We all have that “pocket checking” routine. Check for your phone, wallet, keys, and gum. What about that heart-dropping feeling when the key pocket is empty? That’s when the immediate panic starts and you freak out.
The good news is that a lost key doesn’t mean your car is useless. You can get a replacement car key that you lost – and the process is easier than you might think. In this guide, you’ll learn what kind of key you lost, what you need to replace it, who can do it for you, how long it takes, and even how much you can expect to pay. Stick with us and you’ll have a working set of keys in your hand in no time.
Types of Car Keys
It all starts with knowing what kind of car keys you’re working with. Each key comes with a unique solution when you want to replace it.
Traditional car key. This is the old-fashioned car key that comes to mind. No added tech and nothing special about it. You put in your car door to unlock it, and you put it in your ignition to start your engine.
Car key fob. In general, this refers to a car that has an electronic component to it. This means that you can press a lock or unlock button on the key fob and your car will automatically perform these actions. A ton of newer cars use a key fob. It can have a physical key on it or it can be a smart key.
Switchblade key. Press a button on the body of the key fob and the key will fold out like a switchblade. That’s the idea behind a switchblade key. No more accidentally sitting on your key in your pocket.
Transponder key. A transponder key has been around since the mid-‘90s. There’s a little microchip in the key that talks to the ignition when it’s inserted. The microchip and sensor in the ignition have to respond and authenticate the key before the car can start.
Rolling code key. A more expensive and more technical version of the transponder key is the rolling code key. The overall idea is the same, but the way it works is different. Every time the key is used, a unique code is generated which gives the key access to the car.
Smart key. A smart key doesn’t have a toothed metal piece that goes into your car (unless you open the key and use the emergency backup). When you’re close enough to your car with a smart key, things start to work. You can automatically unlock or lock your doors and start the car with the push of a button as long as the key is within range.
Valet key. A valet key is used to give specific access to your car. In most cases, it will open the driver’s side door and also start the car. It won’t be able to open glove boxes, other doors, or the trunk. In theory, you can give this key to a valet and they’ll only be able to drive your car without accessing any personal items stored in the trunk or glove box.
What You Need to Replace Lost Car Keys
Getting replacement car keys isn’t as easy as getting a second key for your home. Even with a master key to your car, you have to prove that you own the automobile.
You’ll need the car’s VIN number, make, model, year, title, and registration. Also, bring a form of identification to ID yourself.
This might seem like overkill, but it keeps you safe in the long run. Otherwise, someone can find your keys on the ground and make a dozen copies.
If the person making the replacement key doesn’t ask for this information, be very hesitant. They might be running a scam or making a secret backup key that can be sold with nefarious purposes.
How to Replace Lost Car Keys
Once you know what kind of key you have and you have the right information, you can start the replacement process. There are two places that can help you: a locksmith’s office and your car dealership.
Do You Have the Spare Key?
The answer to this question isn’t going to change a ton, but it’s an important place to start. If you have a spare key, the process will be over quickly and will cost you less money.
Without a secondary key, a good locksmith can still make you a replacement. It just costs more and takes longer.
Calling A Locksmith Is a Good Start
In most cases, a locksmith is going to be your best friend. You’ll want to look specifically for an auto locksmith since the key-making process is different than a house key.
Actually, a lot of dealers work with third-party locksmiths to make the extra keys they have on hand. It makes sense when you think about it. After all, a locksmith’s pride and joy is the ability to make keys for the masses.
Different auto locksmiths specialize in different things. Some of them can handle difficult smart key fobs and pull all the stops. Others can only make replacements for simpler traditional keys. It’s important to ask the locksmith about their abilities before committing to one.
We also suggest getting multiple quotes when it comes to getting a replacement key from a locksmith. It will help you screen the candidates and make sure you’re not overpaying or getting ripped-off.
You Might Need the Dealer
What happens when you can’t find a good auto locksmith in the area that can help? Now it’s time to get the dealer involved. It doesn’t have to be the specific dealership that you bought the car from, but it helps if they specialize in the same make that your car is.
The tricky thing about getting a replacement key from a dealership is that, more often than not, they’ll need your car to physically be on the lot. That’s kind of hard when you’re locked out of your car. This means you’ll have to get a tow truck to bring you to the dealer and fork up the extra money for that.
Dealers have the ability to replace a wider variety of keys. In some cases, they might have a factory backup key that they can immediately pair to your car when it arrives. If not, you’ll have to wait for them to get one and pair it.
Dealers are going to be pricier than working directly with the locksmith. In some cases, you could be spending more than double on the exact same key – and that’s not even counting the towing costs to get your vehicle there.
You Can Try Your Insurance Provider
In some cases, your car insurance policy will provide a “free” replacement key. The price is built into the policy so you’re technically paying for it, but it doesn’t come with a physical bill after the service is done.
The process is usually a lot easier because your provider already has all of your info and can confirm you own the car.
Be careful: This could ruin your “no claims bonus” through your insurance. Your insurance rate could increase due to this claim. If you don’t have a replacement key policy, you’ll pay around as much as you pay a dealership for a replacement key.
Using Roadside Assistance
If you don’t mind waiting, roadside assistance might be able to help you. Their prices are typically somewhere between a dealership and a locksmith.
If you have a roadside assistance plan that covers replacement keys, you obviously won’t be charged for the service.
Using roadside assistance is a big roll of the dice. You’re hoping that the driver has the right equipment on hand and is a good locksmith.
Your Local Car Shop
The final place to try is your local mechanic. If their garage has the mapping and diagnostic equipment, they can make you a replacement key.
