What to Do When Your Ignition Key Gets Stuck

Stephen Fogel
May 1, 2018

After a long drive — or maybe just a short one — you arrive at your destination. You turn the key to shut off your vehicle, but you can’t get it out of the ignition. It’s stuck! What should you do?

First off, don’t panic. This happens fairly often. There are three main reasons why an ignition key will get stuck. Click the links to jump to that section and learn how to try to fix it: 

Before you start troubleshooting this problem, make sure that you have securely applied the parking brake on your vehicle.

» MORE: Why can’t I turn my ignition key? 

Problems with related components

First, let’s rule out any problems caused by parts not directly related to the ignition switch and the key.

Your transmission gear selector isn't in park

Your automatic transmission is designed so that you can only get the key out when it’s in park. This is called a shift interlock, and it’s there for your safety, as well as being an anti-theft device. You may have forgotten to shift all the way into park when you shut off the vehicle. 

Additionally, if you have a console shifter, and you like to keep your hair ties or rubber bands loosely around the shift lever, these objects can sometimes work their way down into the mechanism as you move the lever back and forth, jamming it and preventing it from engaging in park. 

Solution: If your transmission lever was left in gear, move the lever to park. If the lever appears to be in park, try moving the lever a little in case it is not fully seated in gear. See if the key can be removed. If this doesn’t work, or you’re unable to get it into park, call your mechanic.

Your steering is locked and is putting pressure on your key

Just about all vehicles have a locking steering column. It locks when you take the key out of the ignition at the end of your drive, and also functions as an anti-theft device. Sometimes, the steering column can lock in a position that puts pressure on the ignition switch, and prevents the key from coming out of the lock when you pull on it.

Solution: Grip your steering wheel and try to move it back and forth. There should be a small amount of play in the wheel when the steering is locked. Gently pull the key from the ignition while you slowly jiggle the steering wheel back and forth. If this is the cause of the problem, the key should come out after a little effort. If this doesn’t work, it will require the attention of your mechanic.

Your battery is dead

Many cars made in the past two or three decades have complex electronic ignition systems. If there’s no power flowing through the electrical system, the key may not release when you shut the vehicle off. Be sure that your vehicle has power, and that the interior lights turn on when you open the door. If they don’t, this could indicate a problem with your battery.

Solution: Your electrical charging system needs to be thoroughly checked out. If your battery is very old and you live in an extreme climate, the problem may be limited to the battery. But there could be a more complex explanation for why your battery died. A bad alternator, loose or worn wiring, a worn belt or an electronic component could be the cause. Have your mechanic check the entire system before you replace the battery, or you may soon find yourself with another dead one.

Get it diagnosed by a professional

Problems with the key 

Your key is dirty

Perhaps you keep your car keys in your pocket. Maybe you use your key as a knife to open packages that are secured with tape. If you do, the lint from your pocket and adhesive from the packing tape (and the dirt that it attracts) can build up on your key. Once it gets bad enough, this buildup can cause your key to get stuck.

Solution: You can try shooting a little WD-40 or graphite between the key and the lock, but if that doesn’t work, you’ll need to call your mechanic to clean out your ignition lock and remove your key. Once it’s fixed, take a look at your key on a regular basis, making sure that it’s clean. Use some rubbing alcohol or gunk remover and a lint-free cloth, then dry it thoroughly. 

Your key is worn out, damaged or bent

Over time, your ignition key gets worn from being inserted and turned in the ignition many thousands of times. Your ignition key can also become bent from the twisting force applied to it, or if you tend to use it as a tool. All of these wear-related conditions can cause your key to get stuck in the ignition lock’s internal mechanism.

Solution: Don’t use excessive force here — you could make the problem much worse. Try gently wiggling the key by hand as you try to pull it out. Apply some WD-40 or graphite between the key and the lock, if you can. If you do get the bad key out, try using your spare ignition key, which should be in newer, better condition. If that doesn’t work, see an automotive locksmith or your mechanic for a permanent solution to your key problem. And be sure to get a replacement for the bad key, so you have a spare in case this happens again.

» MORE: Get an estimate for your ignition lock cylinder repair

Problems with the ignition lock cylinder

Your lock cylinder isn’t operating properly

The inside of your ignition lock has several rows of spring-loaded pins that match up with your key when you insert it. This is what allows the key to turn and start the vehicle. The pins can get stuck or out of alignment, or the springs can stick and may weaken over time. Your key can get stuck as a result.

Solution: You can use a small hammer to very gently tap the ignition lock cylinder, in hopes of loosening or resetting the pins that may be out of alignment. Avoid hitting the key, and take it easy — if this doesn’t work, your mechanic should handle the problem. Your lock cylinder may need replacement. Your new lock cylinder will probably come with a new key to operate it.

Your lock mechanism is physically jammed

You may have debris inside the ignition lock mechanism that is preventing it from releasing the key. This may have been transferred into the lock from a key that had foreign material attached to it.

Solution: Calling your mechanic is your best bet here. Aside from slowly trying to wiggle the key loose, there’s not much else you can do with the key stuck in the ignition.

Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.