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The High Cost of Car Key Replacement

Technology has advanced and so have key fob replacement costs

Our car keys have an uncanny ability to get lost inside coat pockets or underneath couch cushions or simply disappear altogether. Before the 1990s, lost car key replacement wasn't a big deal. You could get a key made at any hardware store, locksmith or dealership. But that ease of making a new replacement also made it easy for a thief to steal your car.

Today, advances in key fob technology make it more difficult to steal cars, but at the cost — literally — of car key replacement. Here we'll look at different methods and costs to replace your key. The prices quoted here are for Southern California areas. Parts and labor costs in your region may vary.

Basic keys can be copied at any dealership, locksmith or hardware store.

Basic keys can be copied at any dealership, locksmith or hardware store.

Basic keys and fobs

On most modern cars, an electronic key fob — also known as a remote or transmitter — is an integral part of the key set. The cost of replacing a key fob remote can range from $50 to over $100 depending on the automaker and complexity of the design. All key fobs need to be programmed. Some dealerships will do it for free, while others will charge for a half-hour to an hour of labor.

But there is a way around this fee. Most key fobs can be programmed with a specific combination of button presses on the remote and key turns in the ignition. Some owner's manuals will show you how to do it, and you can also find this information online.

Finally, you can purchase aftermarket key fob remotes online or from a locksmith. Like most aftermarket products, the quality will vary, but they are a less expensive alternative.

Transponder keys

After the mid- to late 1990s, manufacturers began placing a transponder chip in the plastic head of the car key. The chip emits a signal to a receiver in the ignition. If this "immobilizer" detects the wrong signal — meaning that the wrong key is in the ignition — the vehicle will not start.

A transponder shank is either a basic car key or a laser-cut key (more on laser-cut keys later). The major difference between a basic car key and a transponder key is that the chip in the transponder key must be programmed before it can start the vehicle. All dealerships have the machines necessary to program the key. Some might program it for free, but others will charge for up to an hour of labor. Most auto locksmiths should also have these machines.

In some vehicles, the transponder key and the fob are an all-in-one unit, which adds to the price of the car key replacement and limits the places you can find a replacement.

We checked the price of a basic transponder key on an older Ford F-150. The dealer quoted us $160 for the new key and an additional $75 for the fob. The car key replacement cost for a remote combo key (standard key with buttons for lock/unlock/hatch/horn) for a 2016 Subaru Impreza was a little more eye-raising: $250 for the key plus $100 to cut the key and program it. You can save some money by having a locksmith cut and program the key.

A potential low-cost alternative is to order a basic car key without the transmitter. This key will do everything except start the engine, but it will come in handy if you lock your keys in the car, for example.

If you frequently lose car keys or lock them inside the car, you might be able to save money on the programming by creating a third car key as a spare. Many automakers will allow you to program a third key on your own. First you have a locksmith cut this new key, then follow the procedure for programming, which is often explained in the owner's manual. If the manual doesn't show you how, there's a good chance you can find out how online. Search for "How to program a (insert your year, make, model) key" and you're likely to find a video or written tutorial.

Our searches found a few different methods, but they generally involve inserting the key into the ignition, turning to the "On" (or "Run") position once or multiple times, and possibly pressing buttons on the key or fob in some sequence. We'd suggest trying to confirm with a dealer or locksmith that this method will reliably work with your car before spending any money.

Laser-cut keys

You can tell a laser-cut key apart from a basic car key because the shank is slightly thicker, with fewer carved grooves. Laser-cut keys are often called "sidewinder" keys due to the distinctive pattern cut into the face of the shank, rather than along the ridges like a standard car key. The specialized machines that cut these keys are significantly more expensive than standard key-cutting machines, and you're not as likely to find them at every locksmith or hardware store.

Laser-cut keys also have built-in transponder chips and need to be programmed at the dealership or by a locksmith, preferably one who is a member of the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA). You can search for a certified locksmith near you by visiting the ALOA website.

All-in-one laser-cut keys are becoming more popular, but as we mentioned, these keys are more expensive and typically need to be replaced at the dealer. Including labor, these car key replacement costs can range from $150 to $250.

Switchblade keys

Switchblade keys have shanks that fold into the key fob when they're not in use and pop out with the press of a button. They can have a basic cut or a laser cut. One small advantage of the switchblade key fob is that its components can be purchased separately. If for some reason your key is damaged and no longer works, you can buy the shank separately for about $60-$80. But the more likely scenario is that you've lost your key, in which case you'll need both it and the fob into which it folds. The dealership key replacement cost for a switchblade key can run between $200 and $300 once you factor in the programming of both components.

Keyless entry remote

A keyless entry remote, also known as a "smart key," isn't a car key in the traditional sense. It is a key fob that is either inserted in the dash or, in newer vehicles, stays in your pocket or purse. The driver can then enter the vehicle and start the engine with the press of a button.

A keyless entry remote's main form of security is its ability to use rolling security codes. The system randomizes the correct code and prevents thieves from hacking it through the use of a device called a code grabber. The vehicle's computer recognizes the code emitted by the smart key and verifies it before starting the engine. Mercedes-Benz was one of the first automakers to use this technology and even coined the term "smart key." Every vehicle in its lineup now uses a form of smart key. That said, this technology is not theft-proof, and there have been a number of cases where high-tech thieves have been able to gain entry into a vehicle with a smart key.

Nearly every car brand now has a smart key bundled in its higher trims or technology packages. Keyless entry remotes are available in anything from a Nissan Altima to a Ford Escape.

These keyless entry remotes limit your options for a new key. The replacement remote must be purchased at the dealer or a factory parts reseller. And while it's handy to carry smart keys in your purse or pocket, these are the very places you will feel the pain when you lose them. The cost to replace a smart key for a 2018 Honda Accord, according to one of our local Honda dealers, is around $300. That's $150 for the smart key module and cutting the "emergency" key blade that slides inside the housing, and about another $120-$140 for programming, which is estimated to take about one hour.

Better safe than sorry

There's no denying that modern keys are expensive. And so the best defense against losing them is a good offense. It is better to get a spare key now, on your terms, than to stress out and spend the money in what might be an emergency. You can take advantage of the cost-cutting methods here and avoid the labor charges by programming the key yourself.

Finally, if you are someone who's tempting fate by only having one set of keys, consider this: If you lose all the keys to your car, you will need to get it towed to a dealership, and it can potentially cost you close to $1,000 to replace the locks on your car.

FAQs

How much does it cost to replace a car key?
The price to replace a car key can vary based on the type of key needed. The cost can range from under $50 for a basic key to over $500 for a more advanced key fob replacement at the dealership.

How can I get a replacement key for my car?
Your local dealership will always be the best place to get a key replacement for your car. The prices will be a little higher than a hardware store, for example, but you're guaranteed that the dealer will know how to craft the right key for your vehicle.

Does AutoZone replace car keys?
Yes, AutoZone does replace car keys, though the key and key fob might be made of generic parts and won't look identical to the ones that came with the car. That said, AutoZone can be an inexpensive alternative to a key replacement from a dealership.

Can you get a key made for a car with the VIN?
Yes, you can get a key made for a car with its VIN, though you'll also need to show proof of ownership to the locksmith service. On some newer vehicles, the vehicle must be present when the key is cut, so you wouldn't be able to order a key online, for example.


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