Why can’t I turn my ignition key?

Diagnosing the Problem

If your car key does not turn in the ignition, don’t fret. There’s always a reason for the issue. Without a doubt, it is frustrating, but the good news is that most difficulties are common. They’re usually easy to fix as well.

You can diagnose the problem to know how to handle it.

There are three main factors to consider when determining why the key refuses to turn:

1. Components

The ignition has different components and at least one of them could be the culprit. In such a case, it’s usually easy to fix.

The method of repair depends on what you are dealing with:

  • Steering wheel: Most vehicles lock the steering wheel when the key is removed from the ignition. It’s why the steering wheel gets stuck, which means your car will not budge.
  • Gear selector: It is possible that you have a car that does not allow movement when it is in park or neutral.
  • Battery: Another component that affects whether or not the ignition will turn is the car battery. The vehicle will not move, and the key won’t turn if the battery is dead.

2. Keys

Your key could be the exact problem of why the ignition isn’t turning. It could be bent, worn out, or it’s not the right key for your car. To learn more about car keys, please read our blog post on car keys, locks and responders.

3. Ignition Lock Cylinder

You may know this part of the car as the key cylinder. It may be the reason why you’re having issues with the ignition and key. Check that there are no obstructions and stuck springs. These two leading causes can stop the key from turning.

Like anything else, you cannot simply correct the problem with your car key and ignition if you do not know the root cause. Diagnosing the issue first will help you narrow down the solutions that you can try to fix this frustrating problem.

5. Replace the Key

The most simple fix when there is something wrong

The most simple fix when there is something wrong with your car key is to just replace the key. There is always a way to copy a broken key. No matter how the key is broken, or whether this is something you do yourself or a task that you contract out, there is a solution.

There are several ways to approach this process:

  1. Find an aftermarket electronic car key and choose a way to have it cut, and perhaps have a transponder chip programmed.
  2. Buy your supplies and get your service at the lock and key section of your local hardware store.
  3. Contact a locksmith.
  4. Contact your car dealership.

In terms of how much it costs for car key duplication, the number will go up or down depending on how much you do yourself. Contacting your dealership being the most expensive option as it is the most obvious and requires no research. Contacting a locksmith being the middle ground in terms of price, and handling all the work yourself being the cheapest option.

Tips for replacing your key:

  • The more work you do yourself, the less money you have to pay for labor.
  • Locksmiths can replace car keys cheaper than the dealership.
  • Transponder keys and remotes will need to be programmed once they are replaced.

Video

What are the common causes of a jammed ignition key?

Your car isn’t actually switched off

Risk level – Low

What to do – Check the position of the key in the ignition.

This is so simple, but it happens. If you don’t fully turn the key to the off position, the cylinder won’t release it. Give it a quick wiggle and make sure it’s turned all the way before calling a locksmith or the recovery services—you’ll save yourself a lot of embarrassment!

The ignition cylinder is damaged

Risk level – Low

What to do – Have it checked or replaced at the first sign of trouble.

You insert and turn your car key in the ignition cylinder every time you drive your car; that’s thousands of operations over their lifespan. Over time, both components will suffer signs of wear and eventually stop working as they should.

The key is worn, damaged or dirty

Risk level – Low

What to do – Keep it clean and check for damage—replace when necessary.

If there are any signs of damage on your key—if it’s bent, cracked or dented—then that’s going to stop it turning as cleanly as it should in the ignition.

The steering wheel lock is on

Risk level – Low

What to do – Lightly move the steering wheel and your key at the same time.

The steering wheel lock is designed to prevent unwanted movement while parked. If the lock engages before you’ve removed your key, this could trap it in place. Delicately turning the key and the steering wheel at the same time should free the stuck key.

Your automatic isn’t in ‘Park’

Risk level – Low

What to do – Check your transmission selection.

Some automatics won’t let you remove the key if the car isn’t in ‘Park’. To remove the key, make sure you’ve selected the correct option—you might need to apply a little movement if some debris has become trapped in there, but it should ease in fairly easily.