This option is probably the slowest and one of the more expensive options on the list.
Honestly? Choose Between a Dealer and Locksmith
Even though there are five different options, we highly suggest only considering a dealer or an auto locksmith. The other options are way too slow, expensive, or both for our taste. For the rest of this article, we’ll only focus on these two options.
Getting an Emergency Key Replacement
If you’re like us, you don’t like to wait for things. What are you supposed to do if you have travel plans or big meetings at work and you’re stuck outside of your car in the driveway? If you don’t have a second car to turn to, then you’ll need an emergency key replacement.
The good news is that a lot of auto locksmiths offer emergency services. They understand how important someone’s car is to them, and they know that drivers can’t just idly wait by for days or weeks until a dealer can help them.
Keep in mind, emergency services are going to be more expensive, but you get your keys a lot quicker. You might have to call a few different auto locksmith companies in your area until you find one that can immediately answer your call.
The Limitations of a Locksmith
The biggest limitation when it comes to working directly with a locksmith is their ability to pair an electronic key to your car. It requires some added tech that a lot of companies don’t want to splurge for.
If you’re looking for a replacement for your transponder or smart key, you might be forced to get it through a dealership. These keys have microchips and electronic components that an everyday locksmith can’t deal with.
The other limitation is their schedule. Many auto locksmiths are pretty accommodating, but they might have a long line of customers with the same request as you. If you’re not opting for emergency locksmith services, you could be waiting around for a while.
How Long Does It Take to Get Replacement Keys?
Once you get a locksmith in front of your car, you could have a replacement key in your hands before you realize it. With the right information and a good locksmith, they might be done within 15 or 30 minutes.
We suggest planning for about an hour for the whole process. You never know what unforeseen obstacles the locksmith could run into.
If you’re getting a replacement from the dealer, cross your fingers. If they have the replacement key in stock, then you’ll probably be out of there within an hour or two. If not, your car will be stranded for days or even weeks until they get the new one.
Replacing a Valet Key
Your car doesn’t need to come with a valet key for you to get one. You can get a replacement valet key by using the same process explained above. Just tell the locksmith or dealer that you specifically need a valet key.
We always suggest this idea to people who often let others drive their cars. You can keep your personals in the glove box or trunk and don’t have to worry about nosy drivers snooping around.
These keys are encoded specifically to your VIN. They’ll start your car and open the driver’s door, but they won’t do anything beyond that.
Replacing a Fob When You Still Have the Key
Some cars have fobs and keys that aren’t connected. If you lose the fob but still have the key, you won’t need to go through any of the headaches we just talked about.
The key will still lock and unlock your car. You can get an aftermarket fob pretty inexpensively:
It’s easy to program by yourself and doesn’t require any special knowledge. It will give keyless and remote access to your car just like the original fob does, but it doesn’t require the added cost of a locksmith or dealership.
Replacing a Key Fob That Doesn’t Work
If your key fob stopped working, take a second before freaking out. If it’s a smart key that doesn’t have a physical key, look for a little latch on the plastic. In most cases, pulling the latch will expose a physical key that you can use to operate and unlock your vehicle.
Now, let’s take a deep sigh of relief. The next thing to do is check the battery on your fob. It’s not rare for a key fob’s battery to die. In a lot of cases, the battery can simply be replaced on your own.
Use a flat object like a screwdriver to pop open your key along the seam. Pop out the battery and flip it over. There should be an etching on it that says the model of the battery. Punch that number in online and order a replacement and just swap out the battery.
While you’re waiting for the replacement part, use the physical key and open your car door. Try turning on your car and ensuring that your battery is alive. One of the symptoms of a dying car battery is that your key fob won’t unlock or lock your doors. If your car battery is dead, it’s time to jump it or replace it.
The Caveat of Expensive Cars
Owning an expensive car comes with a lot of added stress when it comes to little things like a misplaced key or broken part. We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but you’re probably forced to get a replacement key through the dealership.
Not only is the key probably higher-tech, but the manufacturer wants to add a layer of protection against car thieves. This way, someone can’t snatch the keys to your supercar and then make themselves a copy.
Is a Tow Absolutely Necessary?
This is a question that your locksmith or dealer can answer. In general, a locksmith can make the trip to you and doesn’t require a tow. Alternatively, dealerships will require the car to be on-site a lot of times. It depends on a lot of factors so we can’t say definitively one way or the other.
How Much Does a Replacement Car Key Cost?
Here’s the kicker – getting a replacement key isn’t free. We’ll give you a general sense of how much it will cost to get it done through a locksmith. Double the prices if you want to work through a dealership.
Traditional key or stand-alone fob: maybe $20
Switchblade key and fob: around $125
Smart key: $400
Luxury car smart key: $600+
Consider Getting a Backup Replacement Key
While you’re already going through this trouble, it might not hurt to get another replacement key made. Getting two keys made at the same time is often less expensive than getting them made separately.
If you’re especially forgetful, this is the best time to stock up on your replacement keys.
In other words, you get the one replacement key that you need to drive your car, then you get a copy of that key made at the same time. Now you have two replacement keys in your hand. Put one in a safe place and put the other in your pocket.
Hopefully, this guide told you everything you need to know about replacing your car keys. You can work with an auto locksmith or a car dealership. Make sure you bring the correct information and understand what kind of key you need. Also, be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars potentially.
For more information about owning and caring for your car, take a look around our blog. Make sure you have the right tools and accessories to keep your car running forever.