If you are currently locked out of you car right now, and trying to figure out how to get in cheaply, stop. Call your local automotive locksmith.
The time you spend, money you spend, and damage you may cause to your car trying to get in yourself is not worth it. In this article we tell you how locksmiths open locked cars, why we open car doors this way, and what the risks are if you get it wrong.
How do Locksmiths Open Car Doors
A common task for a locksmith is to gain access to vehicles when people lock themselves out. Eventually, everyone does it. Even with new car fobs and proximity remotes, it happens. They get lost, stop functioning, and batteries die.
We recently had a guy who was changing his clothes at the trunk of his car when he locked himself out; he was half naked and very embarrassed when we got there but very happy to get back into his vehicle! Hopefully, when it happens to you, you won’t be in such dire straits.
The most common ways locksmiths open locked cars are:
1. Using a Slim Jim
2. Using Multi Car Opening Tools (MCOT)
2. Using a long reach tool
3. Picking the wafers in the door lock
4. Use the VIN number to cut a car key
The preferred method and the technique required depends on the vehicle being opened and varies from car to car. For example, there are dozens of types of Slim Jim tools that are designed to open specific types of cars. And there are dozens of more general tools that can be used across a range of vehicles.
Which of the above will a locksmith use to open the car door? The one that will get the job done the most quickly with the least possibility of damage to the vehicle.
A disclaimer before I dive into more detail: Many states have laws regarding locksmith tools that make it illegal to be in “possession of burglar’s tools or instruments facilitating theft” without a valid locksmith license or proof of legitimate usage.
In the age of online retailers, these tools appear to be for sale to the general public, but this doesn’t waive one’s responsibilities to follow all local laws and regulations regarding locksmithing tools, licensing, and training requirements.
Using a Slim Jim to Open a Car DoorThere are affordable car opening tool kits (see on Amazon) that, consist of Slim Jims and MCOTs.
A Slim Jim goes from the exterior door window, between the weather stripping and the glass, down into the door frame. They are easily bent to get around any obstructions within the door. A hook at the end of the Slim Jim is then used to grab the mechanical linkage within the door to release the lock.
Slim Jims are outdated technology.
In the late 80’s mechanical linkages began being replaced with electronic, cable linkages. Slim Jims cannot safely grab these cables. Additionally, the pull-up/push-down bar that locked and unlocked the car at the rear of the door started to get replaced with locking buttons often found near the interior door handle. Slim Jims can’t handle either of these.
Additionally, car manufacturers started placing barriers within the doors that Slim Jims could not get around. Another tool had to be developed.
Using MCOT tools to Open a Car Door
The locksmith industry responded by creating Multi-Car Opening Tools (MCOT).
These are also inserted into the door between the weather-strip and the outside of the window glass. But these are rods that contain bends and turns to navigate the bypass the mechanical security measures within the car’s door.They are inserted on the exterior side, navigated through the door, and usually raised out on the interior side of the door. From there they can open the car in a variety of ways, for example pressing or pulling the unlock button, or grabbing and pulling of the door handle.
Sometimes, like the Slim Jim, they are used to grab a linkage on the inside of the door that has been protected by the manufacture so that a Slim Jim won’t work.
There are dozens of different designs to accommodate the many cars on the market.
When using Slim Jims or MCOTs, plastic wedges are often used to keep a separation between the door’s glass and the door glass seal to minimize damage to the seal.
A drawback to the above two methods can be with factory-built anti-theft technology built into the car to prevent this kind of access. In newer cars, these attempts, if not done correctly, can literally lock down the vehicle and prevent the car from starting after gaining access. This is especially true of high-end vehicles.
Also, the locksmith is basically using a long piece of metal to open the car door in a way the door was not intended to be opened. There is the risk that the tool may scratch the finish of either the paint or the interior surfaces and damage the weather seals around the window.
