5 Causes of a Key Stuck in the Ignition (and How to Get It Unstuck)

For most motorists, the idea of starting their vehicle with the use of a key requires little in the way of additional thought. We expect to place our key in our vehicle’s ignition, when starting our vehicle, only to retrieve it upon reaching our destination. This is an elementary concept, which hardly warrants discussion. Unless, of course, an unanticipated issue arises.

This basic concept becomes far more noteworthy if ever this process goes awry. This is perhaps best illustrated when forced to contemplate your next move, after coming to the realization that your key has become stuck in your vehicle’s ignition cylinder.

As far-fetched as this scenario might seem, issues of this type plague an untold number of motorists on an annual basis, creating quite the conundrum.

No vehicle using a standard key-style ignition is immune to such problems, though some manufacturers, such as Honda, Chevy, Dodge, and Subaru seem to experience a higher rate of such failures. The “key” to handling an issue of this nature, involves understanding its root cause and acting accordingly.

Read on to learn more about the potential reasons that your key is stuck in your vehicle’s ignition, as well as how to overcome a problem of this type.

Why Is My Key Stuck in the Ignition?

car key is stuck

A vehicle’s key can become stuck in the ignition cylinder for a number of reasons, some of which tend to be more complex than others. By recognizing these potential causes, one can often rectify the situation in short order.

The following are several of the most common reasons that a key gets stuck in a vehicle’s ignition cylinder.

1. Vehicle Not in Park

Most modern vehicles will not allow you to remove your key from the ignition if the transmission is not placed in park. This is used as a safety procedure to prevent vehicle roll-away.

2. Steering Wheel Is Locked

The steering wheel of many vehicles will lock in place if turned too far in one direction while the ignition is in the “off” position. Unfortunately, this also locks the ignition cylinder.

See Also – Signs of Steering Rack Failure

3. Build-up of Dirt and Grime

A vehicle’s ignition cylinder is prone to a build-up of dirt and grime over the course of time. This can stick an ignition cylinder’s tumblers, making it difficult to remove your key.

4. Key Damage

A damaged key can also jam an ignition cylinder’s tumblers, thereby turning key extraction into a chore. This is especially true if a particular tooth on a key becomes bent or broken.

5. Faulty Ignition Cylinder 

Like any mechanical component, a vehicle’s ignition cylinder is prone to failure with age and wear. The individual tumblers of an ignition cylinder can actually collapse, lodging a key in place.

How to Get a Car Key Unstuck

There are several different ways to go about getting a key Unstuck from your vehicle’s ignition. Success often comes down to a matter of selecting the best of these methods, for your particular situation.

The following are several of the easiest ways to free a stuck key from a vehicle’s ignition cylinder.

1. Jiggle Key

A worn ignition cylinder cam often binds a key, thereby keeping it from being pulled outward. In many instances, a simple jiggle of your key is all that is required to free it. This should be done lightly to prevent breaking the key off in the ignition.

2. Clean Out Debris

In certain cases, a key can become stuck in a vehicle’s ignition cylinder due to a build-up of grime and debris. This build-up can often be freed with a light squirt of penetrating oil or spray of compressed air.

The trick to this involves fishing the small straw attached to a can of such substances into the tumbler of the ignition cylinder, before making the intended application.

3. Unlock Steering Wheel

The steering wheel of many vehicles locks in place if turned too far in a certain direction after being turned off. This also locks the vehicle’s key in the ignition cylinder. This is remedied by turning a vehicle’s ignition back to the “On” position, in order to free the steering wheel.

4. Shake Gear Selector

Some vehicles will not allow you to retrieve a key if the transmission is not firmly in park. For this reason, it might be necessary to slightly shake a vehicle’s gear selector, in order to extract a key from the ignition.

If this does not work, try turning the ignition to the “On” position, while depressing the brake pedal, before shuffling the vehicle’s gear selector back and forth between drive and park.

What NOT to Do

First and foremost, do not jerk haphazardly on any key that is stuck in a vehicle’s ignition. This can cause your vehicle’s key to break off at the neck, leaving you in a far worse situation than you were initially faced with.

Remember, in most cases, you will still be able to start your vehicle, even if you cannot remove the key itself. Therefore, the situation is not as dire as it could be.

If you do not feel comfortable attempting the key removal steps listed above, contact a trusted automotive service center or locksmith for further assistance.

The cost of obtaining such help likely pales in comparison to that which will be incurred, should you inadvertently create more damage, due to the obvious frustration that accompanies such situations.

What if the Key Breaks Off?

Once a key has been broken off in a vehicle’s ignition, the matter of removal becomes far more complicated. In reality, you are only left with two viable options. Depending upon the circumstances at hand the first of these two options might not be available to you.

This is the case when a key is broken off flush, with the face of its lock cylinder. The options for the retrieval of a broken key are as follows.

Use Pliers to Attempt Removal

In a limited number of cases, it might be possible to remove a broken key with the use of pliers, or alternatively, with a pair of vice-grips. This can only be attempted if enough of the key’s neck is protruding from the ignition cylinder to allow you to obtain a solid grip.

Once a firm grip has been achieved, you can again attempt many of the same removal tips as described above.

While other methods for broken key removal are often suggested, such as those pertaining to the use of hot glue, efforts of this type seldom prove effective.

Call a Locksmith

If your key is broken off flush with the face of its ignition cylinder, or the use of pliers has proven ineffective, a call to a locksmith will be required.

An individual with this background will likely be able to remove your vehicle’s broken key with the use of specialty tools, and can often make a new key for your vehicle on the spot. In many cases, a locksmith will also be able to diagnose the issue plaguing your vehicle’s ignition cylinder as well.

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