You try to start your car, but the key won’t turn. This should be simple, but no matter how much you try, it’s not budging. Here’s what you should do if you find that your ignition key won’t turn.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Force the Key!
Your first instinct may be to use brute force to turn the key. This isn’t a good idea, because you can damage the ignition key lock cylinder. Forcing the key, especially if it’s an older metal one, could damage the key itself.
It could bend or, worse, snap off. Once this happens, you’re stuck with half the key in your hand, half of it inside the ignition and a much more expensive and time-consuming repair.
Is the Steering Wheel Locked?
Steering wheels lock as a safety feature to keep the vehicle from moving when the key isn’t in the ignition. You might not have meant to lock your steering wheel when you parked the car, but all it takes is a little bit of force as you turn off the vehicle. Turn the steering wheel too far in either direction and it will simply stop moving and lock.
The ignition key won’t turn when the wheel is locked. Don’t panic. All you need to do is release the steering wheel lock. The ignition key won’t turn when the wheel is locked.
Although your wheel won’t move much, if you try to turn it, you’ll notice it will move a little bit more in one direction than the other. Apply some pressure in the direction where it has some give and turn the key at the same time. You’ll feel the wheel unlock, your key will again turn and you’ll be on your way.
Ignition Lock Cylinder Problems
The ignition lock cylinder is where you insert the key. Over time, it can wear out. It can also get jammed. Check that there’s nothing obvious obstructing the key from going fully inside of the cylinder. Even if it’s just slightly farther out than normal, the key won’t turn.
If there is something obstructing the key, try using a can of compressed air to blow it out. This can flush out any loose matter that might be wedged inside the cylinder, allowing you to stick in the key and turn it like normal.
The ignition lock cylinder may also be the problem if your key doesn’t go in smoothly. If you feel resistance when inserting the key, the key won’t go in fully or the key is difficult to remove, your car’s ignition cylinder could be the issue. Replacing the component before your car’s key gets stuck is a good idea.
Is the Key Damaged?
The problem may have nothing to do with your car and everything to do with your key. If your key is bent, it may still be able to fit into the ignition, but it won’t line up correctly and allow the ignition to turn. Pull the key out of the ignition and take some time to look at it closely.
If it’s bent, that may be your problem. Sometimes you can bend it back into shape, but be careful — you don’t want to weaken the key and snap it entirely. Once it looks straight, carefully try to see if it will slide into the ignition smoothly and turn. If this fixes the problem, get a new key made as soon as possible to avoid future issues.
Not being able to turn your key can be a frustrating experience. By following these steps, you’ll be able to track down the cause of the issue and stop it from happening again.
Check out all the ignition and electrical parts available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on spare keys, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Wakelin.
Nicole Wakelin covers the automotive industry as a freelance journalist for a variety of outlets. Her work includes news pieces, podcasts, radio, written reviews, and video reviews. She can be found in The Boston Globe, CarGurus, BestRide, US News and World Report, and AAA along with lifestyle blogs like Be Car Chic, The Other PTA, and She Buys Cars. She is active on social media with a large following on both Twitter and Instagram and currently serves as Vice President of the New England Motor Press Association.