My Car Key Won’t Turn the Ignition – What Can I do?
It’s the worse possible scenario and it always seems to happen at the wrong time. You head out to your car, put your key in, and the key won’t turn the ignition. What should you do next?
Ignition cylinders use wafers and those wafers bend, crack and break over time. There are usually some warning signs, but like most people, you’ve probably ignored them until it was too late.
If you’ve found this article and the key is sticking in the ignition, you’ve saved yourself some time and money! Get your car to a locksmith. They can repair the car’s ignition before it’s too late.
When you car key won’t turn the ignition: 1) jiggle the steering wheel and the car’s shifter, 2) check if the battery is charged, 3) try a spare key, 4) spray silicon spray into the ignition, 5) jiggle the key and/or tap the key slightly. Details are included below. When you get the key to turn, head to your local locksmith or mechanic to fix the problem immediately so you don’t get stranded.
Details on these techniques, and why they work to get the ignition to turn, are below.
When none of these tricks work, EBay has great prices on ignitions and your local locksmith will be able to key the new ignition up to your existing keys and install it if necessary. If you are in the Phoenix area, ACME Locksmith can help you take care of this.
Need a Phoenix Locksmith? Schedule Online with ACME Locksmith and Save up to $10.
Nearly everything in this article applies to car door lock cylinders as well. So if you are having these issues with your door locks, read on.
Why Won’t My Key Turn the Ignition?
There are several reasons why the key may have stopped turning the ignition.
Your car key may have stopped turning the ignition because of a safety feature of the car, a bad key, or broken or damaged wafers in the ignition.
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
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 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.
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.
What To Try When Your Key Won’t Turn Your Ignition
Before calling a locksmith there are several things you can do when your ignition won’t turn anymore to see if you can get your ignition to turn.
The following things to try are in order from the best to try first, to the worse to try (may actually cause harm to the ignition). Do them in order.
Let’s start with the simple ones.
1. Wiggle the Steering Wheel to Unlock the Ignition
Many steering columns are designed to lock when the key is removed. The steering wheel can become stuck in position which in turn locks the ignition. Wiggle the steering wheel back and forth while gently turning the key to see if the key now turns.
2. Check the Gear Shift
Some cars, with automatic transmissions, do not allow the key to turn the ignition if the car is not in park or neutral. Try jiggling the gear shift to ensure it is all the way into position and then try to turn the key again.
3. Is the Battery Dead?
Believe it or not, some newer cars with more advanced ignition systems will stop the key to turn the ignition if the car’s battery is dead. You can’t even remove the key from the ignition. Check the cars battery with a volt meter or see if your car lights come on.
Now for the more complicated issues that are key and/or ignition related.
Pro Tip When You Get it to Turn: if you can get your ignition to turn using the following techniques, drive straight to a local locksmith to fix the underlying issue. Don’t skip this step and think the problem will go away or is solved. Consider yourself having dodged a bullet this time but get it fixed as soon as possible. The problem is not going away. It will only get worse and one day leave you stranded.
4. Try the Spare Key to Turn the Ignition
If you have a backup key, try it. This is testing to see if your main key is worn beyond the point of being able to turn the ignition. When your spare key turns the ignition this is the best possible outcome. Take your car to a locksmith shop, and get a copy of that spare key made as soon as possible. This way you will again have a working spare key in case your main key wears out again or is lost.
If your spare key won’t turn the ignition, it’s almost always an ignition issue.
5. Use a Silicon Based Spray in the Lock
If the spare key did not turn the ignition, or you did not have one you need to consider the ignition as the issue. Try squirting some silicon based lock lubricant into the ignition or door lock. Our favorite, and the only brand we use, is Triflow. You can get it on Amazon for a great price.
The Triflow will clean the wafers and get any dirt and debris out that may be causing a sticking ignition or preventing your key from turning. Do not use oil based products or graphite. Though these may solve the problem, oil based products will collect dirt and graphite will gunk up over time, so the problem will come back.
6. Jiggle the Key in the Ignition
If the lubricant hasn’t fixed the problem, and you’ve eliminated the key (or weren’t able to test another key) the next step is to try and gently jiggle the key in the lock. If the lock wafers have minor damage or the split wafers have jammed, this may just free them enough to get the key to turn the ignition.
If you get the key to turn the jammed ignition, go straight to a locksmith to get it pulled and repaired. Do not remove the key and take it back out. This may work only once.
7. Hit It
This is the last-attempt method when your key won’t turn the ignition. Use it as a last resort only after trying all the previous methods. As a last resort you can’t possible get any more stranded so it is worth a try, but the above are a better choice to start with since they may work, and you won’t risk damaging your car locks in any way.
In this method insert the key most of the way into the ignition, maybe leaving the key out a 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Then with the blunt end of a screwdriver or with the handle of a hammer (not the hammer’s head) rap the key with medium force to slide the key into the ignition quickly.
In this method you are trying to free up any damaged or jammed wafers by considerable force. Similar to shaking the key but with much more of a jarring punch.
If you get the key to turn the jammed ignition, go straight to a locksmith to get it pulled and repaired. Do not remove the key and take it back out. It may work only once.
8. Hire a local automotive locksmith to come out and fix it
If all else fails and still your key won’t turn the ignition, it’s time to hire a locksmith. The main advantage to hiring an automotive locksmith to fix it is that a locksmith will come to your location to do the job and the car will not need to be towed to a mechanic or the dealer.
EBay has great prices on ignitions. You can buy it online and your local automotive locksmith will be able to key the new ignition up to your existing keys and install the ignition if you need the help.
Hopefully we’ve gotten your car back on the road and if needed you’re taking it to your local locksmith for a more permanent solution.
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Padlocks: Not all padlocks are created equal. These padlocks are the best for their specific application. See our Favorite Padlocks on Amazon.
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