After you finish driving, you put the vehicle in park, take the keys out of the ignition, and move on with your day. But what if something happens to that relatively mundane part of your day?
What happens if you find the key stuck in the ignition and can’t figure out how to get it out? It can be a little panic-inducing, but fortunately, it’s usually a pretty simple fix.
In this article, we’ve highlighted seven of the most common reasons you might have a key stuck in the ignition and how to fix each one!
Let’s get started!
7 Reasons Your Key Is Stuck in the Ignition
Before you can figure out how to get your key out of the ignition, you need to figure out why it’s stuck there in the first place. It can be a frustrating experience, but the good news is that most of the time it’s a pretty straightforward fix, and you might not even need to spend any money!
1. You’re Not in Park or Neutral
Vehicles have an ignition lock that keeps you from pulling the key out of your vehicle. And while that’s a great feature since it keeps you from pulling out your key and losing it while you’re driving, sometimes we forget that our vehicle is still in gear and try to pull the key out.
This can happen if you shut off the vehicle and don’t shift into park or neutral. When you go to pull the key out in this situation, it won’t budge. You need to get the vehicle in park or neutral before trying to remove the key, or you’ll risk damaging the ignition switch trying to get the key out.
2. The Vehicle Is in Accessory Mode
Another common problem when you can’t get the key out of the ignition is that the vehicle isn’t completely off. When you turn the key, you go from “off” to “accessory mode” and then to “start.”
It’s possible that you shut the vehicle off but still have it in accessory mode, and when this is the case, you still won’t be able to take the key out of the ignition; you need to turn the key completely to the “off” position before removing the key.
This is a safety feature in your vehicle that helps prevent you from leaving your vehicle on and killing your battery without realizing it.
3. The Steering Wheel Is Locked
This might be the most frustrating reason for a key stuck in the ignition on our list. However, the truth is that it shouldn’t prevent you from getting the key out of your ignition, but it can easily prevent you from starting your vehicle.
If you notice your vehicle has a locked steering wheel, try turning the key to start the car while gently turning the steering wheel as much as you can in one direction or the other. Just remember that while this is a frustrating experience, the steering wheel lock is actually an anti-theft device to help keep people from stealing your vehicle.
4. A Dead Battery
Your ignition lock system uses battery power to unlock everything when you get everything in the right gear and mode, but if you have a completely dead battery, it can end up keeping the key in the ignition when it shouldn’t.
If this is the problem, you’ll need to charge the battery a bit before you can get the key out of the ignition, or you can try attaching jumping cables to the battery to get enough power to get the key out.
But while this is certainly a possibility, keep in mind the battery can’t have any charge to lock the key in the ignition. Because of this, it’s a pretty rare phenomenon unless you accidentally left the keys in the accessory mode for an extended period.
5. Dirty Key/Ignition Cylinder
When you put a key in the ignition cylinder, all the tumblers need to line up for you to be able to start your vehicle. Sometimes a dirty key or ignition cylinder can make it hard to start your vehicle, and other times you might find that you can’t get the key back out afterward.
While this might seem like a pretty easy problem to fix, sometimes it can be a challenge getting into the ignition cylinder to clean it out without damaging it.
We recommend cleaning off the key completely when it’s out of your vehicle. Spray a very small amount of WD-40 on the key, and then put it back in the ignition. This should help loosen things up for you a bit.
However, do not put too much WD-40 on the key and never spray WD-40 directly into the ignition cylinder, as this can cause more damage.
6. Damaged Ignition Cylinder
The ignition cylinder is typically one of the most durable components in your vehicle, but you can’t rule out a potentially damaged cylinder. They’ll typically last at least 200,000 miles though. So unless you have a reason to suspect a damaged ignition cylinder, there’s a good chance this isn’t the problem.
If you need to swap out the ignition cylinder, look at your vehicle’s anti-theft devices so you don’t accidentally trip them when you’re swapping out the cylinder and trying to start your vehicle with a new key.
Some newer vehicles require you to go to the dealership to swap out this part so they can use a computer to authorize the new key with the ECM and anti-theft device.
Related: 6 Bad Ignition Switch Symptoms (& Replacement Cost)
7. Manufacturer Problem
Most of the time, you don’t have to worry about the ignition cylinder with your vehicle. But sometimes, the cylinder will start to act up, or the key will start getting stuck for no reason.
A few vehicles are notorious for this, and a bit of research into your problem and the vehicle you’re driving will typically expose this pretty fast. It’s worth looking into because manufacturer-specific problems can be wide-ranging and lead to areas you wouldn’t normally check with this problem.
How To Get Your Key Out of the Ignition
Now that you know a little bit more about why your key might be stuck in the ignition, it’s time for you to get the darn thing out!
Start by double-checking the simple stuff. Ensure the vehicle is in either park or neutral and the key is completely in the off position. We’re harping on this for a reason because it’s by far the most common reason the key is stuck in the ignition, and many people end up calling for help only to realize it was one of these simple fixes from the start.
Once you rule out the simple stuff, it’s time to start working on getting the key out of the ignition. During this process, do your best not to force anything in or out of place. Ensure you unlock the steering wheel and then try to gently wiggle the key around while pulling out.
Don’t try to force it past anything. While you might get the key out this way, you also might break the key or damage the ignition cylinder. It’s a frustrating experience trying to get the key out, but if you use too much force, you’re just going to make the problem worse and cost yourself more money.
If you can’t get it by wiggling the key around, try wiggling the gear selector around a bit too. This can help if the vehicle isn’t recognizing you have the vehicle in park or neutral. Another option you have is to try the other gear.
For instance, if you have the vehicle in park, put on the parking brake and put it in neutral. If the vehicle is in neutral, try putting it in park. If there’s a problem with that specific part of the gear selector, moving it to the other gear might unlock your key and let you get it out of the ignition.
If you can’t get the key out following any of these steps, you might want to take your vehicle to a professional to have them help you out. Just don’t lose your control and jam things around; otherwise, you’re likely only making the bill even more expensive.
Cleaning Out the Ignition Cylinder
If the problem wasn’t that you left your vehicle in gear or didn’t have the key in the off position, you might get some benefits from cleaning out the ignition cylinder and key.
Start by using WD-40 to clean off the key, and then dry it off. Once you have a clean key, spray a little WD-40 on the key and put it in the ignition. Turn the key to the on position and back a few times to work the WD-40 everywhere it needs to go.
Never spray anything directly into the ignition cylinder, as this will likely just cause more damage. While this cleaning method isn’t a foolproof method for fixing the ignition cylinder, it can buy you a bit more time, and sometimes, it’s all you need to put the problem behind you.
Final Thoughts – Key Stuck in Ignition
Now that you know a little more about how common it is to find yourself with a key stuck in the ignition and how it’s usually pretty simple to fix, the next time it happens, you should know exactly what you need to do.
It’s not the end of the world, and often the worst part about a key stuck in the ignition is the frustration it causes, not the cost to fix it!