Last Updated on October 6, 2023
The Art of Programming Car Keys
Automotive technologies have come a long way in the past 40 years, and the ignition system is one area where great changes have been made.
Gone are the inexpensive mechanical-only keys which you can have made for under $10. Today’s vehicles integrate computer technology which–while increasing theft protection to your vehicle–require chip-integrated keys which must be programmed to your vehicle, usually by an car locksmith service or dealer/mechanic, in order for the car to start. In some cases you may be able to program the key yourself as explained below.
Automotive Locksmiths program car keys and FOBs to your car by interfacing to the car’s computer via the OBD port, usually located under the steering column. The commercially available software allows locksmiths to program new keys/remotes/FOBs so the car will recognize them and remove old keys/remotes/FOBs so that they can no longer start the vehicle (ideal when a key has been lost).
In some cases, car keys can be programmed by you, the car’s owner, if they are self-programmable car keys (more information at link). For older cars, the programming equipment may be affordable enough for you to program your car keys yourself by buying the tools (more information at link), but the supported cars with inexpensive equipment is limited in both car types and functionality.
One of the main reasons manufacturers switched to keys that need programming is it prevents your car from being hot-wired and driven away.
A T-800 Terminator would not have been able to hotwire a current model car in order to track down Sarah Conner, the car would refuse to start!
Car Key Identification – Types of Car Keys
Most newer cars have four types of keys and/or remotes:
- Key only. These have a programmable chip embedded into a plastic head to start the car and a blade to lock/unlock doors and insert into the ignition.
- Key/remote combo. A programmable chip is embedded in the casing of the key head and the key head contains a remote able to lock/unlock doors and/or trunks.
- A key FOB. Key FOBS are remotes with buttons for the doors/trunks, but do not have a visible key to start the car. The car is push button. Override keys are usually tucked away inside of the car FOB.
- Proximity FOBs. A key fob with proximity functions where just by being near enough to the vehicle will unlock doors and start the ignition.
We highly recommend always having two working keys for your modern-day vehicle, because if you lose that last key, you’ll need a key origination, which can be triple–or more–the expense of getting a duplicate car key made.
How Locksmiths Program Your Keys/Fobs
In those cases where you cannot self-program your keys (either because an self-programming process doesn’t exist, you don’t have the required number of operating keys, or the tools/computer/software needed is too expensive), you’ll need to find an automotive locksmith (or dealer) to assist you.
Most US and Asian car companies share their programming protocols with auto tool manufacturers so that they can develop software and hardware that allows them to program their car keys.
The locksmith then purchases this equipment so they can offer programming as a service for their customers.
To program a car key, remote or FOB, an automotive locksmith will connect their computer with the appropriate software into your OBD port beneath (commonly found below your dashboard).
There are a number of different companies offering software and computers for programming. Often, they support different makes and models of cars.
No system will program all the makes and models out there, so an investment in these tools can be quite expensive for a locksmith who wants to service automotive keys.
The programming software will allow the locksmith to both add and remove keys from the car. This is useful for the following reasons:
- Some cars, such as Fords, only allow a limited number of keys into the car’s system. Four keys is the maximum number for Fords. A locksmith can use their computer to erase keys that no longer exist, opening up those slots for your new key to be programmed.
- When keys have been lost, or stolen, they can be removed from the car so that they can no longer start the car or open the doors (for FOBs/Smart Keys).
These computers won’t let a locksmith program keys all day long, however. There is, in most cases, a ‘token’ system in place, which only allows the computers to program the car only when a pre-paid token is available to use.
Your local locksmith must buy tokens to use for programming, and each programming attempt uses a token. Therefore, the locksmith incurs a cost for every car key programming attempt. This is built into the programming fee the locksmith charges.
The cost to program a car key will vary from $25 to $100 depending on who’s providing the code, the car, and the locksmith used. If an additional code is needed (a skim code), the cost will be higher.
See our detailed article How Much do Car Keys Cost.
Some cars require the addition of a skim code when making an attempt to program. This code can be procured through the dealer–at a cost. Usually around $60 and that cost is passed on to you.
You may be able to get this skim code on your own by providing the dealer with your title in person. Typically, this is considered information you own, and they don’t charge the owner of the vehicle. This information has to be received in person usually, but it may save you a little bit of the costs associated with getting a spare key.
Note: German car manufacturers do not share their protocols (see article). So, if you have a Mercedes, BMW, VW, Porsche, etc…, you will almost certainly have to go to a dealer, and–yes–it’s going to be much more expensive.
If you have one of the above, ask the dealer if you can buy the fob or key elsewhere. Some of these dealers will not program an out-sourced key, they will only program keys they sell themselves. But if they WILL program/cut them, then you may be able to save yourself a little money on the cost of the key.
Can I Program My Own Car Key?
On Board Programmable Keys
Some vehicles will let you program your own key/FOB, and programming instructions can be found in your car’s service manual. Note that many cars will allow you to program the remote portion of the key, but not the key itself. So, you may be able open the doors/trunk, but the car will still not run unless you connect to the car’s computer for car key programming.
Processes and procedures to program your own key/FOB will vary, and the ability to self-program may require one or two already-programmed keys.
You can find out the instructions to program your car keys and whether or not it is possible, on the ACME Locksmith Car Keys & Remotes Website.
Just search for your year make and model. Select the key that matches your key, and if you can program it, there will be a tab with “Programming Instructions” that provide the details of how to do that. (graphic)
Even some remote-start FOBs can be self-programmed in a similar fashion, only instead of cycling keys through the ignition, a method of button-pushes accomplishes the task.
If your car’s remote has stopped working, it may be just that the battery has failed and needs replacing. Always check this inexpensive fix to your problem, before investing in a new one. Also check your vehicle’s basic warranty, your insurance, or roadside assistance coverage; it is possible they may cover lost or damaged keys.
You can fix a broken car key head by replacing the key shell with a new car key shell. A key shell is just the plastic piece and the key blade. No internals. You need to transfer everything from the old broken car key head to the new shell (the circuit board AND the chip).
Programming Your Own Car Keys Using a Key Programmer
You may be able to program your own keys by buying a key programmer online.
The fancy ones can do a whole host of things even beyond the key programming features and can cost thousands of dollars.
So, if you’re buying a key programmer to save money, that won’t do.
But there are also car key programmers on ebay for as little as a couple hundred dollars. Our automotive locksmiths have a couple of those for use as emergency backups should our primary programming software go down.
However, they are very limited as to what cars they program. Most will handle only older vehicles. Be sure to check the supported vehicle list before purchasing one. Many of these machines don’t program cars newer than ‘05 or ‘06 models.
Whether even the inexpensive programmers will save you money will require you to make a couple of phone calls for quotes. Lots of auto aficionados who regularly buy and sell older vehicles could benefit from having one, however.
Disclosure: As an eBay / Amazon Associate I may earn from qualifying purchases.
More of Our Favorite Security Products
Smart Locks: Access Your Locks via Smart Phone. You’ll find some of our favorite smart locks that allow you to control home access and monitor entry in our Amazon Smart Lock Shop. Watch our Smart Lock Comparison Video on YouTube fore reviews of the most popular Smart Locks.
Sliding Glass Door Lock: The best arcadia door lock that stops your sliding glass door from being lifted out of it’s tracks and to prevent little ones from opening the door and leaving the home. Check out the video on YouTube and Buy it on our website.