Last Updated on September 6, 2022
Your ignition switch (or starter switch) locks your steering wheel in place when there’s no key in it. It is meant to prevent the car from being started without the key. It’s not much of a deterrent for the thief that knows how to get around it or hotwire a car, though.
An ignition starter switch also performs a practical function. If you’re waiting in the car, the switch will allow you to switch on the radio or lights without actually turning on the engine. So, the ignition starter switch is useful in many ways.
While you will likely never experience an issue with this component, a bad ignition switch can be a major problem. Fortunately, symptoms of a faulty ignition switch are fairly noticeable (especially if multiple ones appear) and the replacement cost won’t break the bank in most cases.
How an Ignition Switch Works
There are two basic electrical systems at work in your car – the primary and the secondary. The secondary system runs solely on battery power. It’s this system that allows the car’s clock to keep time when the vehicle is off.
It’s this secondary system that comes into play when you opt to move your key into the second spot. If you’re listening to music in your car while you’re sitting waiting, the secondary system is in play.
The primary system is stronger. For this system to engage, the secondary one has to switch over. When the switch is turned on, the circuit for the primary system is closed, and power can flow.
The power moves to the starter solenoid and various ignition system components including the starter motor, ignition coil, and spark plugs. The spark then ignites the fuel, and the car starts running.
To use a vehicle’s ignition switch, you first need to insert a matching key into the switch which is usually located on the steering column. Alternatively, many newer cars use a key fob to communicate wirelessly with an ignition switch. Instead of turning a key, you push a start button.
In almost all cases, for security reasons, an engine immobilizer system is also in play by way of a microchip (transponder) in the key or key fob that tells the car’s computer it’s ok to start the vehicle. If the transponder signal doesn’t match what the immobilizer is expecting (or there is no signal), the vehicle will not start.
Related: 7 Reasons Why a Key is Stuck in the Ignition
Top 5 Bad Ignition Switch Symptoms
How do you know if you’re dealing with a faulty ignition switch or relay? Here are five of the most common signs the ignition switch may be bad. When you notice at least two or three of these symptoms, it’s fairly likely the ignition switch is the culprit.
#1 – Key Doesn’t Turn
When an ignition switch has excessive wear or damage inside of it, it will often prevent the key from correctly aligning with the keyhole. This is usually something that gets worse over time. You may notice the key not going in as smoothly as before and the issue gradually gets worse until the key doesn’t even go in or it goes in but fails to turn.
Make sure the ignition lock is not engaged by turning the steering wheel back and forth while you try to turn the key.
#2 – Car Won’t Start
The ignition coil draws battery power and uses that to fire up the spark plugs. If something goes wrong with this switch, your car won’t start. There are a few other things to check, such as the battery, but the ignition system is an excellent place to start.
Listen to the noise that your car is making. Is it completely dead and won’t turn over at all? Then, it’s probably a dead battery.
It doesn’t leave you in the clear, though. The battery could also drain as a result of a faulty ignition system.
Related: 4 Symptoms of a Faulty Neutral Safety Switch
#3 – Dashboard Lights Flicker
With older vehicles, wear and tear can cause failure in the switch over time. If the switch starts wearing out, one of the first signs is that you don’t hear the primary relay clicking over. Check the lights on the dashboard to be sure.
Now, put your key into the second position. If the ignition is the problem, then the dashboard will usually go dark. Move it into the starting position and take note of the warning lights that appear.
If the lights go out when the key is moved back to the second position, there’s a problem with the wiring to the ignition switch. Many times, you will experience flickering lights in your dashboard while you are driving. This is a warning to get things checked out.
It is something that you should leave to a qualified auto-electrician. The current running through these wires could cause severe injuries if you don’t know what you’re doing.
#4 – Accessories Won’t Power On
If there’s not enough power to get the car started, there won’t be enough for the accessories in the car, either. If your radio won’t work, or the air conditioner doesn’t start up, check the ignition system.
#5 – Car Stalls While Driving
If your car cuts out for no reason while you’re driving, it’s not getting enough power. It is often a sign that there’s a problem with the ignition system or the battery. If your car cuts out for no reason at all, then pull to the side of the road and call for help.
We can’t stress how important this is for road safety. If the car’s started cutting out while you’re driving, it’s a real emergency.
