Fix an Ignition Key That Doesn't Turn

If you find yourself in a situation where your key won’t turn in the ignition of your vehicle, there are a number of issues that may be causing the problem. While some of these issues are specific to certain years, makes or models of vehicle, many are fairly universal and can be addressed in your driveway. The issue may be the key, the ignition cylinder, or user error. Narrow down the cause of the issue by attempting a number of methods before having the vehicle towed to a repair facility.


Checking for Common Issues

  1. Ensure the vehicle is in park. Vehicles equipped with an automatic transmission are designed not to start if the transmission is not in park or neutral. Starting a car while in drive could result in the vehicle lurching forward, causing damage or injuring someone. Check your shift lever to ensure it is completely in park or neutral, then attempt to turn the key again. [1]
    • Be sure the indicator on the shift lever is pointing at the “P” for park.
    • Try taking the vehicle out of park and putting it back in if you can, then turn the key again.
  2. Inspect the key for damage. If your key won’t turn when you insert it into the ignition, it may be because the key has been damaged and no longer engages the correct pins to the depth necessary to spin the cylinder. Examine the key for signs of excessive wear, rounding or broken teeth. Any of these could result in the key failing to turn in the ignition.[2]
    • If the key is damaged, it will have to be replaced.
    • Some keys require programming from the dealership when replaced. Refer to your owner’s manual to check the requirements for your vehicle.
  3. Ensure there is nothing stuck to the key. Just as worn or damaged teeth can prevent the key from turning, anything stuck to the key will also cause it to improperly engage the pins in the ignition cylinder. If you used your key to open a package recently, for instance, there may be bits of tape stuck to the teeth of the key, preventing it from working.[2]
    • Clean any debris or dirt off of the key, then re-insert it and try again.
    • Do not use your keys to open packages or do anything else other than start your vehicle.
  4. Check to see if the steering wheel is locked. If you were applying any pressure to the steering wheel when you turned the car off, it may have locked the wheel in place with the steering pin. Check to see if your steering wheel is locked by trying to turn the wheel. If it will not move, or moves only very slightly, it is likely locked. A locked steering wheel will not allow the ignition to engage.[3]
    • When you move the wheel back and forth, you will feel it stop abruptly as it comes into contact with the steering wheel lock.
    • If your wheel was turned slightly without you applying any pressure when you turned the car off, it still may engage the steering wheel lock.
  5. Wiggle the wheel back and forth while turning the key. In order to unlock the steering wheel, insert the key into the ignition and attempt to turn it. While applying light pressure to the key, wiggle the steering wheel back and forth until the lock disengages. This will allow the steering wheel and the key to turn.[3]
    • The key will be able to turn freely in the ignition once the steering wheel is unlocked.
    • If the key still fails to turn after the wheel is unlocked, there is another issue.

Resolving Issues with the Key

  1. Pull the key out slightly before turning it. If the key is beginning to wear, you may still be able to engage the pins needed to start the vehicle by inserting the key all the way, then pulling it back out slightly. Try to pull the key back out 1/16 of an inch, or approximately the width of a nickel, then attempt to turn it again.[1]
    • If this works, the key is likely over worn.
    • You should still replace the key as soon as you can before it stops working.
  2. Wiggle the key back and forth as you turn it. If pulling the key out a bit fails to make the key turn, try wiggling it up and down slightly to engage the pins in the ignition. Be careful not to apply too much pressure. Wiggling the key can make the key contact the pins from a different angle, which may allow you start the vehicle.[2]
    • If wiggling the key works, it means the teeth on the key are too worn to properly engage the pins.
    • Replace the key as soon as possible if this works before the key stops working entirely.
  3. Flatten a bent key using a wooden or rubber mallet. If the key is bent, it may make it impossible to insert it completely or turn the ignition cylinder. Lay the key down on a flat, sturdy surface like a strong table. Take a heavy rubber or wooden mallet and strike the key from above to flatten it against the table.[2]
    • You may have to strike the key multiple times in order to flatten it entirely.
    • Avoid using pliers or a vice to straighten the key, as you may bend it too far in the opposite direction and reduce the strength of the key.
  4. Gently slide the key in and out a number of times. If there was any debris stuck to the key when you inserted it, it may have gotten caught in the pins of the ignition cylinder. Insert the key completely, then slide it back out. Repeat the process a few times to try to move any debris that may be caught in the cylinder.[2]
    • If this works, the issue will likely continue to occur until the debris is cleaned out from the ignition cylinder.
  5. Have a new key cut to the original numbers. If the key is too damaged to work, you will not be able to have it copied. A copy of a worn or damaged key will also fail to start the vehicle. Instead, you will need to have a new key cut by a dealership that services your make and model vehicle. Depending on the vehicle, the dealership may be able to produce a new key using your vehicle’s VIN number.[4]
    • You will need to provide sufficient evidence of ownership of the vehicle.
    • If a new key cannot be produced, you will need to purchase a new ignition module with matching key and have it installed.

Addressing Issues with the Ignition Cylinder

  1. Use canned air to clean the ignition port. If there is any debris caught in the ignition cylinder, it may cause the key to fail to engage the pins properly to turn. Purchase canned air from a local retail or office supply store and insert the straw from the nozzle directly into the key hole. Spray the canned air into the key hole in short spurts. It should only take a few short sprays to clean out any debris.[2]
    • Do not spray the entire can into the key hole. The extreme cold could result in damage to the ignition cylinder.
    • Wear eye protection when using canned air to clean the key hole to ensure no debris gets into your eyes.
  2. Use a small dose of electrical cleaner in the key hole. If the ignition cylinder has seized, spraying a small amount of electrical cleaner into the key hole may lubricate it enough to turn. Be careful not to spray too much into the key hole. A few short squirts should suffice. Once done, insert the key and turn it back and forth gently to work the lubricant in.[2]
    • If this works, you may need to replace the ignition cylinder soon as it gets progressively worse.
  3. Have the ignition cylinder replaced. If all else fails, you will need to have your ignition cylinder replaced. Have your vehicle towed to a nearby repair facility that specializes in your make and model of vehicle. Explain the issue and discuss your options.[4]
    • Just like having a new key cut, you will need to demonstrate sufficient ownership of the vehicle in order to have a new ignition cylinder installed.
    • A new ignition cylinder will likely require replacing your key, even if it wasn’t the issue.

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Sources and Citations