Your battery is flat

Risk level – Low

What to do – Check your battery.

Your ignition is dependent on electrical power, and some systems, when the battery is completely flat, will prevent you from removing the key. Charging the battery should fix the problem; to avoid further instances, you’ll need to replace a faulty battery if it’s on its way out.

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., DepositPhotos

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.

Why Won’t My Ignition Turn?

A Safety Feature of the Car is Preventing the Key from Turning

As cars become more electronic and complex, a slew of safety features have been installed that will prevent the key from turning the ignition. We’ll cover the most common ones below.

Your Wafers are Damaged And the Ignition is Now “Frozen” and Won’t Turn

Damaged Wafers
Damaged Wafers

Unlike standard locks, which use round, cylindrical pins; auto locks use a wafer based system. The wafer is typically split down the center to accommodate the key when it slides in.

Ignition wafers can be one piece or two pieces (a split wafer). A two piece wafer is very similar to that shown except it is split down the middle. Split wafers are susceptible to jamming in the cylinder. Over time either of the wafer styles can become damaged.

Our Tempe Locksmith technicians see this a lot because it’s a college town. Older cars and aggressive turning of the ignition lead to the wafers becoming damaged and the key won’t turn.

Pro Tip from an Phoenix Automotive Locksmith: If you are someone that carries around a large, heavy key ring, don’t. The weight of that key ring is constantly pulling on the wafers in the ignition as you drive, day after day, year after year. Lighten the key ring will extend the life of your ignition wafers.

Performing an Ignition Repair
Performing an Ignition Repair

Your Key is Worn so Not Putting the Ignition Wafers in the right spot

Another common reason a key won’t turn an ignition is not due to the ignition at all. It is due to the key being worn out. It is the edges of the car key that get worn.

With every turn of the ignition the edges of the car key are under force to get the wafers to align correctly. Over time this thins out the edge and wears it down until one day it will no longer turn the ignition. New keys cut by code have sharp crisp edges, while old keys have soft, rounded edges.

Pro Tip Automotive: If you are down to one car key. Get a backup key made as soon as possible. No matter how expensive a backup key is, it will always cost more to an originate a key (make a key when no existing key is available) than to copy an existing key. When a spare key is not used often, it will not wear down so you will have a backup key.

 

Lock Cylinder Issues

While looking for ways to start the car, you may have encountered sources saying that you should tap the key with a hard object, such as a hammer, while it is still in the ignition. We do not recommend that you do this because of the risk of breaking the key and the cylinder as well. If you do, a piece of the key could be left inside the cylinder, which is even more damaging.

In some cases, the key doesn’t turn because of the ignition lock cylinder itself:

1. There’s an Obstruction Inside the Key Cylinder

In such a case, it is almost impossible to turn the key correctly. Use a flashlight and look inside the cylinder. Find any obvious obstruction, such as metal debris. Clean the cylinder but make sure to protect your eyes from flying debris. You can use appropriate cleaning products, such as compressed air. Always read the instructions before you attempt to proceed. The area should also be well-ventilated. At times, you may have to spray more than once. After removing the debris, you will find that the key will slide in smoothly.

2. The Springs Are Stuck

The pins and springs in the cylinder adapt to the shape of the car key. If it doesn’t turn, it could be due to the pins or springs that may have been stuck. Using a small tack hammer, knock the key ignition, which will help loosen the pins. Be sure to hit gently. Your aim is not to jumble the components inside but only to produce vibrations that encourage the springs to move. Once they are free, you can insert the key again and turn it.

Damaged/Worn Out Key or Ignition Cylinder

When it comes down to it, your car is a mechanical system and mechanical things tend to break or wear down over time. This is true for both mechanical keys and key cylinders. After inserting and removing your ignition key thousands of times over years, things can be worn out and stressed.

After some time, the key may fail to turn or fall out of the cylinder completely. Turn to a professional to replace your damaged parts. Damaged keys can be easily replaced by using a professional like Cheap Lock & Key to cut a new one. Damaged ignition cylinders can need replacement and should also be done so by a qualified professional, such as us.

