A huge number of drivers have become accustomed to unlocking their car door with just the click of a button on the car's key fob. Keyless entry is standard across a wide range of vehicles from economy cars and family SUVs to top-tier luxury vehicles. If your fob is lost or broken, getting in and out of your vehicle can be a hassle, or maybe impossible. Not to mention that there may be other security and convenience functions of your vehicle that don't work properly without the fob. Don't worry though, this guide will explain the ins and outs of getting a replacement and offer some possible money-saving tips.
Car Keys: The Basics and a Brief History
Car keys used to be a simple component of vehicles, a basic security feature, a slender piece of metal cut into the correct shape that granted access to the car, and started the engine. As cars got more complex keys also became less simple. That progression in technology also means that keys have gotten more complicated to replace and much more expensive.
Standard keys are mostly found in older cars. Copies can be made at a key shop, hardware store, or by an automotive locksmith. A mobile locksmith can even come to you and make a replacement key on-site if you have lost your key and have no spare keys. Laser-cut keys are still a simple metal object, but the technology and equipment needed to make them means they are much more difficult to copy. The 1990 Lexus LS400 was the first vehicle to adapt the technology to car keys.
The next phase of keys, transponder keys, are now pretty much the most basic found on a new vehicle. Transponder keys have a small chip in them that signals to the car the correct key is present, not just a copy. If you have a basic key as a spare for this type, you can still unlock the vehicle, but may not be able to start it. The first car to use a transponder key in the US market was the Chevy Corvette way back in 1985.
Keyless entry remotes with a separate key actually slightly proceeded transponder technology. The first car sold in North America with a clicker was the 1983 AMC Alliance, and the tech became common by the early 1990s. Like the transponder key, the remote is programmed to talk to the vehicle, and only the correct remote will unlock the doors. A replacement remote will require programming. The process to program a car remote varies, and so does the cost of replacement. This is also the point where batteries enter the car key picture. A simple battery replacement may be all you need to get in your car. If you still have the key but have lost or broken the remote, you should be able to enter and start your vehicle.
A key fob is both remote and key in one. This may be a switchblade key or a key with a larger head that has the buttons for the various remote features. The fob may control the locks, open the trunk or hatch, roll down windows, or even have a remote start function. Replacing a car key fob is never inexpensive, but the cost varies widely based on the technique used to cut the key, the brand of vehicle, and the technology integrated into the fob.
The most common modern type of key fob may have no obvious key at all. This is called a proximity key, which can signal the car when near, and allows the doors to be unlocked without pushing any buttons or even taking the key out of your pocket. This type of key is the most complicated and expensive to replace, due to the key fob programming required to work with the complicated security systems on new cars.
The proximity key is another innovation initially found on the Chevy Corvette. In 1993 an available proximity key could unlock the car when it was within range of the vehicle, but the actual key was still needed to start up the Vette. Mercedes-Benz also briefly had a fashionable key fob that was roughly the size and shape of a credit card, which could be left in your purse or wallet. This design proved fragile and was only available for the 2003 model year on certain models.
The most recent development in keys is the ability to lock and unlock your car via a smartphone app. First introduced by Tesla, these apps can also track the location of the vehicle, adjust climate control settings, and check on the charging status of electric cars. However, a backup key or fob is still needed in the likely event of a dead cell phone.
My Key Fob is Broken...Now What?
If your fob is no longer working, you should know that you can still unlock your car with the key. The alarm system may go off, but putting the key in the ignition may shut off the sirens. If you have keyless ignition, it may be a little more complicated to get in and start your vehicle. Many fobs have a spare key integrated into them, which can be used in the event that the car or fob has a dead battery.
If you are dealing with an older car key fob or remote, the fob may simply need a new battery. Your owner's manual may have instructions for opening the remote and changing the battery. If you don't have the manual, a quick internet search should provide the answer. You will likely need only a flathead screwdriver to do the job. If your vehicle is old enough, you may also want to replace the key fob shell. If you have a high mileage Toyota or Honda, for instance, the buttons on the fob may be broken or missing their images. You can probably get a new fob from the aftermarket. Then you can simply swap the internal components over when changing the key fob battery to have an all-new remote key fob for a few dollars and a few minutes time.
