Everyone knows that one friend or family member who’s always losing their car keys. Maybe you are that person — it happens to the best of us! If you lose your keys regularly (or permanently), you’ll want to get a car key replacement or keep a backup available. The specifics of how to do that can vary greatly depending on your vehicle and the type of key it uses.
Six types of car keys
Before we go further, let’s understand the distinction between a key and a key fob. It’s a common misconception that they’re the same thing, but they aren't. The key, also known as the key shank, is the actual metal part that goes into the door/exterior locks. The key fob is a plastic housing that may include buttons to remotely lock and unlock the car, and possibly even control the ignition. Key fobs may be joined to the key shank in some way, a separate piece that works in tandem with the key. Newer fobs offering keyless entry have even done away with the shank entirely.
Most car keys and fobs will broadly fall into the following categories:
- Basic keys: This might be the first thing you think of when someone says, “car key.” It’s a regular lock-and-key mechanism, the kind that’s been around for a long time. These will be most common in older vehicles.
- Transponder keys: Designed in the 1990s to deter theft, these keys include a small transponder chip in the plastic head of the key. This chip emits a signal to a receiver in the ignition and if the wrong signal is detected, the vehicle won't start.
- Laser-cut keys: Laser-cut keys offer enhanced security thanks to their distinctive, winding cuts. These ensure that each key is unique. It takes special, expensive machinery to duplicate these keys, which can serve as an added deterrent to thieves. Many laser-cut keys also include built-in transponders (see above).
- Ignition key and entry fob: These combine a key for the ignition along with an electronic key fob that locks and unlocks the doors remotely. If the fob gets damaged or stops working, the key shank is usually a backup method for entry into the vehicle.
- Switchblade keys: As the name suggests, these feature key shanks that fold away into the fob, popping out at the press of a button when needed.
- Keyless entry remotes (smart keys): Also referred to as proximity keys, these are key fobs that send a randomly generated code to a receiver in your car. The car’s computer recognizes the code and enables keyless entry and ignition. This code changes with each use, which makes it harder to crack.
What to do if you’ve lost your car keys
The process of replacing your lost car keys varies based on what kind of keys and car you have. The more secure and high-tech your method of entry, the more it’ll likely cost you to replace. If you’re driving a vintage model with a basic metal key, for example, you’ll probably pay less for replacement keys than someone in the latest European luxury car. Once again, it helps to break it down based on key type. Consulting your local dealerships, locksmiths or mechanics can help provide accurate cost estimates.
These are by far the easiest types of keys to replace. If you want a set of backups, most hardware stores should be able to help. You can go in with the original key and get copies made in minutes. If you’ve lost your keys altogether, you’ll likely need to call a locksmith that specializes in automobiles. Naturally, you'll probably have to provide proof of ownership, including the title and registration.
Transponder keys typically require the chip to be programmed before it can start the vehicle. You can sometimes program them on your own if you have two spares, but the chip element means a backup key (that is, the key shank plus the fob containing the transponder chip) can get pricey on the higher end. If you’ve lost your keys, it’ll take special machines to program spares. These machines are available at most dealerships. Some dealerships may do the programming as a courtesy, but others may charge for labor.
Laser-cut keys tend to be more costly to backup or replace since they have transponders that need reprogramming alongside those distinctive cuts, which require special equipment generally only available at certain dealerships.
Ignition key and entry fob
If your fob is a simple lock and unlock model attached to a basic key, you can probably buy a relatively inexpensive replacement online. If your keys include a transponder element, however, you'll likely need to bring your spare to a qualified expert, and costs will rise accordingly.
If you’ve simply damaged or lost the key shank (rare, but possible), you can usually get it replaced for relatively little. A more likely scenario is losing the entire thing — shank, fob and all.
Keyless entry remotes (smart keys)
The added layer of complexity that smart keys offer means replacing them is also more difficult. Depending on the car, you may not have the option to go outside a dealership (especially true for European models).
A note for lessees
If you’re leasing your car, it’s important to remember that most dealers will require you to hand in two sets of keys and fobs when your lease is up. There’s also a chance that your lease restricts using aftermarket parts or going to third-party service providers. Some dealers may also impose an additional key replacement penalty on top of parts and labor.
On the flipside, your lease provider may include lost key insurance built into your terms. Some might also offer leniency on these costs and penalties if you’re renewing your lease with them. It’s generally a good idea to read the terms of your lease carefully to see if there are any perks like these that you can use.
Can you get a key made by VIN number?
Lost your keys or locked yourself out without a spare? You may be wondering if you can get new keys made using your car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). The short answer is yes, you often can. Most dealerships and locksmiths can do this, and you will most likely need to provide proof of ownership like the car’s registration and title.
This recovery method can work because VIN numbers can be decoded to retrieve the manufacturer’s key code for that car. The drawback is that codes for older vehicles may not always be available anymore. You should also bear in mind that this method only provides the original key for the car — it won’t work if your ignition has ever been replaced.
In general, this procedure shouldn’t cost much more than some of the other replacement methods listed above. As always, more secure keys will generally cost more to replace. Car owners and lessees can both take advantage of this recovery method, but lessees should consult their lease first for specific instructions.
If you lose your keys, you’ll be back behind the wheel soon enough. Car key replacements are needed all the time, though the type of key you have can impact the cost. Unless your car's an older model, you’ll probably need to pay for the extra security measures that come with modern keys. That investment may be worth it though — a key that’s hard to replace may also be harder for car thieves to duplicate.