Alright, so picture this… You leaped out of bed, having overslept, and are likely to be late to work. You’d hurriedly brush your teeth, haphazardly put some clothes on, get some breakfast on the go, and yank your car keys from the kitchen counter. As you fumble around trying to start the car, your heart sinks at the sudden realization. Why, oh why is it that your car key won’t turn in ignition?
This, unfortunately, appears to be an issue that plagues quite a few of you out there. Once the era of push-button starters goes more mainstream, it’s likely that we won’t have to worry too much about that in the future. But here and now, your metal keys refusing to turn in the ignition to start up your car is beyond frustrating. Alas, this is possibly something that you’ll have to face sooner or later.
Your car’s ignition cylinder – that barrel which you slot and twist your keys into – undergoes immense wear and tear over the lifetime of your car. In particular, there are those tumblers that lock onto the grooves of your car keys. As you regularly thrust your keys in and out of this cylinder, it’ll wear them down quite fast. If you find that your car key won’t turn in ignition, here are some pointers…
What Is An Ignition Cylinder, Anyway?
While we’re discussing how your key won’t turn in ignition, let’s take a slight tangent and understand more about what ignition cylinders are. On the surface, these barrel-like tubes are where you’d slot your car keys into. Subsequently, you’d twist your key in a select few positions to make your car do things, such as powering on just the accessories or cranking up the ignition system for the engine to start.
In most modern cars, the ignition cylinder contains an electronic anti-theft system that authenticates your keys to be valid. Only then, could it allow you to start the car. As far as damage is concerned, an ignition cylinder should theoretically last the lifetime of your vehicle. Being a relatively simple part, it lacks the complexity that might otherwise prompt it to break down. Still, that’s not always the case.
The key point of failure for most ignition cylinders are the “wafer” tumblers and pins housed within them. This is the primary cause your key won’t turn in ignition. These tumblers can be worn out, which is exacerbated if you don’t take good care of them. Jamming in the wrong keys into the cylinder, as well as weighing them down with a bunch of extra keys, keyring ornaments, and so on will put stress on it.
It’s estimated that an ignition cylinder should comfortably last 200,000 miles. Nevertheless, it’s more than a given that some of us may have caused it to fail outright. When this happens, your key won’t turn in ignition is one of a few possibilities that may happen. Sometimes, the key would still turn but would fail to start the car. Worse, your key might get stuck in the ignition, and it won’t come out.
Reasons (And Diagnosis) Why Your Key Won’t Turn In Ignition
Besides the ignition cylinder itself having worn down tumblers that can’t sufficiently interact with the keys, there are a few other potential causes of why your car key won’t turn in ignition. Here are a few of the noteworthy reasons why a set of car keys won’t turn in ignition:
1. Steering Wheel Is Locked
Steering wheel locks are a safety and anti-theft measure built into most vehicles. When you take your keys out of the ignition, a slight wiggle would force the steering wheel to lock itself. In other words, it prevents your car from turning, which can curb thieves trying to maneuver your car away. It’s also a good safety measure, which could avoid your vehicle moving while the key’s not in the ignition.
More often than not, most people would find themselves accidentally locking the steering wheel. For instance, unintentionally bumping your knee and moving the wheel as you’re getting out. If that’s the case, getting back into your car, later on, would see both the steering wheel and ignition cylinder, lock you out of them. Therefore, the key won’t turn in ignition if the steering wheel lock is still activated.
To diagnose this, all you need is to try and free the steering wheel lock. Begin by inserting the car key into the ignition cylinder, but without turning it. Now, put one hand on the key, and another grasping at the wheel. After that, gently twist the key in a clockwise position, while at the same time tugging the steering wheel left and right. Do this carefully, until both the wheel and ignition are unlocked.
2. Ignition Cylinder Is Damaged Or Worn Out
Expanding on our point earlier, the ignition cylinder itself may be at fault. Should your steering wheel not be locked (or if you need to figure out how to get keys out of locked car) – to put it simply, it can turn freely left and right without the ignition on – and the key is still refusing to turn, then this is your next logical step. As mentioned, the tumbler and pins within the ignition cylinder will wear out as it makes physical contact with the keys anytime you’re driving.
