Driving tends to be an inert activity, repetitive by nature, something you do as a habit every time you slide in behind the wheel.
Then something happens to wake you up to a potential problem. You park, stop the engine, and realize your key is stuck in the ignition.
Before you add pressure and risk breaking it off, don’t panic. You can’t walk away with the key in the ignition. That’s a recipe for disaster.
But using brute force will only give you more headaches. You’ll have a much bigger problem on your hands.
Any key should easily slide out of the ignition once you have rotated it to its original position. If it doesn’t come out, there are several possible reasons.
Why a key gets stuck in the ignition
There are many reasons why a key can get stuck in the ignition.
Your car isn’t in park
If your car’s parking gear isn’t properly set, you might not be able to remove the key. Double check to ensure you’ve moved the gear shift to the “park” position. If you have an automatic transmission, the vehicle must be in “park” before the key can be removed. You can play with the gear shift moving it out of park and back in to see if you can fix the problem. With a manual transmission, you can move the shift to neutral and see if the key has any give. Playing with the shift function can sometimes cause the key to give.
The steering wheel is locked
If you move the steering wheel while turning off your vehicle, sometimes it can activate the steering wheel lock before the key releases. Not only will this prevent you from turning your steering wheel, but you won’t be able to pull the key out of the ignition. The ignition cylinder lock is activated at the same time as the steering wheel lock. To release both locks, simply turn the key gently while moving the steering wheel around. You should hit a point when both locks open up.
There’s debris on the key
Think of everything you put your key through. It’s shuffled around from pockets and handbags. It’s thrown in with a variety of other items. You use it to open boxes and packages. Over time, tiny particles can reside on the key until they change the structure of the key enough to impact functionality. You may notice it gets increasingly difficult to remove over time. Cleaning your key from time to time will ensure it keeps working at its best.
Your key is damaged
After years of abuse, a key can simply stop working. It may have tiny cracks, or the grooves have worn away. If you notice any damage, replace the key immediately. It’s a good idea to always have a spare for this reason. It provides you with an original key structure to fall back on.
Your battery is dead
The ignition system requires power from your car’s battery to function. If the battery dies, it will most likely cause the ignition system to lock up. If that happens when you’re trying to remove it from the ignition, it will get stuck. The best thing to do in this situation is to jumpstart your vehicle and see if it releases your key.
The ignition cylinder is bad
A vehicle is made from 10,000 parts. At any time, any one of those parts can go bad. If the ignition cylinder fails, it can lock in your key and prevent it from releasing. This is because there are rows of spring-loaded pins that align when you place the key into the ignition cylinder. Once in place, they hold on tight. Failure at this point will require repair work on the ignition system to fix the problem.
How to get a stuck key out of the ignition
What it takes to get your key out of the ignition depends on the situation. If you are armed with the above knowledge, you’ll have a few things to try.
But you should also pay attention to the process. Is this the first time you’ve had trouble with your key? Has it been getting worse over time? That can also weigh in as to what might be wrong.
If this is the first time you’ve had trouble, the most common reason is a gear that isn’t quite in the right place. Confirm your gear shift is in “P” or “park.” You can move it out and back in to ensure the gears are properly aligned.
Then jiggle the steering wheel. It’s also common for the steering wheel column lock to move into place, locking up the ignition too. Don’t put too much pressure on either, just a gentle wiggle will sometimes release the lock and key.
If this is a growing or common occurrence, you might have bigger problems.
Start by cleaning off your key. Use rubbing alcohol to get into the cracks. If you notice adhesive or a more stubborn substance, an adhesive remover might do the job.
If you still haven’t solved the problem, your next step should be bringing your car to a mechanic to fully assess what’s happening with your vehicle. A mechanic can determine if it’s time to replace the ignition lock cylinder.
And if the worst has happened, and the key has broken off in the ignition, you’re not the first person who has had to deal with this problem. It can happen when you apply too much force trying to remove it.
Do not try and insert the top half of the key to try and get the bottom half out. If you do anything to try and pry out the bottom half, you may push the broken half further into the lock, making it even more difficult to repair. Locksmiths do use key extractor tools to remove broken pieces of keys. Be sure to call in a professional, so you don’t further damage other parts of your car.
Have you ever experienced a key getting stuck in the ignition?