How to Replace the Lights on Your Car

Generally speaking, it's much more difficult to replace light bulbs in newer vehicles than older ones. Here are some tips that may help—or may discourage you from even trying.

Head lamps

Sealed beams
Even though the old sealed beam systems were fairly simple, the most common mistake people make when trying to replace the bulb is turning the adjusting screws instead of the mounting screws. In almost all cases, the head light trim must be taken out before the mounting screws can be seen, much less removed. Sometimes the entire grill must be detached to gain access.

Replaceable bulb head lamps
Most of these early style systems had bulb access behind the head light assembly. If you cannot reach behind the head light assembly, then chances are it must be removed to replace the bulbs. It is up to you to determine which mounting hardware will need to be removed to release the head light assembly—every make and model is different. On many late model vehicles, where there is no gap between the front bumper (fascia) and the head light assembly, there is a good possibility the fascia will need to be partiality or completely removed to gain access to the head light assembly. You can also assume that any lights contained in the head light assembly will require the same procedure.

Other Exterior Lights

Tail lights, turn signals, side marker lights, fog lights, daytime running lights, license plate lights, center brake lights, and brake lights—you may get lucky with these and see mounting screws on the lens. If that is the case, then removing the lens might be all that is necessary to replace the bulb. If you cannot remove the lens, then whatever you have to do to gain access to the rear of the light assembly must be done in order to replace the affected bulb.

Hints for exterior lights

  • Moving lower splash shields and inner fender panels may be necessary to gain access to front light bulbs.
  • Trim panels inside the trunk and on the trunk lid may need to be removed to gain access to rear bulbs. Many rear light assemblies are bolted to the fender or trunk lid from the inside.
  • Again, all vehicles are different, so you will need to make your own determination of what needs to be removed and how.

Interior (Courtesy) Lights

Similar procedures are also required for interior lights. First, check to see if the light cover has tab locations to assist with removal. If it does, then a small screwdriver or sharp knife edge should do the trick. If no release tabs are seen, then the light housing may need to be removed to gain access to the rear.

Instrument panel and other "backlighting"
Backlighting refers to the lighting which illuminates the gauges, switches, and other controls at night. On most new vehicles, these bulbs are not replaceable—it is the switches and control panels that need to be replaced if the backlighting fails.

The bulbs for the gauges can be replaced, but in most cases, this is done by a repair shop specializing in electronics repair. The best way to find out if these bulbs are replaceable is to contact the parts department of your local dealer and ask them. If you find the bulbs are replaceable, then, in most cases, the affected component will need to be removed to replace the affected bulb.

General Information

  • When replacing any light bulb, make sure to check the socket for any damage that could have contributed to the problem.
  • Apply a light coating of dielectric grease to the base of any exterior bulb to help prevent moisture damage.
  • Most light sockets twist 90 degrees—sometimes with a lock and sometimes without—in order to remove the socket from the light assembly.
  • Always use the correct size and type when replacing bulbs.
  • Most new LED style lights do not have replaceable bulbs; the complete light assembly must be replaced.

As you can see, this is not as simple as replacing a light bulb in your home light fixture. If you're determined to replace a burned-out bulb and can't figure out how to do it, do what the professionals do—access the service information for your specific vehicle, look up the proper procedure, and then try to figure out what the service information is telling you to do!

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