With that being said, there are also other potential issues concerning the ignition cylinder. There may be obstruction, such as debris or dirt getting wedged inside the barrel, that’s preventing the key from fully inserting itself. Note, that car keys and their respective ignition systems have tight tolerances. If let’s say, the key sticks out ever so slightly more so than normal, the ignition still won’t turn over.
The easiest diagnosis is to bring a can of compressed air. Point it and blow directly into the open slot of the ignition cylinder. That should dislodge any unwanted obstacles. If that hasn’t solved it, then its tumblers, pins, or some other mechanism within is broken. You can feel resistance or stickiness when slotting in or trying to remove the keys. If that’s the case, only a complete replacement will do.
3. Car Keys Are Damaged Or Misshaped
However, there’s also the chance that your keys are to blame. Metal keys aren’t immune from being bent, deformed, or have their grooves (which correspond to the tumblers in the ignition cylinder) worn out. If the key doesn’t precisely match the ignition cylinder, the pins and tumblers won’t drop on the key thoroughly. Thus, your ignition won’t be able to recognize the key, preventing it from turning.
For the most part, it can be challenging to tell apart from a good key, to a faulty one. Its grooves may still look similar enough, and it might still slot effortlessly into the ignition barrel. Nevertheless, it still may not line up properly, prompting the ignition to lock you out of starting the car. If the key is bent, you could try to bend it back into shape. Although, you should be careful to not snap the end off.
4. Transmission Isn’t Shifted Into Park Or Neutral
This applies to all of you who drive an automatic-equipped car. In most auto vehicles, there should be a safety feature that prevents the car from starting. That’s unless the gear selected and transmission are shifted into Neutral or Park during the start-up process. When it has a gear engaged – such as D or 1, 2, or 3 – the transmission won’t allow the ignition to turn, thus your key remains stuck in place.
You may have forgotten to shift the car into Park or Neutral the last time you’ve parked it. To try and diagnose this potential fault, try to move the gear selector while keeping the key out of the ignition. Simply shift your car into Neutral or Park. Sometimes, the gear selector may not have seated properly within a gear, so move it around a little, just to make sure. Finally, try to turn the key in the ignition.
5. Battery And Electrics Are Dead Or Malfunctioning
Another safety and security-related inclusion in a growing number of new vehicles revolve around the use of electronic ignitions. In effect, turning your key in the ignition would first require this system to authenticate the key. Usually, the ignition would receive signals from the immobilizer in your car’s key fob, validating that you are the owner. Only then, would it let you twist the key to start the car.
It’s thus an issue if the electrics around said electronic ignition is faulty. Or, if your battery is entirely dead. Without power, the electronic ignition can’t recognize the key and locks it out of the ignition. A simple diagnosis would see you checking the condition of the battery. Should it be flat, a jump-start is a quick and easy way to get your car started. With electricity flowing, try the ignition once more.
What To Do Now That The Key Won’t Turn In Ignition?
Having gone through the myriad of reasons why the key won’t turn in ignition, what’s next? Once you’ve made a thorough diagnosis of each component as explained earlier, you can try a few steps to get the key to turn. But before we go there, we must first remind you to never brute force the key to turn. Putting that much pressure on it could worsen the situation, and make repairs more costly.
The possibly damaged ignition cylinder would sustain further wear. If not, then your car’s metal key is susceptible to bending, or snapping completely if you’re that intense. Rather than simply using force, there are many gentler techniques that you can approach in trying to solve why your key won’t turn in ignition. These would also encompass the diagnosis that we’ve highlighted earlier.
Also, and just to make sure, see if you’re actually using the right key. In a hurry, it’s common to have folks accidentally slotting in their house key into the ignition. Not to mention, some cars come with a couple of keys, such as having one for the ignition, and another for the trunk, for example. Elsewhere, here’s a brief TL;DR rundown from before (more of which will be explained in detail):
- Wiggle the steering wheel while gently turning the key at the same time to unlock the wheel.
- Blow a can of compressed air into the cylinder to try and dislodge obstacles getting in the way.
- Check the key if it’s worn out or bent, or bring out your spare key to see if it works with that one.
- Shift your gear selector into Park and Neutral, and wiggle it a bit to make sure it stays there.
- Double-check your car’s battery and electrical systems, and fix those if necessary.
