key.