“Argh! My key won’t come out of the ignition!” If that’s every happened to you, you know how stressful it can be to have your car key get stuck in the ignition of your vehicle.
You may panic while you try to figure out how to get it out since you can’t just leave it in the ignition with the doors unlocked. But, whatever you do, DO NOT attempt to use brute force.
Here are the most common reasons why a key gets stuck in the ignition. And more importantly, how to get it UN-STUCK.
Causes of a Car Key That Gets Stuck in the Ignition
There are a variety of reasons as to why your car key won’t come out. Some of these reasons may pertain to a unique problem in a specific make and model vehicle. However, most causes of key sticking are universal and can happen in any make and model vehicle.
You just need to understand these causes so that you can figure out the solution to the problem. Below are the top 7 causes of a key getting stuck in the ignition.
#1 – Parking Gear Not Set
The gear of the transmission must always be set to “Park” before attempting to remove a car key from the ignition. In an automatic transmission, if the gear is set to drive, neutral, or any other available gear, then the key will not come out. In a manual transmission, make sure the gear shifter is set to “Neutral” and not in any other gear.
Sometimes people may attempt to change the gear to park, but the gear doesn’t get set all the way over to it. If your vehicle has a digital screen which displays the gear settings, check that to ensure the “P” is highlighted.
#2 – Steering Wheel Lock
If you turn off your vehicle while moving the steering wheel just a little bit, the steering wheel lock will activate. Not only will this prevent you from turning the steering wheel, you won’t be able to pull out the key from the ignition either.
This is due to the ignition cylinder locking at the same time as the steering wheel lock. To release both locks at the same time, try turning the key while wiggling the steering wheel around. You should be able to take the key out now or start the engine.
#3 – Debris on Key
Some people like to open boxes and packages with their car key. While this might be effective at tearing through the box tape, it could also cause pieces of the tape to stick to the key.
If you were to then place the key into the ignition of your vehicle while the tape is still stuck to it, then it will be harder for the key to engage the ignition cylinder’s pins.
#4 – Dead Battery
The ignition system depends on power from the battery to function properly. If the battery dies, it will likely cause the ignition system to lock up. Then you won’t be able to get the key out of the ignition.
The best thing you can do here is to wait for a jump start or new battery to be installed. Either that or use a tack hammer and gently tap the cylinder with it.
#5 – Worn or Damaged Key
Car keys can take a lot of abuse over the years. Each time you put the key in the ignition and turn, it wears the key just a little bit. When aren’t not using your car key, you may keep it in your pocket or toss it onto a hard-surfaced desk. This kind of abuse will slowly damage your car key.
If it ever bends or forms a small crack somewhere, then it will be tougher to remove it from the ignition. Replace the key immediately if you start noticing this damage.
#6 – Damaged Ignition Cylinder
If you have an ignition lock cylinder that’s on the verge of failing, it can prevent your key from coming out. This is because there are several rows of spring-loaded pins inside the ignition lock which match up with the shape of your key when inserted.
If these pins are slightly out of alignment, it can prevent you from removing the key (or even inserting it in the first place).
#7 – Manufacturer Recall or TSB
While rare, there is the possibility that your particular year, make, and model of car or truck is subject to a recall or technical service bulletin (TSB) directly related to the ignition lock cylinder.
You can check to see if your vehicle is affected by entering your VIN number in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website. Even if it’s not, it’s a good idea to check to get the status of any other outstanding recalls or TSBs.
How to Get a Stuck Key Out of the Ignition
Getting your car key unstuck from your ignition is dependent on the situation. Is this the first time it won’t come out? Does the key keep getting stuck in the ignition? Did you already try to get the key out and ended up breaking the key? Here’s what you should do in each situation.
Key Stuck in the Ignition (1st time)
#1 – Set Parking Gear
The most common reason for not being able to get the key out is that your car’s parking gear is not set. Confirm your gear selector is set to “P” or “Park” on an automatic transmission or the shifter is set to “Neutral” in a manual transmission.
#2 – Unlock the Steering Wheel
Your key might be stuck in the ignition due to the steering wheel lock. Sometimes when the steering column locks (a safety and anti-theft feature in most cars), it puts additional pressure on the ignition lock mechanism and prevents the key from coming out.
By slightly moving the steering wheel, the pressure on the lock is removed and the key should slide out. Here’s how to unlock the steering wheel:
- Gently turn the steering wheel left and right while simultaneously trying to turn the key.
- If the steering wheel remains locked, try turning the key to the Accessory mode.