Solution 1 (Key Won’t Turn In Ignition): Wiggle The Steering Wheel
If the steering wheel is locked, you can unlock it (and be able to turn the key in the ignition) by:
- Turning the steering wheel gently left and right to make sure it’s properly locked.
- While you’re doing that, note that the steering wheel won’t lock in both ways. Try going left and right repeatedly, as one direction should have more give or looseness than the other.
- Position the steering wheel in the direction that has more give and play, either left or right, and hold it in place.
- Now, grab the key, and slot it in the ignition, while keeping one hand on the wheel.
- Gently twist the key clockwise, and into the ACC (Accessory) position, but be sure to not put too much force. While you’re doing this, keep turning the steering wheel (carefully so) in the direction with the most give.
- If the steering wheel still doesn’t unlock, continue wiggling and rocking both the key and wheel back and forth. Repeat this motion as long as the steering wheel remains stiff.
- Should you’ve done this correctly, the steering wheel should unlock, and is now free to turn in every direction. Meanwhile, you should be able to turn the key and start your car.
Solution 2 (Key Won’t Turn In Ignition): Clear Out The Ignition Cylinder
You can start with compressed air, as we noted already. An alternative to that would be clearing out and lubricating the innards of the ignition cylinder. It’s possible that the tumblers and pins are stuck, and won’t drop onto the key when inserted. Should this be the issue, you should be able to lubricate the ignition cylinder, and hopefully unseized it to get the ignition to work smoothly again.
- Start by pointing the nozzle of your lubricating spray into the hole.
- Then, spray a few small squirts into the keyway. You shouldn’t need that much lubricant, as it’s quite a small hole.
- With the ignition barrel sufficiently lubricated, insert the key, and gently turn it.
- If it still doesn’t turn, or if there’s noticeable resistance while turning, try wiggling the key around in the ignition cylinder. Don’t overdo it, as a steady jiggling will help spread the lubricant around inside, and un-seize the ignition cylinder.
- Should this still not work, add a few more modest sprays of lubricating solution into the cylinder, and try again.
- Moreover, you may also try slotting the key in and out in repeated motions. Gently slide it in, and take it back out a few times. This might help get any leftover debris out of the ignition cylinder.
Solution 3 (Key Won’t Turn In Ignition): Apply Force On The Ignition
Unfortunately, lubrication alone might not always work in unseizing your ignition cylinder. The small tumblers and pins may stubbornly remain stuck or jammed. In this scenario, you’ll have to apply a bit of force onto the ignition cylinder, in the hopes of slamming it back into action. First, you should grab a blunt instrument. It doesn’t need to be a hammer or mallet, so long as you can tap it.
Also, you should be very careful when applying said force. What we’re looking for while attempting the steps below is a harsh but not overbearing vibration that could un-jam the ignition cylinder. Too much, and you could risk getting the key stuck in the ignition. Or, break something within the barrel:
- First, slot your key into the ignition keyway, and wiggle it a bit to keep it firmly in place.
- Now, grab that hammer, rubber mallet, the end of a screwdriver, or any other tool to hit the key. Just make sure you line up the hit, ensuring that you’re hitting dead-straight into the ignition cylinder, not at an angle. The former could instead bend the key.
- As you’re gently hitting the key, position your other hand in a way that allows you to turn the key at the same time.
- Repeat these steps, by attempting to turn the key, while also carefully impacting the end of it into the ignition.
Solution 4 (Key Won’t Turn In Ignition): Repair The Key, Or Try A Spare
Perhaps the simplest solution would be grabbing a spare key if you have one nearby. This can help in narrowing down the potential cause and possibly point to your original key being the problem. First, grab your spare key, and try to turn it in. If nothing happens:
- Compare the two keys side by side, and see if you can spot any damage. In particular focus on the grooving, and check if there are wear, deformation, cracks, or bends in that area.
- Should the original key be bent, try to straighten it up. The best way to do this is by grabbing a rubber or wooden mallet (at least, something that isn’t metal or overly hard), and hitting the key atop a flat surface. You may also consider using your bare hands, but be wary to not snap the key.
- In addition, check the grooves or teeth of the key to notice if there’s anything stuck to it. A bit of gum or tape might be getting in the way of the ignition from turning.
