Of all the things that could go wrong with your car few things can be more infuriating than realizing you can't get your key to turn in the ignition anymore. At least when the car is running if there's a problem you can maybe narrow down the origin of it to help diagnose the issue. When your key won't even turn in the ignition then you have no choice but to get your car towed to a mechanic for the most part because what else can you do? Of course, there are potentially some ways you can get your vehicle to work again but it does depend on why your key’s not turning in the first place.
Take a look at some of the most common reasons why your key won't turn in the ignition and some potential solutions to get you back on the road.
Common Causes Why Your Key Won't Turn in the Ignition
Steering Wheel Problems: Depending on the kind of car you have, the steering wheel will probably lock when you have removed the key from the ignition. The same lock that causes this to happen can also slip very slightly and get stuck. When that happens, you may end up getting the key and the steering wheel locked together and neither one will be able to turn. If this happens, try moving the steering wheel as best you can, it should have a tiny bit of give so you can shake it back and forth. Keep doing this to see if anything comes free and you may be able to get the key out of the ignition once again.
Blocked Key Cylinder: It's possible that the reason your key isn't turning in the ignition is because there's something else blocking the way inside the key cylinder. This could be part of the cylinder itself that is broken off, even tiny metal shavings, or a foreign object. It seems impossible that anything could get stuck in such a hard to reach place, but it does happen from time to time so if possible, you should try to take a look in the ignition cylinder if your key isn't going all the way in and turning. You may need a flashlight and a small tool to help get a good view if possible.
If you suspect there is something stuck inside the cylinder then the best method for trying to clean it out is to give it a squirt of compressed air. Just to be on the safe side, make sure you're wearing goggles when you're doing this. If it's small metal shavings that are clogging the key cylinder, for instance, compressed air can cause them to shoot out at a high rate of speed.
Bad Battery: If the battery in your vehicle has lost its charge then you likely will not be able to turn the key in the ignition any longer. This is because the ignition system in many vehicles is an electronic one and it's not able to function at all without battery power. If you're finding that nothing is working and your key either won't go in or is stuck in the ignition, pop the hood and test the charge in your battery to see if there's anything there. The charge in your battery should be coming up at about 12.6 V. If you have dropped below 12 volts, then your battery is essentially dead.
Bad Key: If your key has been bent then there's a good chance that even if you can get it into the ignition it's not going to do anything for you once you do. You have a little latitude getting a bent key into the ignition cylinder but it won't be able to correctly line up to engage the lock once it's in there.
Even if the key is not bent it's possible that it could still be worn out. This isn't a concern with newer vehicles, but older cars that have been driven for many years can suffer from the edges on the key wearing down over many hundreds if not thousands of uses in and out of the ignition and door keyhole. When those bumps and grooves wear down the pins that are in the cylinder won't be able to line up with them properly. That will be preventing you from actually being able to start the vehicle even though the key is the correct key.
Of course, there's always the possibility that the key that you're using is not even the right key. This is an embarrassing problem and not particularly common but it's also not unheard of either. Especially in homes that have more than one car, and if each of those cars has a spare key then it's entirely possible you picked up the wrong key by accident and tried to use that. No doubt you've noticed that some keys will it fit into the cylinder when you try to put them in, but they won't be able to turn once they're in there. And unfortunately, sometimes they get stuck as a result.
Stuck Ignition Springs: Inside the key cylinder when you insert your key are pins and springs that adjust to the shape of the key you're inserting. If it's the right key everything will line up correctly, you'll be able to turn the key and start the vehicle. However, if the pins and springs get jammed up somehow, they won't adjust to the shape of the key and you won't be able to turn the key to get your vehicle started. Getting this problem fixed is a tricky one. To start with it's hard to diagnose as the exact problem since you can't see for sure if the pins and springs are engaging properly or not. It's possible that if you very gently tap on the key cylinder with a small tack hammer or mallet you may loosen these things up. You never want to do that too hard though because you could end up causing even more damage to the cylinder overall. And if it's not the problem you're experiencing anyway, you won't be helping too much by doing this. It's certainly worth a try, but remember you need to be gentle anytime you're doing this.
