Depending on what model and year vehicle you’re driving, replacing a lost or stolen key may involve several steps and several hundred dollars, says Richard Reina, training director at CARiD. If you don’t have a second car key, have a backup made and keep it in a safe place.
Here are the five main types of car keys, and Reina’s suggestions on what to do if yours goes missing.
Traditional Car Key
The standard key used by the auto industry is purely mechanical; put it into an ignition cylinder and turn to start your car.
If you lose it: You could call a locksmith, who can come and make you a new key on the spot. In some cases—an unusual or older vehicle—a locksmith may not be able to help. You might need to buy a new ignition lock cylinder and key from the dealer or an independent repair shop.
Car Key Fob
The first fobs were add-ons and meant to be a convenience. They can lock and unlock your vehicle, but you still use a traditional key to start the car. The key can also be used to unlock the doors.
If you lose it: If you lose just the fob, you’re OK. You can still use your key to unlock your car and start it. Fobs are readily available as aftermarket products and are easily programmable; you don’t need a special tool. You can find them at dealerships, auto parts stores or online. They’re also inexpensive (less than $20).
Car Key Fob And Switchblade Key
After the detached fob was released, auto manufacturers combined the two in a mechanism that would lock and unlock a vehicle with a spring-loaded key that folds into it, like a switchblade.
If you lose it: Pricier than a plain fob, an aftermarket fob with a switchblade key costs about $125 to replace. These are most easily found at a dealership, where they may be cut and programmed on-site; they’re also available online.
Created to be a better anti-theft device, auto manufacturers came up with transponders in the early- to mid-1990s. Transponders are ignition keys that have a plastic head embedded with a computer chip; they rely on the wireless connection between your key and the car before they will allow the ignition to engage.
If you lose it: If you don’t have a backup key, you’ll need to have your vehicle towed to the dealership and have proof of ownership papers before you can purchase a key. (If one has to be ordered, the wait may be several days.) Then the dealer will need to electronically pair the new computer chip with your vehicle. Besides towing charges, the replacement key will cost $200–$250.
Also known as “keyless ignition,” a smart key is associated with vehicles that have a start button on the dash. Smart-key technology operates via a proximity sensor in the vehicle that automatically knows when the smart key (which is not a key at all, but a paired sensor) is nearby. It then unlocks the vehicle and allows it to be started with the push of a button.
If you lose it: Like the transponder key, you’ll need to tow your car to the dealership if you don’t have a backup key, then order a key (if the dealer doesn’t have one in stock) and have it paired to your vehicle. The costliest of the keys, these can run upward of $320 to replace, with a possible towing charge on top of that.
Read more: What To Do If Your Car Won’t Start
By Ellise Pierce