How to Diagnose an Ignition Key That Won’t Turn

One of the most concerning issues that any driver can face at one point or another in their driving career is when the key is put into the ignition, but it refuses to turn.

The first instinct is to try to turn it harder, then to take it out and try again. Normally, a person will begin to think of all the different possibilities of what could be causing this obstruction of the turning of the key.

Frustration can set in very quickly because unlike some other car issues that may arise, seemingly out of nowhere, this is an issue that if not fixed, the car is not going to go anywhere. It will be impossible to even drive the car to a shop or mechanic in order to have them take a look at it. This can then cause the driver to panic as they begin to feel helpless and that their entire day and possibly week will now need to revolve around getting someone to come and take a look at the car to diagnose the problem.

Why Is My Ignition Key Not Turning?

However, there is good news for all people experiencing this frustrating yet quite common issue. The good news is that the problem of not being able to turn a key when it is inside the ignition can generally be easily solved by checking three main things.

The three factors that should immediately be checked when trying to resolve a key turning issue are general problems with components related to the ignition, an ignition lock cylinder problem, and finally, the issue can simply be the key itself. 

Caution: It is very important to remember that when checking these steps and when performing any sort of maintenance on a car that the parking brake is up and the car is in a safe and stable position.

Component Issues that Can Cause an Ignition Key to Not Turn

The first problems that can be the cause of the key not turning when inserted into the ignition are related component problems. There are three main components that are related to the ignition system which should be checked first when these issues arise, as they are the most common and the most likely to be behind the problem.

The good news is these components are the quickest to identify as problems and they are the easiest and fastest to remedy. The three components are as follows:

1 – The Steering Wheel

A built-in mechanism in cars and other vehicles prevents the steering wheel from moving once the key is removed. This same locking mechanism located inside the ignition system can sometimes cause the vehicle key to get stuck and not be able to turn when necessary.

The solution to this is generally a very simple fix. The driver should begin by grabbing the wheel firmly and moving it back and forth. They should create a jiggle-type motion with their hands so that the steering wheel is moving backward and forwards repeatedly.

Then, the driver should insert the key while the steering wheel is still being jiggled. The driver should then turn the key slowly while the wheel is still jiggling to try to unlock the pressure that is blocking the turning from happening.

When the pressure is relieved, the key should turn easily as it normally would.

2 – The Gear Selector

In automatic cars, sometimes the car must be in a specific gear in order to start the car. This is done for safety reasons and is implemented in most modern cars. The gears that the car needs to be in will normally be park or neutral.

If it’s seen that the vehicle is already in park, it is a good idea for the driver to then firmly grab the shifter and then jiggle it slightly back and forth to ensure that it is firmly locked into the gear. Sometimes the gear shifter will only be mostly in place, but still be a little out of place. The shifter needs to be totally locked into place for the key to turn.

After this is checked and the shifter has been jiggled into place, the key should be inserted once again and turned to see if this has fixed the key ignition turning issue.

As a reminder, this will only apply to cars that have automatic transmission system installed in them. Manual transmission cars do not have this safety locking mechanism for gears in place.

3 – The Battery

The third issue to check is the battery. This is an issue that some people will dread because there is no immediate and quick fix for this like some of the others. If the battery is dead and the car is quite new or high-end, then the key will usually refuse to turn at all. Higher-end and new cars have a very complex electronic ignition system, and this is one of the features of this system. The battery life will need to be checked to verify this. A jumper cable connected to another running engine can also help to verify this if you are stuck in a tight spot and you cannot check the battery life.

Issues with the Ignition Key That Can Cause Problems

When the first set of culprits have been eliminated as the issue, and when you are sure the issue is not the related components of the car, and then the next thing to check is the key itself. There are a few issues that are common with keys that may help explain what the problem is and these issues should be checked one by one.

1 – The Key Is Bent

Many times a car ignition will not turn if the key is bent. The bend in the key will make the ignition think that it is the wrong key and as a safety mechanism, refuse to start at all.

The tricky part is that many times a bent key will still fit snugly into the transmission and give the impression that the key still fits. In these scenarios, the key should be removed from the ignition and examined thoroughly.

If it is evident that there is a bend in the key, the key should then be hammered down flat and tried again inside the ignition.

Be very careful not to damage the key while trying to straighten it out. Use a tool or hammer with a rubber end in order to prevent denting and other damage.

2 – The Key is Old

This sounds strange, but a key being old is actually a common issue. Factory keys can go through a lot, and in time, they become worn out and out of shape. This prevents the key from locking into the pins inside the ignition the way they are meant to.

In order to verify this as the issue, a spare key should immediately be tried. If there is no spare key available, a new key will need to be made. This can be accomplished by copying down the VIN number and taking it to the dealership.

3 – Wrong Key

As silly as it sounds, many times people will pick up the wrong key. Many keys look the same, and sometimes the issue can be as simple as mistaking the wrong key for the right key. Always check twice to make sure that the key that is being used is the correct key for the car.

Issues with the Ignition Lock Cylinder

The key cylinder itself can have two common issues that can cause a key to stop turning when inserted into the ignition.

1 – Something Is Blocking It

Sometimes debris and other objects can get inside the key cylinder. When this happens, it needs to be cleaned out. In order to verify this as an issue, a flashlight can be used to look inside the key cylinder and see if there is anything to be removed.

When the cylinder is completely blocked up, sometimes metal can be found inside. A quick spray with an electric blower or a can of compressed air will generally do the trick.

2 – The Springs Are Stuck

Sometimes the springs and the pins inside the key cylinder can become locked or stuck in place. These pins and springs have to be set in exactly the right way to ensure that only a specific key will work on a car.

If the pins inside the key cylinder are stuck, they can be knocked back into place with a tack hammer by gently tapping on the ignition repeatedly. The goal is to loosen the pins, so strong force is not necessary and should be avoided.

After the pins and springs are loosened, the key should turn properly.

Fixing Your Ignition Key Not Turning

These are the most common issues that will cause a key to not turn once inside the ignition. For most people, checking and fixing these issues will fix the problem completely. When these problems fail to provide the expected result, a professional mechanic should be brought in to analyze the issue.