It’s everyone’s worst nightmare: you’re already late to work, you’ve been stuck in traffic, and now, your key is stuck in the car’s ignition. What do you do now? You can’t just leave it in the car unlocked while you’re away, so how can you get it unstuck quickly and without damaging the mechanics of your ignition? Well it depends entirely on why the key is stuck in the first place. Never try to force the key out using brute force, but if it won’t come out on its own, there are a few possible causes. Keep reading to find out more about why your key may be getting stuck, and more importantly, what you can do to fix it.
Most Common Reasons Ignition Keys Get Stuck
There are a few reasons that your key can get stuck, but some are more common than others. Understanding the reasons behind a stuck key is the first step in getting it fixed. Here, we’ve laid out a few of the most common reasons for a key to get stuck, and later we’ll go over what you can do to fix them.
Reason 1 – Your Car Isn’t in Park
In order to remove a key from the ignition, the car has to be put in “park”. If it isn’t, the car will not be able to turn off and the car won’t release the key. When you’re in a rush, it’s easy to slip the gear shift into “neutral” instead of “park” simply due to the fact that you’re not paying close attention. It’s also possible that the gear hasn’t fully changed over to park. Make sure to check that the “P” on your gear shift is highlighted so you know it’s fully shifted into “Park” if your car has a digital display screen. If it doesn’t, try moving the car out of “park” and then sliding it back in before you try to turn the car off again.
Oftentimes when an ignition key feels stuck, the simplest answer is correct. If you’re struggling with your key, make sure to double check you’re in the right gear as your first troubleshooting option.
Reason 2 – The Steering Wheel Lock is Engaged
A steering wheel lock is one of features added to cars for safety. They’re designed to stop the wheel from turning when there is no key in the ignition. Normally, they activate when you take the key out, and deactivate when you insert and turn the key in the ignition. However, if you accidentally turn the steering wheel while you’re also turning the car off, the lock can activate and trap the key. If this is the case, you won’t be able to turn the steering wheel, nor will you be able to remove the key from the ignition.
This may seem scary, but normally it’s easy to fix on your own. Try turning the key around while gently moving the wheel. This should either turn the car on again or allow the lock to release and the key to be removed. If it does turn the car back on, simply carefully turn it off again without moving the wheel and you should be good to go.
Reason 3 – You Have a Dead Battery
We’ve all had to deal with a dead battery in our car at some point. Maybe you left your headlights on accidentally, or ran the air conditioning for a bit to long in the driveway. Whatever the reason, a dead battery will prevent the ignition cylinders from firing, leading to a stuck key.
If you suspect a dead battery, your best bet is to get a jump from somebody else. If you have jumper cables in your car, all you need is someone willing jump you. Alternatively, you may have to call a towing company. When your battery is dying without a reasonable cause, it may be time to get a replacement.
Reason 4 – The Key is Worn Out or Damaged
Friction is a form of energy that generated by two surfaces rubbing against each other. Over time, this can cause damage to one, or both, of the surfaces. In this case, the surfaces are your ignition key and the inside of the socket. Every time you insert the key and turn it, the surface incurs wear and tear damage.
Even if it’s not getting damaged in the ignition, your keys may be getting damaged from other surfaces. Keeping your keys in your pocket, using them to open packages, and tossing them onto a hard surface like a kitchen counter or a desk can all cause damage over time. If you notice scratches, dents, or bends in your keys, you should get them replaced as soon as possible to avoid these issues.
Reason 5 – There are Debris on the Key
Keys are often a go-to option for opening packages quickly. However, using them to regularly tear through tape can cause little bits of sticky tape to be left behind. These debris can cause issues in the ignition later on. Another common way keys can get contaminated with debris is if they’re dropped on the ground when you’re outside. If you do happen to drop them, it’s not a bad idea to wipe them down quickly with a towel or cloth to get rid of any dirt. Oh, and maybe reach for a pair of scissors next time you’ve got a box to open.
Reason 6 – There is a Manufacturer Recall or TSB
They’re rare, but they do happen occasionally. If your make, model, and year of vehicle has been issued a recall notice, or a technical service bulletin (TSB), specifically related to the ignition lock cylinder, you can check if it affects you by going to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NTHSA) website. Simply input your vehicle identification number (VIN) to find out if you are in need of a repair or replacement.
Reason 7 – Your Ignition Cylinder is Damaged
An ignition cylinder is made up of a series of spring-loaded pins. If any of these pins or springs are damaged or out of alignment, the cylinder can fail and trap the key. Never try to pull the key out using brute force, you won’t get anything more than an even more heavily damaged key.
