Getting your key stuck in the ignition is nothing short of an automotive disaster. You can’t lock the car and walk away, or in the worst cases, stop your car from running. We’re going to take a look at why keys get stuck and what to do if it happens to you. 

key stuck in ignition

How Do Keys Get Stuck in the Ignition?

You come to a stop and try to switch off your car as you’ve done many times before, but this time your key is jammed in the ignition. There could be several things that have gone wrong, from a broken key to a sticky gear selector. Let’s go through some possibilities:

You Haven’t Selected Park

This one’s for automatic cars only and can be a little embarrassing to be honest. Sometimes you pull in to park your car, put your foot on the brake, pull up the handbrake and switch off your engine. But the key won’t come out. 

This is one of your car’s safety features. It locks the key into the ignition barrel when anything other than Park is selected. It’s possible to simply forget to shift into Park but is just as easy to fix. 

automatic gear lever in drive

You Haven’t Selected Neutral

This is the same problem, but with a manual transmission car. Most modern cars have a similar safety feature that locks the key into the ignition barrel if any of the driving gears are selected. 

The Steering Wheel is Locked

The steering wheel on most cars comes with an inbuilt lock as an extra security measure. We highly recommend using this whenever you park your car, but it can get jammed, especially if your steering wheel is turned to the hard left or right. The deadbolt inside your steering column can bind up on the key and cause it to get stuck.

A Dirty key

Some of us use our keys for all manner of things, opening letters or boxes, getting stones out of our car tyres or scratching scratch cards. If dirt starts to build up on your car key and you put it into your ignition cylinder, eventually your key could get stuck from all the dirt in the grooves. 

A Bent key

Your car key works in a similar way to any other key when your put it into the ignition barrel, it needs to push and turn a series of pins and barrels to unlock the ignition and turn on your car. If your key is bent even slightly it can stick in the ignition and not come out. 

You might have been pulling the key out of your car too hard or at the wrong angle for this to happen, but it could also be the fault of your keyring. If you carry more keys than a jailer and there’s too much weight attached to your car key, it can bend and get stuck while driving. 

A Broken Key Stuck in the Barrel

If you’ve been using a damaged or slightly bent key for a while, it could break off inside the cylinder. You can’t use another key because the tip of the old one is in there, and you might not even be able to see the broken key end inside the ignition barrel. 

How to Fix a Stuck Key

Now you’ve got a good idea of what’s wrong, it’s time to put it right:

Park not Selected in an Automatic Car 

All you have to do is find the “Shift Lock Override” button that lets you move the shifter into Park. Then you can remove the key. 

Neutral not Selected in a Manual Car 

This one’s another easy fix, luckily. Put your foot on the clutch, push it in and select neutral. Now you can take out your key. 

The Steering Wheel is Locked

If your key won’t release after you’ve locked the steering wheel, hold the key in one hand and the steering wheel in the other hand. Gently wiggle the key back and forth and turn the steering wheel at the same time. Do this for a few seconds and your key should release.

A Dirty Key

If you know that your key is dirty and is jammed in there because of a sticky mess, you can try hitting it with something to break down the muck. Spray some WD-40 using the thin applicator straw above the key and let it go to work. 

If this doesn’t work, then you could try squirting some isopropyl alcohol into the ignition cylinder. The alcohol will help to break down grease and oily gunk stuck to your key. Hold a cloth around it to catch any excess, and don’t use too much. 

dirty key

A Bent Key

Unfortunately, this problem hasn’t got such a quick fix. You’ll have to be careful as well because if your key is already bent, trying to bend it back while it’s still in the ignition can damage it more or even break your ignition cylinder. We don’t recommend trying to straighten it out in place. 

If you can get a good grip on the key with a pair of locking pliers, gently try to push it back in and turn it at the same time. Gently jiggle the key while pulling out, being careful not to bend the key more. You should not have to force it out. 

You can try spraying some WD-40 or graphite spray into the ignition cylinder with the thin straw attachment while jiggling the key, but if your key is stuck fast, it’s time to call a car locksmith who will remove the whole cylinder for you. 

A Broken Key Stuck in the Barrel

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see the end of the key sticking out of the ignition barrel. Get yourself a pair of locking pliers or needle-nose pliers and gently pull out the broken end. 

If you’re unlucky, the end of the key is lost inside the ignition cylinder. Don’t despair though, because you can buy key extraction tool kits for less than you might think online or at a good DIY shop.

A key extraction tool kit will contain several key extractors that look like lock picks but have hardened steel hooks on their ends. They’re thin enough to push down inside the ignition barrel and hook on to the softer material of your key. 

You can use a drop of WD-40 again to help your extractor tool get down into the barrel. Once you’re in there, work the tool around until you can feel the broken key end move. Gently pull it out and you should be ready to go again. Don’t forget to check the broken key for any shards of metal that could be left behind. 

lockpicking set


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