What To Do When Your Key Is Stuck In the Ignition?

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Many new vehicles have evolved past the need for a physical key. Proximity-based entry systems have made the act of turning the key a thing of the past, but some of us are still clinging to a classic or base model vehicle that still needs a key to crank.

In those vehicles, the remote car starter system can start to malfunction when the ignition switch or key wears down. You could give up completely and just use an old flat head screwdriver to start your car, but that is frowned upon for a variety of reasons. You may even find that the key has become hopelessly lodged in the switch when things go really wrong.

Sometimes, you just can’t get the key out.

When this starts to happen, it’s time to repair your ignition switch. This can involve having the key removed, changing the ignition switch itself, and having the key itself repaired or replaced. No matter what the problem is, fixing an ignition switch is a straightforward process, as long as you’re prepared. Let The Drive help you stay on track and you’ll be back on the road in no time.

Let’s get started!

Ignition Repair Basics

Estimated Time Needed: A few minutes to a few hours, depending your skill level and how far gone the key and ignition switch are.

Skill Level: Beginner

Vehicle System: Electrical, mechanical

Common Ignition Problems

We’ve worked on enough ignitions to know when things can go wrong. A few of the most common problems include: 

  • One of the most likely culprits for a stuck ignition key is the steering wheel locking mechanism. When a vehicle is parked, the steering wheel can lock. That’s great for theft prevention, but it also prevents the key from turning or being removed from the ignition switch. In some cases, the ignition or vehicle isn’t the problem. It can be a worn or damaged key that has lodged itself in the ignition switch. Pulling or yanking on the key can cause major damage to the ignition and might make it even harder to remove the key.
  • We’re not calling you dumb (we’d never do that!), but be sure that you’re using the correct key for the correct car, and inspect the key for any damage prior to starting a repair on your car’s ignition. If you’re absolutely sure that the problem is the ignition itself, keep reading.

This is not a recommended repair method.

Ignition Repair Safety 

You might not lose a finger while repairing your vehicle’s ignition, but that’s not a reason not to be careful. So follow our safety guidelines to keep all your fingers and toes connected to your body.

  • Don’t cheap out on a generic ignition switch. Buy the one that fits your vehicle to avoid having a dangerous malfunction.
  • Make sure your battery has been disconnected before working on the car’s ignition.
  • If you’re unsure about something, check with a pro. Ignitions are an important part of your car, and problems with a shoddy installation can become a real safety issue.

Everything You’ll Need To Repair An Ignition

It doesn’t take much to repair an ignition switch, but the few tools and parts that are required are extremely important. You can also count on a trip to your local dealer or service shop for a replacement key if the one you’re working with is worn or damaged.

Tool List 

  • Screwdriver set with various flathead and Phillips head screwdrivers
  • Pliers
  • Vehicle service or maintenance manual

Parts List

  • Replacement key
  • Replacement ignition switch

Replacing the ignition and key are the best way out of this mess.

Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won’t need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)

You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.

Here’s How To Repair An Ignition

You’re going to see that we ask you to refer back to your vehicle’s service manual regularly. This isn’t because we don’t know what we’re talking about. It’s because we have no idea what kind of car you own and how it differs from the directions we expect to give.

If you need to replace the ignition switch, you’ll need to get new keys to go with it, so don’t forget!

Let’s do this! 

Take Apart the Steering Column Covering 

  • Be sure to keep track of screws and other spare parts to avoid misplacing anything.

Replace the Ignition Switch

  • Even if the key is stuck in the ignition switch, you should be able to turn it.
  • This will require a narrow screwdriver to fit into the small hole.
  • The ignition module will slide right out once the pin has been released.
  • You should hear a click when the pin has properly seated itself. Keep working the switch until you hear the sound.
  • The vehicle should crank right up. If that’s not the case, you’ll need to review the steps you took to install the switch. Refer to your vehicle’s maintenance guide to ensure you understand the specifics for your model.
  • If the vehicle cranks properly, you’re almost done. Turn the ignition back to the off position and disconnect the battery again.

Congratulations! You’ve just replaced your ignition switch.

Get Help With Repairing An Ignition From a Mechanic On JustAnswer 

The Drive recognizes that while our How-To guides are detailed and easily followed, a rusty bolt, an engine component not in the correct position, or oil leaking everywhere can derail a project. That’s why we’ve partnered with JustAnswer, which connects you to certified mechanics around the globe, to get you through even the toughest jobs. 

So if you have a question or are stuck, click here and talk to a mechanic near you. 

Lucky you with the fancy push-button start.

Pro Tips To Repair An Ignition

Over the years, The Drive’s editors have done all sorts of jobs and even seen a few stuck keys in our time. Here are our pro tips for repairing your ignition. 

  • If you’re not hearing any noise from the starter motor when you turn the key, the issue might be under the hood and not in the ignition switch. 
  • Make sure the key isn’t the problem before you start disassembling your car’s steering column.
  • Don’t wait to repair a failing ignition. If the switch starts causing problems while you’re driving down the road, the steering wheel could lock, the car could shut off, and any number of other bad things can befall you while the car is in motion.

How Much Does It Cost To Repair An Ignition?

The parts to fix an ignition switch will cost anywhere from around $75 to over $200. Where your costs land on that spectrum will depend on the type of vehicle you own and how common replacement parts are. 

That’s not the cheapest DIY car repair job you can do, but contrast those costs with the price of having a pro do the job and it starts to make sense. Beyond the costs of parts, you’ll pay between $100 and $200 more for labor to have them installed. 

Life Hacks To Repair An Ignition

Since you may not have access to the right tools, or have a friend you can bum a wrench off of, we also compiled a list of our best hacks to make your life easier and drain your pocket less.

  • Vehicle keys are tricky business, so having them replaced isn’t a job that just anyone can do. Make sure you have a plan to either replace or remake keys
  • Don’t go wildly yanking away trim pieces in your vehicle’s interior. There are usually clips holding things together, so you’ll need to be ginger with them even after removing the screws.
  • Some models have different ignition switches for different trims and other specific configurations. For obvious reasons, it’s important to make sure you’ve got the right part for your specific vehicle model.

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Got a question? Got a pro tip? Send us a note: guidesandgear@thedrive.com

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