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Tips and advice

What to do if your keys are locked in the car

We explain what to do if your keys are stuck in your car or ignition, or if children or pets are trapped inside

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Many of us have experienced that feeling: the sinking sensation, moments after you realise that you have locked your If you are locked out of a car and need to find a quick resolution there are a number of things you can do. However, unlocking a car without the keys isn’t a task that you should rush into without considering all the options first. Unless there’s an easy solution like accessing a spare key or having the car unlocked remotely, most modern cars will require expert assistance to get into.

The most important thing to remember is to remain calm. While your natural instinct may be to panic - especially if your child or pet is trapped in the car - keeping a level head will help you make rational decisions and get things sorted much quicker. Remember that you’re not alone – the AA recovery service alone receives around seven callouts to locked cars every day. It’s even happened to Carbuyer staff; nobody is immune.

Access to a spare key

If you have a spare key for your car, and you don’t need to immediately get in the vehicle, then this is usually your best bet. Either finding transport to retrieve it or asking someone to bring it to you, is almost certainly going to be the cheapest and easiest way to gain access to your vehicle. This solution can be time-consuming, but it’s often worth it when you consider that you won’t need to tamper with your vehicle or call in a costly third party.

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It’s worth noting that sometimes spare keys may have a dead battery if left for long periods, while others have a key blade (sometimes hidden inside the fob) that you use to insert into a lock and turn manually. 

Most manufacturers try to conceal the lock barrel on the doors and boot of newer vehicles behind a cover to give a neater exterior look. To get to the lock barrel behind you simply need to pop off the plastic cover. There is usually a small gap at the bottom of the cap hidden from view.

Download your car’s companion app

Several car brands allow you to download an app for your smartphone which can take the place of your physical key. Examples of this include BMW's ‘Remote Services’, Vauxhall’s ‘Connected Services’ and the ‘Mercedes me’ app. This is a great feature if you frequently find yourself losing things but your smartphone seldom leaves your side. If your car has the capability, it’s always worth downloading the associated phone app in advance; this can be done via your phone’s app store. These ‘companion’ apps will give you access to information like where the car is located and how much fuel or charge it has. Most important, though, is the ability to lock or unlock the car from your smartphone.

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If you share the car with a partner or friend and you don’t have the app yourself, it may be that the person you share the car with can open it for you using their smartphone, no matter where they are in the world – so long as they have access to a data connection.

Call out a recovery service

If you’re reading this and you’re currently locked out of your car, and you have no access to the spare key, then you can try calling out a recovery service. You’ll have to wait for them to arrive, but they receive calls like this every day so will be more than capable of helping you.

If you’re already a member of a provider like the AA or RAC, they will be your first port of call. If the car is nearly new, it may also have come with complimentary roadside assistance, with information usually inside the handbook pouch. Of course, if this is locked inside the car with your keys, the relevant numbers and details can usually be found online. While speaking to the recovery service, it is important to check if the cost of retrieving the keys is covered by your policy or if it will incur an extra charge.

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The RAC states that its roadside mechanics will attempt to unlock the car, but if they can’t for any reason, they will arrange for a locksmith to attend, for which you will be responsible for any costs. If a locksmith isn’t available, the car is taken to a nearby garage, where you’ll also be responsible for the cost of work. The RAC also offers a ‘Key Replace’ product that covers you for the cost of replacing keys and locks up to the value of £1,500.

As well as offering roadside assistance to its members, the AA also offers AA Key Assist, a service that will replace lost or stolen car keys at your work, home or in a car park, as an extra. At the time of writing, AA Gold members get this service for free; however, make sure to double-check your plan’s included benefits to avoid incurring an extra cost.

You should also call out roadside recovery if your keys become stuck in the ignition while you are away from home. If this happens on your driveway, it may be worth contacting the dealership or your local garage first to see if they can recover the car directly to their workshop for repairs. You could also call a recovery service but be sure that ‘home start’ is included on your policy as if not, you may be charged a fee.

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If you decide to call a locksmith, the Master Locksmiths Association website provides a list of qualified and vetted locksmiths in your area. According to their website, a callout can cost from £75, although this can vary wildly depending on the date, time and how remote your location is.

Should you ever call the emergency services when you are locked out of your car?

Being locked out of a vehicle isn’t usually something the emergency services would deal with. However, if the vehicle is in an unsafe place to other road users, or there are children, vulnerable people, or pets inside and you fear for their safety then you can call emergency services for assistance.

A car parked in the sun can become dangerously hot within an hour, reaching temperatures of more than 40 degrees celsius, while black interior trim in direct sunlight can become hot enough to fry an egg. If you fear the car is heating up, try and cover the windows with blankets, foil or whatever’s to hand to help keep the sun off the interior and any trapped occupants while waiting for help to arrive.

If roadside recovery experts or a locksmith cannot access the vehicle quickly enough and the safety of a trapped child, occupant, or pet becomes an issue, the police may have to use force (like smashing a window) to gain access.

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It may also be necessary for emergency services to intervene if a locked car is blocking traffic or emergency access, or if it is stranded in a hazardous spot like a beach or tidal slipway.

Should I try to get the keys out of a car myself?

Unless you are trained in working with locks, then it’s unwise to attempt to gain access yourself, as you may cause costly damage, and make it more complicated for professionals to deal with.

In a time-critical emergency situation, it is best to find professional help, and although you may have seen movies where car windows are broken easily, this is rarely true in real life. Car windows, door locks, and doors have been designed to resist attempted forced entry and tampering to keep your vehicle safe. If you choose to pry at the windows or doors you may find yourself damaging your vehicle without getting any closer to gaining entry. You may also set off the car alarm by forcefully attempting to enter the vehicle, adding further stress to the situation.

Another thing to be wary of is accepting a stranger’s help, as they could damage your car and you’ll be left with the bill.

Is your 3D number plate legal? Check out our guide to 3D and 4D numberplates

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