Slipped Gear: Depending on the kind of car you drive, you may not be able to turn the key in the ignition if your car is not in the correct gear. Typically, a car has to be either in park or at least in neutral to get the key to turn in the ignition. If your car is apparently in gear already you can try changing the shifter or giving it a gentle shake to make sure that you have fully engaged the correct gear.
How Do You Fix a Locked Ignition?
We covered a couple of ways that you can potentially get your key turn in the ignition again depending on the nature of the problem. Things like moving your shift gear to try to adjust the key as well as turning your steering wheel to try to get it unlocked so that your key is able to move freely again. Those aside, there are a couple of other things you may want to try as well that won't require you heading to a mechanic just yet.
Give the Key a Tap: Sometimes called rapping the key, if your key is really jammed in the lock you may want to give it a bump to shake things free. This is similar to giving the ignition a light tap to loosen up any springs, the difference here is that your key is stuck in the ignition at the time that you do it. Just remember that being gentle is the way to go with doing this. You don't want to cause any damage and you definitely don't want to hit your key in the ignition so hard that it makes the situation worse. Just a little light tap to create some vibration to shake something free is what you want to try and then continue to try to turn and remove your key with gentle tapping along the way.
Fix Your Key: We mentioned that you may have a bent key so you can potentially straighten this out again with a rubber mallet and a block of wood. Just place the bent key on the wood and gently tap it back into shape with a mallet again. Make sure you're not using a metal hammer for this because you could gouge the metal of the key and actually make it even harder to fit in the ignition afterwards.
Replace Your Key: If the key is bad enough then the solution is to simply get a new key cut that will get the job done for you. Depending on the kind of car you drive you may have a code that you can provide to the dealership, or you may need to have your VIN number and some other proof that the vehicle is yours to get a duplicate key cut that's going to get the job done for you.
Lubricate the Lock: Sometimes your ignition will not work properly just because it's seized up a little bit and requires some lubrication. A quick squirt of a penetrating oil of some kind could get the job done for you. Just make sure that you're using the right kind of lubrication and not something that's going to cause bigger problems down the road. You may be tempted to use WD-40 but let's explore what happens if you try to use that as an option.
Is it Safe to Spray WD-40 in Your Ignition?
For the home handyman a product like WD-40 seems like a miracle. If you Google it, you can find websites that will list dozens if not hundreds of potential uses for the product. WD-40 was originally invented as a water displacement tool as opposed to an actual lubricant. That's what the WD in the name stands for, water displacement. It was originally created not as a lubricating substance but to spray on the outside of Atlas missiles to protect them from rust and corrosion. It was only later, after it became commercially available that people realised the remarkable lubrication potential it had, and it became ubiquitous around the world for stopping squeaky hinges and getting bike chains working properly again. All that said, you have to remember what the product is actually used for, and what you shouldn't be using it for.
The problem with using WD-40 in your ignition if it seems like it's stuck is that WD-40 will leave a build up over time. It's going to get gummy inside the ignition mechanism if you use this too much which will attract dust and other contaminants to create a sticky clog that can make the situation even worse than when you needed it to lubricate the ignition in the first place.
WD-40 has a solvent effect that you do need to worry about, and its lubricating effects don't last in the long-term. It's better to get a quality penetrating lubricant that's designed for this purpose rather than to use WD-40 if you need it for something like this. If you’re in a pinch then using it once probably won't hurt, it's best to spray the key rather than the ignition itself if that will get the job done. But you shouldn't make this a permanent solution to any kind of for all that you may be having with your ignition.
The Bottom Line
No one wants to have to deal with a key that gets stuck in the ignition mechanism and refuses to turn, leaving you with no practical way to start your vehicle again. As we've seen, there are several different things that could be going on that are preventing you from turning your key in the ignition so you may need to try a little bit of trial-and-error methods to figure out what's going on and what you might need to do to fix it. Just remember if you're trying to loosen up anything to be gentle, choose the right lubricant if that's the course that you want to take, and if all else fails then you can take your vehicle into a mechanic and get the entire ignition switch swapped out if need be.