At some point, pretty much everybody gets to experience the key stuck in ignition and if you panic and pull too hard, you are likely to end up with a broken key and a clogged ignition hole. If this happens to you: stay calm and try the steps below.
Why does your key get stuck in the ignition?
There are several reasons your car key might get stuck in the ignition, such as accidentally inserting the wrong key or the presence of dirt or debris on the car key. Other examples of the most common causes can include:
Steering wheel lock
Among the most common causes of a stuck ignition key is the steering wheel locking mechanism. If you switch off the ignition at the same time as turning the wheel even slightly, it might activate a double lock of the ignition cylinder at the same time as the steering wheel.
Worn or damaged key
Each time you put the car key into the ignition, it wears a bit of the metal away. People often keep their vehicle keys on rings, where they scrape against other keys; or drop them onto a table. All of this force slowly but surely scrapes away the surface of the key, forming a slightly rough edge that can easily snag on the car’s ignition.
If the vehicle’s battery dies with the key in the ignition switch, the key might be locked in place. To check if this is the case, try using your headlights. If the battery is dead the lights won’t work.
Damaged ignition switch
The ignition switch is prone to wear, just like the key. A failing ignition cylinder might cause the key to getting stuck; several pins inside the ignition switch match up with the shape of your car key. However, if even one of the pins is worn or knocked off position the key and ignition switch no longer match up, causing the key to get stuck.
How do you remove a key stuck in the ignition?
Do not use brute force. This is likely to cause the key to snap in the ignition module. Depending on the cause of the stuck key, there are a few tricks you can try before calling in an expert:
Set your parking gear
In a manual transmission, set your gear to neutral. In an automatic transmission, set it in park. If the gear is not correctly set, the stuck keys are unlikely to be released.
Twist the steering wheel
If the key is stuck in the vehicle’s ignition it might be due to a steering lock. Try moving the steering wheel slightly while gently applying pressure to the key. An ignition lock is an anti-theft feature in many cars but by twisting the wheel in the opposite direction you should be able to release the pressure on the key.
Wiggle the key
In the event that the key is a little bit worn or covered in debris – or perhaps it was not the correct key at all – it might be possible to remove it by gently wiggling it from side to side. Spray some WD-40 or similar lubricant into the ignition switch insert to help coax the key back out.
If this does do the trick, clean up your key with rubbing alcohol or seek out a key replacement to avoid the same thing happening again!
Replace the ignition switch
If you have some DIY knowledge or are comfortable working on cars, you might be wondering how to replace the ignition switch properly. Use the following guide, while consulting your vehicle’s service manual regularly:
- First things first, don’t buy a generic ignition switch. Make sure you get a quality one that’s tailored to your vehicle.
- Disconnect the battery.
- Take apart the steering column covering. To do this, start by disconnecting the negative terminal then remove the trim from around the wheel.
- With the key still stuck, you should be able to turn it to ‘accessory’ mode. There is a release pin on the bottom of the ignition switch. Press this with a narrow, flat head screwdriver. This should release the ignition unit.
- Reverse this step and insert the replacement ignition unit; you will have to keep the release pin pressed in until it slots in place.
- Reconnect the battery and give the new ignition switch a try to see if the vehicle cranks properly!
How to get a key out of the ignition with a dead battery
The ignition system relies on battery power to function. If the battery is flat with the key stuck in the ignition, try a jump start. Failing that you might have to wait for the battery to be replaced for the ignition to release your key.
Should you DIY or call a mechanic?
Ultimately this depends on the severity of the situation. Try to free the key yourself carefully. If a flat battery is the cause then you will likely need the help of a mechanic.
If necessary, ignition switches are relatively easy to replace with patience and a few tools if you are confident enough to follow a list of ignition repair basics.
Who to call when keys get stuck in the ignition
If the key broke in the ignition but you have a replacement key, it might be worth calling an auto locksmith. Attempting to remove the piece of broken key yourself might push it further in and cause more damage; whereas a locksmith will have the appropriate tools and experience with mechanical common ignition problems.
An auto locksmith should also be able to replace your ignition if this is necessary.
If the problem is due to a flat battery; faulty steering lock; gearbox or something similar you should call a mechanic.