Car keys and ignitions typically cause the least amount of car trouble. They are two things that people generally assume would simply work, and if they don’t, it’s because of something else. After all, how can such a simple system fail? But what happens when your assumptions are shattered, and the key won’t even turn in the ignition?
When your car key won’t turn in the ignition, it’s often caused by something simple like the steering lock. Wear, damage, or grime on the key or inside the ignition will also keep it from turning. However, you should always check the simple things first, like if your automatic car is in park.
So, there could be many different reasons why your key isn’t turning in the ignition, and the causes all have their individual fixes.
Some of these fixes are quick, easy, and often quite obvious, but it’s funny how often we simply forget about something fundamental that we’ve known for years. Let’s look at the different reasons why your key won’t turn, then find the solutions for each.
1. The Steering Lock Is Engaged
Cars have been coming out with built-in security systems called steering locks. Most people know of them, but it’s easy to forget they exist since we rarely use them.
When you turn off your car, remove your key from the ignition, and then turn the steering wheel slightly, you will engage the steering lock. You will feel strong resistance when you try to turn it again. The steering lock does two things:
- It stops the steering wheel from moving, making the car undrivable.
- When you insert your keys, the steering lock will stop the key from turning, so the car won’t start.
That last part is the crucial one. If you try to turn your key in the ignition, but it simply won’t move, the simplest and most common cause is that the steering lock is engaged. Even if you don’t use it, it’s easy to engage it accidentally as you exit the vehicle since most drivers use the steering wheel to support them when they get out of the car. Just that slight amount of force could engage the lock.
So, the simplest way to test this theory is to check if you can move your steering wheel. If you try to turn it (gently, please) and you meet resistance, that’s a definite indication. This resistance will be pretty severe, unlike the resistance from your inactive power steering. You would have to use excessive force to move the steering wheel more than an inch. That’s the steering lock.
How To Fix It
You likely don’t need to fix the steering lock; you can simply disengage it. To do this, insert your keys into the ignition, press down and the brake pedal, and gently try to turn the key while you slowly move the steering wheel from side to side. Try to push through the resistance slightly on each turn of the steering wheel and the key.
Eventually, you will feel the resistance release as the lock disengages, and your key will now easily turn in the ignition.
Note that emphasis should always be on “gently.” Don’t jerk the steering wheel or the key aggressively in your attempt to get them to turn. The steering lock is firm but not infallible, and you could cause damage to the lock or your key if you apply too much force.
2. Gear Lever Restrictions
Many cars with automatic transmissions don’t allow you to turn your keys to start the car unless the car’s gear selector is in a particular position, usually park or neutral. Cars with manual gearboxes may have similar limitations. Though this is less common, some also require that you put your car in neutral.
These are also security limitations, though there are no clear ground rules for this one, and each manufacturer handles it differently. It mostly happens to avoid any accidental forward or backward movement when you start your car.
How To Fix It
This is probably the easiest fix, and again that’s because it isn’t really a problem as much as a feature.
If you have an automatic vehicle, simply put the gear lever into either the neutral or park positions. (Depending on the model, you may have to start the car first.)
For a manual gearbox, check that your car is in neutral, and if it is, press down the clutch and jiggle the lever a bit to release it in case it got stuck in gear.
After this, your key should turn without any problems.
Another potential cause closely related to this is that some cars require you to step on either the clutch (in manual vehicles) or the brake (in automatic cars) before they allow you to turn the key, so always try that, too.
3. Check The Battery
Some cars, especially newer ones that still use turn keys instead of the more modern key fobs, use electronics to determine when it’s safe to let you turn the key. The car’s electronics must have a working power source for this to happen.
If your car is one of these more electronic models, you may be unable to turn the key in the ignition if the car’s battery has run flat. It is usually easy to detect because other things that usually work off battery power will also fail or work poorly.
For example, if your central locking isn’t locking or unlocking the doors, if your lights don’t turn on or they’re very dim, or if your car radio doesn’t come on, these could all be indications of a dead battery. Anything that uses electricity should typically work when the car is turned off but doesn’t indicate battery problems.
Cars that don’t allow you to turn the key because of battery problems aren’t widespread, but there have been a few models that work this way, so it’s essential to take note of the possibility.
How To Fix It
As with all battery-related problems, you could get someone to help you jump-start the car, or you could let the battery charge with an external charger. This will get your key turning, at least, and you can start the car and drive.
These are usually just temporary fixes, though, and the problem often indicates a battery that’s nearing its end of life. You should ideally take your car to an auto electrician or a battery testing center that can check if it’s time to replace your battery.
