How to Replace Your Car's Key Fob
Getting another high-tech key fob can be a pricey proposition
The days of replacing a car key by having an inexpensive blank copied and cut at a hardware store are pretty much over. Most new cars today come either with a push-button start system or keyless entry—or both. These modern key fobs add conveniences, but replacing them if they get lost or broken can be expensive.
To better understand the steps needed to replace a key fob—and the costs—we set out to buy and program several of them. Along the way we learned several valuable lessons that can help you save money and time.
First off, before paying for a new key fob, check your car’s basic warranty, insurance, or roadside assistance coverage to see if they cover lost or damaged keys. Also, some extended warranties and new-car dealers offer key-fob insurance.
Types of Car Keys
The majority of new cars have one of the following four types of keys and remotes:
- A basic key with a security chip that starts the car and locks and unlocks the doors through the key cylinder on the door.
- An ignition key plus a remote to lock and unlock the doors.
- A key fob with remote locking/unlocking and push-button start.
- A key fob with push-button start and keyless entry that owners can leave in their purse or pocket for virtually all functions.
“The cost to replace the latest key fobs can run anywhere from $50 to as high as $400 depending on the brand,” says Consumer Reports automotive analyst Mel Yu.
And that’s just for the fob. Add another $50 to $100 to get replacement fobs programmed to work with your car and to have a new mechanical backup key made. The key fobs for European cars and SUVs are typically the most expensive, thanks to their sophisticated rolling-code encryption to prevent theft.
When to Go to a Dealer for a Replacement
“If you have a car that was built within the last five years, a new-car dealer will usually be your best bet when you need a replacement key fob, due to the expensive programming equipment that is required,” says John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic.
Although it might be tempting to search for a cheaper key fob online, we learned from Audi and Subaru dealers that some won't work with aftermarket key fobs.
“If you want a new key fob for your Audi, it has to come from us,” said a service adviser at Hoffman Audi of East Hartford, Conn. There's a built-in security chip in the fob that cannot be reprogrammed for another Audi. The need for this chip is also why you can't buy a new aftermarket Audi key fob online. “The fob has become a critical part of the security of the car,” he said. The average price for an Audi key fob replacement, including programming, is $500, we were told.
This isn’t just the case for Audi, but European cars in general. They almost always force the customer to go to a dealer because the digital key encryption is only programmable by the manufacturer in a few select outlets in North America, says CR’s Yu.
Other retailers we called, including a Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge dealership and a Lexus dealership, said they don’t mind trying to program aftermarket fobs if that’s what the customer wants them to do, as long as the customer understands the risks involved.
“We shy away from working with aftermarket key fobs,” a service adviser at a Lexus dealer told us. “We can’t warranty parts or labor, and if we try to program it and it doesn’t work, we still have to charge them for our labor.”
Luckily, even if you have to go to a dealer, it’s not a lengthy process. Most dealers we contacted said key-fob programming typically takes just 15-30 minutes, and the whole process, including cutting the mechanical spare key, rarely takes longer than an hour.
Going to the dealer doesn’t have to break the bank either, even if they handle everything for you. This proved true even with European brands. A local Volkswagen dealer we spoke with told us a new fob with a laser-cut key and programming for CR’s 2015 VW Jetta would cost about $225.
Some brands, such as Chevrolet, make it possible for customers to save money on programming. For example, not only are General Motors key fobs on the less expensive side (we were quoted $147.98 for a 2019 Chevrolet Malibu with keyless entry, push-button start, and remote start), but a Chevrolet spokesman told us that the key-fob programming does not have to be done at the dealership.
“The programming procedure is described in the vehicle owner’s manual, but the vehicle does need to be present,” he said.
Be aware that regardless of the brand, most customer-programmable key fobs require two current, operational keys in order to program a third new key without going to the dealer, Yu says.
Lower-Cost Key Fob Options
“If you have a car that’s 10 years or older, it's more likely you will be able to use an aftermarket key fob,” says CR’s Ibbotson. “Many of these less advanced fobs can be programmed by a local mechanic, an automotive locksmith, or the customer.”
We found that retailers including Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and KeylessOption.com offer numerous low-cost remotes. (We shopped online because these fobs may not always be available in the store).
Ibbotson says to be sure to call your local garage first, though, to make sure they can handle the job, since the level of key-fob programming equipment can vary from shop to shop. For example, Murray’s Auto Clinics, a repair shop in Maryland, told CR that they don’t have the capability to program key fobs for any car with push-button start or keyless entry.
Call in the Locksmith
Getting a locksmith's help is another potentially money- and time-saving option. Many locksmiths are mobile, meaning they can drive to your house or workplace, or wherever the car sits waiting for a new key.
Jonathan Genesky, owner of Genco Automotive Keys and Remotes based in Oakdale, Conn., says he offers two big advantages over new-car dealers: “I can usually come in at 30-50 percent less than the dealer, price-wise, and since I’m mobile I go to the customer, so they don’t have to worry about towing,” says Genesky. He’s also available 24 hours a day.
Genesky said that if the dealer quotes a price of $350 just for the key fob, he can typically do the whole job, including key-cutting and programming, for $200-$250. While Genesky says he has the programming equipment for many newer makes and models, he has to turn away customers with newer European cars because he hasn’t invested in the expensive gear needed for those models.
We called Genesky out to CR’s Auto Test Center to have a spare key fob made for our 2009 Honda Pilot. Using an aftermarket fob he bought from a supplier and had overnighted to his shop, he cut and programmed a new key for our Pilot in about 15 minutes at a total cost of $125. Not only did we save $73 over what a local Honda dealer quoted us for the same process, but we didn’t have to drive anywhere to get the work done.
Sometimes a key fob still functions, but the shell has been damaged or the buttons have been worn down from use. You can take the internal circuitry from the old fob and move it into a new shell.
We ordered a shell case for CR’s 2017 Chevrolet Cruze for $19.95 from remotesremotes.com. It has all the same buttons our original fob does, including the remote-start function.
Swapping the internal circuitry required nothing more than a thin-blade screwdriver to pry open the plastic case, moving the internals and battery from one shell to the other, and snapping it all back together, with no programming needed. It took us about two minutes to complete, and the new fob worked perfectly.
Key Fob Replacement Tips
We got this advice from CR's testers and other experts:
- Make sure you always have two keys or fobs. If you ever find yourself down to one key, order a second one as soon as possible.
- Check your car's warranty, car-insurance policy, auto club membership, or extended warranty coverage to see if it'll pay for a replacement key fob or will provide partial reimbursement.
- Most new-car bumper-to-bumper warranties cover key-fob-related malfunctions.
- New-car dealers usually charge a set amount for key-fob programming, so you can save money by having multiple key fobs programmed at the same time.
- Be sure to read the fine print on whether you will be able to program your car’s fob yourself before you buy an aftermarket version online—there's going to be an extra expense if it requires programming by a locksmith or a dealer.
- Always call your local mechanic or locksmith before going straight to the new-car dealer, especially if your car is more than five years old. You might be able to save some serious money.