If the fob is truly broken, you will be looking at a replacement. For older cars not made within the last decade, you may be able to order a new key fob from the dealership, a locksmith, or the internet. You may be able to program them for yourself if you still have two of the original working fobs. If you don't have any fobs, you will likely have to get professional help. That means hiring a locksmith or towing the car to a mechanic or dealer.
How much is a key fob replacement?
The first and most shocking thing to know about replacing your smart key or key fob is that it will likely be expensive. The absolute least you can expect to pay is $15 for an aftermarket fob for an older car, and that is only if you still have remaining fobs to program the new fob yourself. This is an unlikely scenario, so count on costs that are much higher.
Aftermarket replacement remotes for a 2011 Chevrolet Tahoe cost between $40 and $70, while a 2015 Hyundai Tucson replacement fob ranged between $95 and $145, and a 2019 Cadillac ST4 fob was between $100 and $155. OEM fobs will cost more, but some can still be programmed by the owner by following the instructions in the owner's manual.
The newest and most advanced fobs probably won't have any aftermarket replacement options. On top of that, you will be looking at the cost for key cutting which can be an additional $50-$150, as well as programming which will generally cost at least the rate of one hour of labor at your dealer or mechanic, between $75 and $200.
The second cheapest option, after the do-it-yourself aftermarket route, is likely a specialized locksmith. Many locksmiths are mobile, which means they can come to you rather than paying for a towing service. That is an immediate saving, and the services will also likely be less than a dealer. The estimated saving can be 20% to 50% below the cost of a dealership. A mobile locksmith may not have the newest equipment to program modern technology, so those with newer rides may be stuck at the dealer. Luxury and European makes are particularly expensive and less likely to be within the capability of a local locksmith. Some auto parts stores also offer key fob replacement and programming services as well, which are less expensive than the dealership.
The dealer may be the most expensive option for key and fob replacement, but the newest technologies may mean it is your only option. There are benefits of dealership service, they will likely have the equipment and parts needed to get you back on the road in just a couple of hours or less. Again the pricing varies widely; replacing the key for most Nissans or Fords, will cost much less than a BMW or Audi.
A replacement key service for a BMW can cost between $400 and $1,000 dollars depending on how technologically advanced the system is. Some BMW keys have a color touchscreen display, which is obviously going to cost more than a clicker for an old Pontiac or Saturn. The price range for a modern Toyota is more like $150 to $450 for key replacement service at the car dealer.
Key cutting can also be costly. A basic key costs five or ten bucks to have cut at a key shop or hardware store. Modern laser cut keys offer a higher level of security but can cost $150 to $250 dollars for the key and cut. In most cases for newer vehicles, the key and fob are one thing, so a lost key will require the costs of the replacement fob, key cutting, and fob programming. The total cost for this service can be between $200 to $500, and possibly more for the luxury cars with the newest technology.
Key and Fob Replacement Tips
There are several ways to save on replacement keys and fobs. The first thing to do is always have spares. You should have two keys at a minimum at all times. One you can keep on you and use on a daily basis, and the other should be kept in a safe place. If there are multiple drivers in your household, it is probably a good idea to have more than two sets of keys and fobs.
When buying a new car, make sure you get two keys from the dealer, and perhaps negotiate the third set as part of the purchase, or build that in the budget of buying the car. Having a spare means you can get in your car and go about your business, without the immediate expense or delay of getting a replacement made. You can then shop around for the best deal on the replacement key service. Getting stranded with no spares means, in addition to a key fob replacement, you will also be paying the cost for towing the car to a shop or dealer.
It is also important to check any warranty or insurance coverage you may have on the vehicle. Some basic warranties cover key replacement for broken fobs. Extended warranties may also have coverage, or the dealer may have sold you a key protection package when you bought the car. Your insurance or roadside assistance program may also cover ley replacement.
Losing or breaking your car key fob can be a surprising and unexpected expense. There are money-saving options, depending on the age of your car and the level of convenience and security tech built into the fob, but don't expect this to be the cheap endeavor it would have been a couple of decades ago. The dealership is your best bet for a quick one-stop fix, while it is likely the most costly option. A mobile locksmith may come to you and offer great savings. If you have an older vehicle, and spare fobs, you may be able to replace and program the fob or keyless entry remote yourself.