When replacing your mechanical systems, it is important to get a newly matched lockset that includes both the door and trunk cylinders.

Reason 2 of 3: Issues with the key itself

Oftentimes, the problem is not with the related co

Oftentimes, the problem is not with the related components of the car, but with the vehicle key itself. The following three factors may explain why your key is unable to turn in the ignition:

Factor 1: Bent key. Bent keys can sometimes enter the ignition cylinder, but once inside will not line up correctly to allow the car to start. If your key looks visually bent, you can use a non-metal hammer to carefully flatten the key down. Your goal is to use something that will not damage the key, so ideally this would be made of rubber or wood. You can also place the key on a piece of wood to cushion the blow. Then, very carefully, tap the key until it is straight and attempt to start the car again.

Factor 2: Worn out key. Keys that are worn out are

Factor 2: Worn out key. Keys that are worn out are actually very common, particularly on older vehicles. If your vehicle key is worn out, this will not allow the pins inside of the cylinder to drop correctly and start the car. If you have a spare key, try to use that first. If you do not, you can obtain a spare key by writing down your car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which is found on the driver’s side windshield or inside the door jamb. You will then want to contact your dealership to get a new key made.

  • Some newer cars have key codes attached to a set of keys. If your key is worn out and you need a new one, you can give this code to your dealership instead of the VIN.

Factor 3: Incorrect key. Sometimes it’s a simple mistake, and the wrong key is inserted into the cylinder. This happens most often when someone has more than one car key on their key ring. Many keys look similar, especially if they are from the same make. So double check the correct key is being used to try to start the vehicle.

  • If you see that your key is dirty, cleaning it can also help. Cleaning the key itself is also very easy. Use a cotton swab and rubbing alcohol to remove any foreign material that may be stuck to the key. You can then attempt to start the car again.

  • Some resources recommend tapping the key with a hammer, or other object, while it is in the ignition, but it is not recommended due to the high risk of not only breaking the cylinder but also breaking the key. This can trap a piece of the key inside the cylinder, causing more damage.

Locked Steering Wheel/Ignition Key What You Can Do to Unlock Them

Locking your steering wheel can easily happen and is easily fixed. The ignition is mechanically connected to your steering wheel lock. This is for safety reasons, should a thief try to steer the car without the key.

When a person turns their car off with the steering wheel turned, or tries to turn the wheel after the car has been turned off, the wheel and the ignition key can lock up.

To unlock them, simply reinsert your key and slowly turn it in the direction you normally would to start the car, while slowly turning the wheel in the only direction it will allow you. This will typically unlock the steering wheel.

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.

3. Rapping the Key

Beyond lubrication, you might need to try something more severe to unjam your lock. It is true that bump keys do not work on cars, but by using a hammer or a vibrating mechanism and your key that won’t turn in the car, you might be able to solve your issue. This “rapping”, if you will, is meant to shake internal components in the lock into the proper position.

Springs can get lost, or other small parts of the inside of the lock can get stuck. Where lubrication can fail to unstick or get things to move properly, you can shake things temporarily into positions, just in time to turn the key properly.

The tool that you use does not need to be a hammer. It can be anything that can create a noticeable vibration that can be applied to the key and/or the cylinder. The idea is just to get the inside of the lock to move more than you could by shaking your key, car, or dashboard.

  1. Place your car key in the car’s ignition.
  2. Gather a hammer or other tool strike or vibrate the key.
  3. Use your tool on the key while trying to turn the key.
  4. If this does not work, try to use your tool on the ignition cylinder.

Just be very diligent about the amount of force you use in this process, as you could damage your key, the ignition, etc. If you are trying to hit your key hard enough to break a locking mechanism, operate with extreme caution as your desire to break things might be more successful than you intend.

Tips for rapping the key:

  • Strike the key with the same force to knock silently on a door.
  • Make sure you are not hitting anything else during this process.
  • Do not attempt to break the lock.

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