What Should You Do if You Lock Your Keys in Your Car?

volkswagen-id4-1st-edition-2021-28-battery-level--center-stack-display--front-row--interior--key-fob--touchscreen.jpg 2021 Volkswagen ID.4 | photo by Joe Bruzek

We’ve all done it. Often, you realize it just after you shut the car door. Or sometimes it’s with the “thunk” of power locks as your pup steps on the button to stare out at you. Worse, you don’t realize it until you reach for your keys to go home: You’re locked out of your car. What do you do now?

Related: Is Your Check-Engine Light On? 5 of the Most Common Causes

The good news is that getting locked out is becoming a thing of the past, just like cars with physical keys. Smart proximity key fobs (or a key card in some cases, as with Tesla) will, in most situations, not let you lock the “key” in the car. And many brands now have apps that let your phone be the fob. They won’t, however, save you from running out of battery or losing the fob on your way back to the locked car.

Plan Ahead

The best plan for dealing with a lockout is the one you make before it happens. As we note below, many solutions are available, but only if you plan ahead. Whether it’s signing up for an automaker app account, subscribing to a roadside service, or leaving a spare key or fob with family or friends, you have options.

Also, know your vehicle. Many Ford vehicles, for example, have an optional door keypad for entry. For older, non-connected vehicles with physical keys, hiding a spare key in a magnetic or attached lockbox somewhere on the vehicle is an old-school option (just be creative with the location).

If you do find yourself outside looking in, here are some things you can do.

The Key on Your Phone

Manufacturers’ phone apps increasingly include both remote locking and start functions for capable vehicles, though with some makers, the app requires a paid subscription. Also, you must set up or pair the phone with the car in advance to use it as a key.

Procedures differ by maker. Tesla, for example, requires you to use your Tesla key card to set up or “authenticate” your phone to be used as a key. If you don’t have your phone but have shared your account and credentials with a friend or family member, some phone apps (Tesla is one) will let them — from wherever they are — unlock the car and even enable starting it so you can drive home.

No app? What you should do next depends on the urgency of your situation.

If It’s an Emergency

If you have no other immediate options and are in a truly dicey situation on a roadside or in a lonely parking lot or, worse, there’s a child or pet in the vehicle, call 911 if you can. Police will respond faster than any other help. Depending on the urgency and your vehicle, they might be able to open the car with a slim jim (a steel bar, not the meat snack), call a locksmith if needed or just break a window. No phone? Break the window yourself. It’s quick and it’s cheap safety. Pick the smallest side window and hit it in a corner with whatever hard thing you can grab.

If You Can Wait

For an older vehicle with a key or if an app is not an option, a first choice might be to call a friend or family member with whom you’ve left a spare key.

If that’s not an option, you can use your phone or get to a phone to call AAA, automaker roadside assistance or a third-party roadside assistance you have. The wait time will vary, but these offer lockout services that will come to you. Generally, they will let you wait in a safe or comfortable location until the tech is about to arrive. You also can call a local locksmith directly — in many urban areas, you can get 24-hour response, though it will cost you. And many towing companies offer lockout service, too.

Some automakers also can help with a remote lockout service you can call — something you should check on in advance and which might require a subscription. Among them are GM’s longstanding OnStar service for many of its vehicles, Mercedes-Benz’s Mbrace service, Hyundai Blue Link and Tesla customer service (you’ll need the car’s vehicle identification number and your owner account details).

DIY (If You Have All the Time in the World)

The internet is full of advice and videos for breaking into your car (or someone else’s). If self-reliance is your thing and you have the time to gather the needed tools, pick a method and go for it. They are too numerous to catalog here and range from using long shoelaces (mostly for older button locks) to a screwdriver and coat hanger to a technique using a specialized inflatable locksmith’s wedge (or a blood pressure cuff, according to some) to pry the door ajar and insert a wire or plastic rod to grab the door handle or press the lock button. While these might even be fun, the potential for frustration as well as for amateur damage to the door or weatherstripping is high, so proceed carefully — or maybe just leave it up to the experts!

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Photo of Fred Meier
Former D.C. Bureau Chief Fred Meier, who lives every day with Washington gridlock, has an un-American love of small wagons and hatchbacks. Email Fred Meier

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