How to Free a Stuck Ignition Key
Now that we’ve gone over some of the most common reasons your ignition key may be stuck, you’re on your way to understanding how to get it safely removed from the cylinder. The next step depends on when and how often your key gets stuck. If this is the first time your key has ever gotten stuck, the steps you take are going to be different than if you’re dealing with a repeat issue.
The First Time Your Key Gets Stuck
The first thing to remember when you key is stuck is not to panic. It may seem like the best option is to simply yank the key out using brute force, but this will ultimately do far more harm than good. If your key has never given you issues with the ignition cylinder before, the solution is probably a simple one.
The Gear Shift
Without a doubt, the most common reason for a key to be stuck in the ignition is the gear shift is being set incorrectly. If you’re driving an automatic car, the gear needs to be set to “Park” for the key to come out. With a digital display, you’ll be able to see which gear you are in easily. If you don’t have a display, simply check to make sure you’ve moved the stick all the way into the “P” or “Park” position. If you drink a manual transmission, the gear shift needs to be in “Neutral”.
The Steering Wheel
If you’re absolutely sure you’ve got the gear shift in the right position, but the key still won’t come out, it’s time to try the steering wheel. Gently wiggling the steering wheel back and forth while you try to pull the key out. Again, don’t try to pull the key out violently. Moving the steering wheel and the key at the same time can help to disengage the steering wheel lock if it’s been accidentally activated.
What About if the Key Gets Stuck More than Once?
If your key keeps getting stuck in the ignition, it may be a sign of a deeper issue. There are still a few easy ways to fix it, but some problems may need a professional fix or even a replacement. The easiest fixes are often simply cleaning the separate components of general dirt and debris. Other fixes may be a little but more labor intensive, but some are still manageable.
Cleaning Your Key
If you notice your key getting stuck often, the issue may be with debris contaminates on the key. This can be pretty easily taken care of in a couple of different ways. You can try getting rid of any hard-to-see dirt and grime with a rubbing alcohol wipe or rubbing alcohol and a cotton pad. If there are visible, big pieces of dirt, try using an adhesive cleaner or putty. These cleaners work by attaching to particles and lifting them off the surface of the key. Putties are especially useful because they can get into the deep corners and crevices that would otherwise be hard to reach.
Cleaning the Ignition Cylinder
If your key isn’t the problem, it may be the inside of the ignition cylinder. Of course, you won’t be able to open it up to clean it with alcohol or a putty like you can the key, but you can still get debris out of it using something like WD-40 spray. The thin tip that come with the can should just about fit into the cylinder and giving it a quick spritz can loosen up any debris that are hiding inside the cylinder. If cleaning both the key and the ignition socket doesn’t fix the chronic issues, it may be time to look at getting the cylinder, key, or both replaced or at least professionally replaced.
What if the Key Breaks off in the Ignition?
Hopefully, this is a problem you can avoid. The most common reason for a broken key is that there was too much force applied when you tried to remove it. The number one thing you can do to avoid this is never, ever, ever try to violently remove the key from the ignition. Always try everything you can to remove it gently to prevent it from breaking or becoming damaged. However, if the worst has happened and your key has snapped, there are still a few things you can try.
Call a Locksmith
If you don’t have any experience with locks, mechanics, cars, or you’re just worried about doing even more damage, it may be time to call a locksmith. A quick google search will help you find a locksmith in your area. Even if it’s the middle of the night, many locksmiths are open 24 hours, seven days a week. A locksmith is a professional will be able to remove the key without doing any more damage to the cylinder. It may cost a bit more, but it can be worth it just for the peace of mind.
Using a Jigsaw Blade
A jigsaw is a thin, serrated metal blade that’s designed to cut through materials with a high degree of accuracy. Because they’re so thin, they can fit in the ignition cylinder alongside the key. Then, you can twist it slightly so that the serrated edge catches on the groves in the key. Next, gently pull the whole thing towards you. With a little luck, the broken key will pop right out.
Using a Key Extractor
If you don’t want to pay for a locksmith, you can buy one of their tools for cheap online and do the job yourself. A key extractor is specifically designed to retrieve a broken key with minimal damage, and you can buy them online for fairly cheap.
Using Tweezers or Pliers
Assuming there is still part of the key sticking out of the cylinder, you can use tweezers to try and pull it out. If you want something stronger, try using needle nose pliers. If there isn’t part of the key protruding, these probably won’t fit and you’ll have to go with one of the other solutions.