- Continue to wiggle the steering wheel while turning the key until it releases.
#3 – Check for a Dead Battery
A dead car battery can be the culprit for a stuck key in the ignition. To see if you have a drained battery:
- Turn your headlights on to see if they’re dim or not working.
- If your headlights are dim or not working, try jump-starting the car.
- If the car starts, the key might be able to come out of the ignition.
Key KEEPS Getting Stuck in the Ignition
If you’ve noticed that it’s been slightly more difficult to get your key in and out of the ignition over time or the key keeps getting stuck in the ignition, here are a couple things to try.
#1 – Lubrication
Try spraying a little bit of WD-40 into the ignition lock. The can should come with a thin straw that should fit (or almost fit) into the space between your key and the ignition lock.
Sometimes, this additional lubrication will be enough to allow the key to be removed by gently wiggling it. Once the key is out, inspect it for damage or any sign of being bent. If that’s the case, you’ll want to have the key replaced.
#2 – Rubbing Alcohol / Adhesive Remover
If the key is not damaged but you notice some dirt or gunk on the key, take some rubbing alcohol or adhesive remover (ie: Goo Gone) and thoroughly clean the key.
If using WD-40 to remove the key doesn’t work and you’ve already tried the two fixes in the section above, you may have a problem with the ignition lock itself. You’ll want to contact a locksmith or mechanic to confirm this but an ignition lock cylinder replacement may be in your future.
Key Broke Off in the Ignition
Hopefully, this hasn’t happened to you but if it did, you’re not the first person. Usually this happens when too much force is used to try to remove a stuck key. Here’s what you can do.
NOTE: DO NOT try to reinsert the broken top half of the key to get the bottom half out. All you’ll do is push the broken off part further into the lock and make your job of removal more difficult.
#3 – Key Extractor
Use a key extraction tool to remove the broken key. This is often something a professional locksmith would use and usually much cheaper than calling one. There are a few different types but this one does the best job of removing a key that’s broken off in a lock (any type of lock).
#4 – Jigsaw Blade
Because a jigsaw blade is so thin, it can often fit right alongside the key within the ignition pathway. After inserting the blade, turn it ever so slightly so the notches in the blade grab on to the broken key, and then slowly pull it out.
#5 – Tweezers / Needle Nose Pliers
If any part of the key is still protruding from the ignition, tweezers or needle nose pliers are an easy solution to get it out. But, if the broken key is completely in the ignition lock, these tools are probably too thick to do much good.
Contact a Locksmith
When all else fails or you simply want to make sure it’s done right, call a locksmith. It may cost a bit more upfront but they’ll get the job done.
In some cases, they can even repair or replace the worn or damaged key that’s causing the problem. Remember, you’re not the first person who’s gotten their key stuck in the ignition. Locksmiths deal with this issue all the time.
It’s worth checking if there has been a manufacturer recall related to your ignition issue. Vehicle recalls occur when a manufacturer identifies a safety-related problem or non-compliance with federal safety standards.
If such a recall exists, you may be able to get the issue fixed at no cost to you. As already mentioned above, visit the NHTSA website or check with your local dealership to see if a recall exists for your vehicle.
Technical Service Bulletin
A Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) may also provide information on how to fix key stuck in ignition issues. TSBs are guidelines issued by automotive manufacturers to help dealerships and mechanics diagnose and repair specific problems. While a TSB isn’t a recall, it shows the manufacturer acknowledges the issue and may be able to provide guidance on how to resolve it.
Preventing a Stuck Key
You might wonder how to prevent a key from getting stuck in the ignition in the first place. Well, there are a few things you can do to lessen the odds of it happening.
- Always make sure to use the right key for your car. Using the wrong key can quickly cause the lock to jam and the key to get stuck. So, double-check your keyring and ensure you’re inserting the correct one.
- Avoid putting too much pressure on the key when turning it. Gently turning the key should be enough to start the engine. Applying excessive force may not only jam the key but also damage the ignition cylinder.
- Keep your car key and ignition clean. Occasionally, debris and grime buildup inside the ignition can lead to your key getting stuck. An easy way to get rid of the gunk is to spray some WD-40 on the key and insert it into the ignition cylinder. Turn the key on and off a few times to clean and loosen any stuck debris.
- Maintain proper alignment of your steering wheel and lock. Misaligned steering wheels can make it tougher to turn the key or even remove it from the ignition.
- Ensure your gear selector is always in the “Park” position when trying to remove the key.
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