Ignition Switch Replacement Cost
The cost of an ignition switch can vary quite a bit depending on make and model of vehicle, whether it’s an OEM or aftermarket switch, and whether the switch is a combination unit (ignition switch plus lock cylinder).
While you can get a cheap aftermarket switch for as little as $20, it’s always recommended to go OEM (original equipment manufacturer). In most cases, your parts cost will be somewhere in the range of $70 to $300.
Expect to pay between $60 to $180 in labor to have the switch replaced. Generally speaking, ignition switch replacement takes about an hour to an hour and a half.
If you add up the average cost of parts and labor, the total ignition switch replacement cost will usually run in the neighborhood of $130 to $480. If you own a luxury vehicle and have a highly complex ignition switch or have a car dealership perform the job, expect to pay in the upper part of that range or even more.
If you can start the vehicle, you can drive it to the mechanic. If not, factor in extra money to have it towed instead. If the wiring around the switch has been damaged, you’ll need to have this fixed as well.
Can You Start a Car With a Faulty Ignition Switch?
If you’re lucky, you might be able to get the car going. If that’s the case, make your way to an auto repair shop or dealership at once. It is an issue that you must fix as soon as possible since it’s not just the starting up where there’s an issue.
There’s the real danger that your car could cut out on you while you’re driving. It could be extremely dangerous on the highway, for example.
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17 thoughts on “5 Symptoms of a Bad Ignition Switch (and Replacement Cost)”
Just had the ignition switch changed on my 2008 Chrysler Town and Country for a hefty cost and 2 days later the car is not starting.Now it’s the battery.Just an observation if the ignition switch drains the battery wouldn’t the mechanic look at that as well,just saying
I have a Nissan Pathfinder 2004. At times, it stalls immediately after starting; other times, it takes a while before it starts. There is this very loud and rapid clicking sound when it takes longer to start. It appears like the sound is from the starter area under the hood.
Could this be an ignition switch problem as the starter is fine.
How do you know the starter is fine?
Hi i have a 2013 Ford Taurus my dashboard lights and radio come on and headlights but it wont turn over it says nothing, no clicks no nothing
Your battery could be dead. Sometimes the accessories will work, but the battery won’t have enough amps to turn the starter motor.
I have a 2007 Kia optima LX hard for the key to start once I get it started it’s ok
Is the car cranking for a while, or is it hard to even turn the key?
I have 2010 Dodge Caravan and when I turn on the van i have to do it more than once. After my 2nd or 3rd attempt it turns on what could it be the ignition switch a cable. Nothing appears on my dash bored after it turns on.
Is the van more likely to stay running when you give it a little gas as you try to start it?
My car is in Anti-Theft Security Mode, I have put my key into the ignition, and it will sometimes turn on (the dashboard lights, the air conditioner, the music) but it won’t start. I understand it is because it is in Anti-Theft Security mode, but I’ve never had it do this and I’ve had the car for 5 years. Now when I go back outside to place the key in the ignition, the radio, the dashboard lights will begin to flicker like crazy and I hear a ticking/clicking noise while the anti-theft is flashing like crazy… I don’t have the money to trial and error, so what could this be? Is it just the Anti-Theft security lock or could it be something more severe?
I don’t know. Does your key have a battery? If so, when was the last time it was replaced?
2004 dodge ram 1500. I’ve noticed that when I turn off the truck and get out the radio will turn on and then I hear clicking/ blocking noise coming from under the hood.
This also happens later on in the evening. I’ll go to leave and the radio on the blocking/ clicking sound would be going off, sometimes I can start the truck back up and jiggle the ignition and if I’m late then the truck won’t start.
My husband thinks it’s the neutral safety switch and I think it’s the ignition.
The dealership says nothing about it. Help.
Is the sound a loud, rapid clicking like a starter would make?
Hi , I have a 2005 Chrysler 300 I went to Walmart last night come back out and my car wouldn’t crank but the lights are coming on and the car isn’t turning over do you have any suggestions I tried tapping where the ignition switch is still won’t crank
When the battery is low, it’s often possible to run the accessories and not be able to start the engine. Did you hear any clicking when you tried to start the vehicle? Would the vehicle start with a jump?
Great help, thank you very much!!
Great explaining wow helped me a lot now trying these on my son’s cummins if this works he will b so mad I goggle an search so much working on vehicles an they hate it when I fix it thank you so