Replacing a car key can be a messy and frustrating experience. Sometimes the key breaks, while at other times it may bend or wear down until it no longer functions correctly. Losing a key is particularly frustrating with the constant worry that, part-way through the process of securing a replacement, the owner will find the initial key somewhere obvious like the pocket of a jacket that was misplaced. Whatever the reason, the key is essential to proper car use, so every car requires at least one working key.

Part 1 of 2: When to get a replacement key

The first step is deciding that you do, in fact, need a new key for your car. There may be a variety of reasons for this, but a couple very common reasons include:

Reason 1: Key is lost. As mentioned above, losing a key is frustrating. The possibility of finding a lost key is always present, unless the key was lost in the ocean or while traveling. Luckily, if there was only one key to start with, then the problem all along was the lack of a spare. If this is the case, replace the lost key without worry and hope you find the original to act as a spare!

Reason 2: Key is not functioning. Sometimes the key wears down until it no longer retains its shape. The key may also snap or bend, rendering it useless. Some more high-tech keys may be laser-etched or have wireless codes that the car scans to ensure that they are the proper keys. While this is great for security, damaging these codes can render an otherwise fine key useless. A common problem that is becoming more present every year is the issue of having a broken remote built into a working key. The key can be used to lock and unlock the doors and turn on the car, but the malfunctioning remote reduces convenience. Also, a malfunctioning remote can unpredictably unlock the doors from afar in some cases. Always check the battery in the remote first to see if that's the problem. For security reasons, any issues with the keys or locks needs to be addressed immediately.

Part 2 of 2: How to get a replacement key for your car

Before anything can be done about acquiring a replacement key, it first needs to be established exactly what kind of key is needed. This process will help you decide the kind of key you need:

Step 1: Obtain VIN. First get the VIN number from the dashboard or engine bay of the car that needs a replacement key made. Also record the exact make, model, and year of the vehicle. If the VIN is hard to find, check out the vehicle’s title or insurance paperwork to find out.

Step 2: If your car is old, contact a locksmith. Older cars, especially those made by non-luxury manufacturers, have the easiest keys to replace. Making a call to the local auto locksmith can solve the whole problem in some cases. This works for a number of cars, and a locksmith can end up saving you a lot of money compared to a dealership.

Step 3: If a modern car, see if a locksmith is capable of replacing it. If the key is more modern, the shape may be too complex for a local locksmith or the key may need to be programmed to work with a certain vehicle. As long as the programming is digital and not a code laser-etched onto the key, a good auto locksmith should be able to take care of it. Because there is so much variety among car keys, this step can be very easy for some and extremely tricky for others.

Step 4: Have a dealer program the key if no other options. If the key does need to be programmed, check to see if the locksmith can program it to work with your car. If they cannot, the next best step is to have the locksmith make the key, and then have the dealership program it. The module that needs to be programmed can be very expensive through the dealership, so check around online for a cheaper option.

Step 5: If the key is very complex, have dealer replace it. If none of the above options are viable, then it is likely that your key is much more complex for security purposes. The replacement may only be available through the manufacturer, and ordering the key may take a week or two. If this is the case, go to the dealership where the car was bought and see if either the warranty will cover the cost, or if the dealership will provide a discount to satisfy their customer.

Step 6: Consider price vs reliability. Many cars use fully electric keys these days, and these often barely resemble an actual key. If one of these breaks, and the batteries are not dead, then ordering a new one is necessary. Sometimes they are cheaper to get online, but going through a dealership is a more secure bet. Some you can program yourself, at home. Others must be programmed by a professional. In some cases, the key is programmed at the factory and then sent out to the customer. This is only the case with a few very high-end manufacturers.

Security is important, and an unlocked door can ruin a car just as quickly as a seized engine under the right circumstances. Replacing keys can be expensive, so be prepared (and if it turns out to be a cheap fix, you will be pleasantly surprised). Always try to go through a locksmith when possible. Doing some research ahead of time can save frustration down the road.

This article originally appeared on as How to Get a Replacement Car Key and was authored by Olivia Marsh.

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