Using MCOT is a skilled way of opening car doors. When a locksmith uses these tools to get into the car’s door, you have a locksmith that has been well trained in car opening.
The cost to unlock a car door will run between $150-175 during standard hours. It may only take a few minutes to unlock the car, but it’s taken the locksmith years of practice to learn how to do is so quickly and without damage. The unlock fee you pay is for the years of training, not the time it takes to get in. Check out our article on What Do Locksmith’s Charge to get more details on the cost of a car unlock.
Using a Long Reach Tool to Open a Car Door
A long reach tool is a tool that reaches through the car to hit an unlock button within the car or retrieve keys that have been locked inside. Instead of going into the door under the glass window, these tools enter the car by going through the door seal.
Wedges are used to separate the door from the frame, creating a gap in which a long-reach tool can be inserted to reach the unlock mechanism inside a car. These can be hard plastic wedges or air bag wedges (which inflate like a balloon) to create the gap.
For some newer vehicles this may be the only way for a locksmith to open the car door. But it is also the technique that requires the least training and poses the highest risk of damage.
The wedges can actually bend the door, leaving a gap after the task is done, creating annoying things like whistling while you drive.
Another drawback is that wedges can mar the paint or dent the door or frame where inserted, and the tool inserted into the gap can scratch the finish as well.
Credible local locksmiths will only use this method when it is absolutely required. They will know how far they can go before causing any damage, but even the best locksmiths can sometimes cause damage using this method.
Picking Door Lock Wafers
Traditional picking of car door lock, with standard lock picks, is actually used very little in locksmithing. Car locks work on a wafer system, and wafers can be delicate things, made of brass and usually not very thick. Bending a wafer is a real risk in picking a door lock, and if it happens, further lock picking attempts are not going to be successful.
But there are advanced picking tools on the market that allow the wafers in the door to be picked AND then read so a car key can be made.
These tools, called Lishi tools, are pretty pricey (price them on Amazon), require a bit of training to use, and are car specific. To have all the tools necessary to open a wide range of vehicles can ultimately end up cost the locksmith thousands of dollars.
The Lishi tools are delicate and can be easily damaged. When used incorrectly, they can also damage the wafers in the lock, causing the lock to need to be removed and repaired (or drilled out if other gain entry methods have failed).
Lishi tools do offer one benefit for the locksmith and the customer. They not only can open the car door but they can read the wafers in the door lock. This allows the Locksmith to use the wafers of the door lock to create a key for the vehicle if all of the owner’s keys have been lost.
Note: the wafers in door locks are usually NOT the same as the ignition. So a method called “key progressioning” must be used to make an ignition key.
Use the VIN number to cut a car key
We wrote an article on how a car’s VIN number could be used to create a key for a car and thus, open the car.
Rarely, a lock may need to be drilled to gain access. If a locksmith is suggesting this method, they better have a good reason for it.
Car Opening Resources
If you are interested in learning more about locksmithing, there are a number of books (like these on Amazon) available for purchase.
They can teach you many of the techniques and methods locksmiths use if you are interested in pursuing a career in locksmithing.
Like many trades, locksmiths are in high demand and a well-trained locksmith can do quite well, especially in underserved markets. Just be sure that you follow any state or national requirements before offering your services to any potential customers.
ACME Locksmith offers an Automotive Locksmith Training Course for those interested in entering the trade.
Disclosure: As an eBay / Amazon / Alibaba Associate I may earn from qualifying purchases.
Robert has been the Owner of ACME Locksmith, Arizona’s #1 Rated Locksmith, since 2007. ACME has provided locksmith service to over 160,000 Phoenix houses and businesses.
- Over 1400 5-Star Rated, Verifiable Arizona Customer Reviews
- Super Service Award Winner Eight Years Running
- Selected as an Angie List Phoenix-Best Contractor
- BBB International Marketplace Excellence Award Finalist
- BBB Ethics Award Winner – The Only Locksmith to Ever Win this Award