Solution 5 (Key Won’t Turn In Ignition): Check The Transmission (And Brakes)
Further detailing our diagnosis steps from before:
- First, make sure the key isn’t in the ignition.
- Now, slot the gear lever into Park (P) or Neutral (N). For the latter, remember to have the handbrake activated to prevent the car from rolling.
- Slot the key back into the ignition and try turning it again.
- If that doesn’t work, remove the key, before then taking your vehicle out of Park or Neutral, and then slotting it back there again. It might be that the gear selector isn’t as precise as it used to be. It might also help to give the gear lever a gentle tug or wiggle, being certain that it’s shifted properly.
- While we’re here, it may also be a good idea to keep your foot on the brake. Remember that in some cars, the ignition won’t turn on until you’ve pressed the brake pedal.
Solution 6 (Key Won’t Turn In Ignition): Replace The Key Or Ignition
If all else fails, you can call over a local locksmith (for more context, check out our guide on how much does a auto locksmith cost) to help you out. If none of the steps from up above have worked, either your key or the ignition cylinder may be at fault. In doing so, you’ll be recommended to have them replaced. If the key is the problem, you can get a new one duplicated or copied. Bear in mind that a key alone might still not work, and requires reprogramming.
They can be pretty costly, especially if you take the key fob to a certified dealership, and get it paired with your ignition. While a metal key can be duplicated for as little as $5, a new key fob may cost you upwards of $200. It’s generally cheaper with older cars, as they lack sophisticated authentication and security systems. Thus, making it far easier to have a proper key and key fob made.
Should your issue of the key won’t turn in ignition be a result of the ignition cylinder, then you’ll have to replace that one, as well. Commonly, you can expect a total bill of around $200 to $250 to replace the ignition cylinder, accounting for both parts and labor. Although, note that with more complex or high-tech cars, the replacement cost might skyrocket to $500 or more, owing to its safety systems.
Key Stuck in Ignition: Need-to-Know Facts
- Ignition lock failure is uncommon, but it can happen, and it is usually apparent when you insert the key, and the ignition will not turn to start.
- Most modern cars with keys are equipped with chip keys that are theft deterrents, and they must be properly mated to the car through software that is usually only available at the dealership.
- If you accidentally lock the steering wheel, grab it with one hand and wiggle back and forth while attempting to turn the key. The steering wheel will quickly unlock, and the car will start.
- If the car is not in park or neutral, you may not be able to turn the key. Manipulate the shifter a little bit to make sure the car is in the correct gear, then try to turn the key again.
- If the key is bent or worn out, it may not line up properly in the ignition to make the car start. You can use a hammer of rubber or wood to gently flatten the key if it is bent, or use your spare if it is worn out.
- If the key cylinder has failed, use a flashlight to inspect it for any obstruction. You can use WD-40 or penetrating lubricant to lubricate the keyhole and the tumblers inside.
- If your car key won’t turn, it may be because of the transmission being left in Drive or Reverse when the vehicle was shut off.
- Replacing an ignition lock cylinder can vary, as older vehicles generally cost around $40.00 for the part and 1-2 hours of labor, taking your cost to around $250. On newer vehicles, the lock cylinder is electronic, and it may cost much more.
- You can remove the ignition cylinder when the key won’t turn by disconnecting the battery and removing the airbag from the steering wheel. Follow your repair manual or online guide to your specific car and swap out the ignition cylinder.
- To check if your car is subject to a recall due to the ignition lock cylinder, put your VIN number on the NHTSA website to check your car’s status.
In all, that rounds up our look at how and why your car key won’t turn in ignition, and a quick guide on how to troubleshoot them. In most cases, we can lay blame simply on human error. Be it having grabbed the wrong key, accidentally locking the steering wheel, or forgetting to shift into Neutral or Park. Quite harmless overall, and you could easily free up the key in a matter of minutes.
Nonetheless, the ignition cylinder and keys themselves could be at fault, too. With age and constant use, it may be time to have them replaced. Given how crucial car keys are for your vehicle’s security and safety, it’s shocking to see how pricey these solutions can get. So, that’s one thing to prepare for when you visit the local locksmith or dealership. But hey, at least that’ll get you going, right?