4. Dirt, Grime, Or Dust
Modern car keys aren’t like standard door keys. Not only do they have pits and bumps that push down tumblers in the ignition like regular keys, but they also use RFID chips and other electronic circuitry that makes contact with electronics in the ignition, identifying you as the valid key holder.
Getting any kind of foreign matter on your key or inside your ignition could stop the ignition from identifying your key. Also, sometimes the gunk (yes, that is a technical term) can find its way into the ignition’s mechanisms, which could also stop the key from turning as it should.
Note that this can include dirt, dust, mud, moisture, oily compounds, or anything that could interfere with the proper functioning of electronics or mechanical components.
You can sometimes determine if there’s some foreign substance in the ignition when it feels a bit grainy when you insert the key. That should be a dead giveaway.
How To Fix It
Cleaning the key is simple. You can usually see whatever’s on there and remove it properly. A moist cloth should do the trick for any dust, dirt, or mud, but take care to clean inside the key’s grooves as well. Moisture and oil can usually be cleaned with an absorbent, lint-free cloth.
Oily or waxy substances may be a bit more complicated. If it’s hard, you may need to gently scrape it off with a plastic or rubber blade. You can also use some electronics cleaner with a lint-free cloth to remove any oily residue from the key.
Cleaning inside the ignition is a bit more complicated. Sometimes you can see what kind of substance it is when you properly clean your key and stick it into the ignition. When you remove the key, some residue from the substance might get stuck on it, which you will be able to see.
You can use a tool as simple as compressed air to clean the contacts and tumblers inside the ignition. Compressed air cans usually come with tiny pipe nozzles that you can attach to the regular nozzle. You can insert the tip of the pipe nozzle into the ignition’s keyhole and simply spray a good amount of air into the ignition.
Spraying compressed air will help to dry out any moisture and blow dust and dirt away from the contacts. It might be less effective on oily or waxy substances, tough. You can try to spray more compressed air as the pressure will remove some of it, especially if the substance is very fluid. Unfortunately, there isn’t much more you can do apart from having a professional clean it.
5. Is Your Car Actually Switched Off?
This one may seem too dumb to mention, but the human mind can do strange things sometimes. After all, we’re still discussing simple solutions, and you don’t get much simpler than this.
There are countless cases (even if the people involved are too shy to mention it) where a driver would sit in the car and wait for something or someone. The music may be loud, or there might be some ambient noise that drowns out the noise from the engine, and eventually, the driver may forget that the engine is still running.
When they try to turn the key to start the car, nothing much happens, except maybe for a grinding noise from the ignition, which the driver could also be unable to hear.
How To Fix It
Try to turn your key in the opposite direction. If it works, this should turn off the engine, after which you should be able to turn the key to start it again.
6. Damage to the Key or the Ignition
If you tried all the other methods and still can’t get your key to turn, it’s most likely due to damage to the key or the ignition.
Damage could occur for a few reasons. Your key might be damaged from a fall. This should be evident as you will quickly notice if it’s bent, chipped, or misshapen. There could also be an electronic fault in the key itself.
If your key appears to be okay, the damage could be inside the ignition. This is often caused when someone tries to force the wrong key into the ignition or when an inexperienced person tries to steal the car. For example, criminals can steal some older car models by forcing a screwdriver into the ignition and turning it as if it’s a key. This does lasting damage to the ignition.
Damage can also simply be a matter of wear and tear. Ignitions and keys are made of metal, and metal wears out a little bit every time you use it. The older your car is, the better the chances are that your key or ignition will start wearing out and occasionally not work as they should.
Wear will start showing itself sporadically. You may occasionally have trouble turning the key, but it will work after you wiggle it a bit. It’s so common that most drivers don’t even notice it happening anymore; they instinctively wiggle the key until it works. Until, one day, wiggling it doesn’t work anymore.
The Final Fix – What To Do When All Else Fails
The solution is usually the same regardless of which component is damaged, whether the key or the ignition: you need to get the damaged component repaired or replaced, which is something you should leave to the professionals.
At this point, it’s time to take your car to an auto electrician, a locksmith, or even a mobile locksmith service like Pop-a-Lock. However, I would avoid dealerships; they're often the most expensive option and require appointments to get work done.
If you find that your key doesn’t want to turn in the car’s ignition, and you checked that you are definitely in the right car, there’s no immediate reason to panic.
There are some simple things you can try that will solve the issue in most cases. Extreme situations aren’t as simple, but you will usually get some early intermittent issues to warn you that it’s time to replace your ignition.