How Do Locksmiths Program Car Keys?

15 September 2023by

When you lose your car key, the days of having a mechanical key cut for $5 at the neighbourhood locksmith are long gone. Instead, cutting and programming keys has evolved into a high-tech industry. To establish a handshake between the key and the automobile and enable the engine to start, car keys are equipped with transponder chips that must be programmed to match a voltage signal set by the manufacturer into the electronic control unit. Some locksmiths are equipped to program chips in devices.

You can buy some fobs and program them yourself. Here is a detailed manual on how to program key fobs for automobiles.

Car owners frequently have to spend money having new keys made and programmed by a locksmith if their car keys are lost. There are three situations locksmiths frequently deal with Car keys locked inside the vehicle; lost primary key but the spare key still present; and all keys lost and vehicle locked. Let’s examine the procedure licensed locksmiths must follow to locate the key-cutting code so that a new key can be cut and programmed.

The Evolution of Car Keys

How Do Locksmiths Program Car Keys

The conflict between automakers and thieves is as old as the auto business. Cars have evolved into status symbols ingrained in contemporary life’s fabric. The time when a car thief could quickly start a stolen vehicle is long gone. Modern vehicles no longer utilize physical keys but instead use key fobs with transponder chips that are programmed to be recognized by the vehicle’s ignition system.

The original automobiles included an on/off switch and a starter crank handle used to crank the engine. If you lost your crank handle, you were more likely to need a blacksmith than a locksmith. The mechanical ignition key that matched the car’s doors, boot, and ignition arrived next. These keys were a significant advancement over the mechanical crank handle, but a locksmith had to duplicate a blank key if lost.

Mechanical keys were the standard until the 1990s when car owners and insurance companies demanded that the automakers boost the ante and make car theft more difficult since car thieves were making incredible sums of money.

Cars had advanced past mechanical timing systems and carburetor-fed engines by the 1990s. The electronic control unit (ECU) had evolved into the primary computer that oversaw all of the automobile’s electronic operations, including fuel injection, ignition timing, fault detection, and vehicle security.

The key’s inductive transponder had to be programmed with the same code as the ECU’s unique identification code for the key and the ECU to recognize each other before the engine ignition circuit could be turned on. Only registered and certified locksmiths can access the tightly restricted programming hardware and software. The locksmiths receive blank keys from the manufacturer’s appointed auto dealers, who purchase them from the components division.

The key-cutting tool looks like a CNC mechanical or laser-cutting tool. The locksmith can obtain the precise key-cutting code needed to turn a blank key into a duplicate of the original car key using the vehicle identification number (VIN).

The freshly cut key will open the doors and even turn the ignition, but it will only be able to start the vehicle once the transponder chip in the new key has been programmed with the recognition voltage needed by the ECU.

The automakers have agreed on programming protocols that allow the locksmith to cut and program car keys for most automobile manufacturers while also making programming equipment somewhat ubiquitous.

Mobile locksmiths must visit the vehicle to pick the locks, make new keys, and program them locally. You should budget $350 for the visit for each new key.

Types Of Keys Needed For The Modern Car

In the last ten years, automobile keys for contemporary vehicles have fallen into one of the following four categories:

  • A plastic housing-encased key with a transponder.
  • Transponder key with buttons for trunk opening and remote lock/unlocking that is housed in plastic and driven on a small battery.
  • A key fob conceals a mechanical master key inside a plastic casing that houses a programmable transponder chip. The remote controls for the boot, fuel flap release, and door locks are also located on the key fob.
  • Proximity fobs only include the transponder chip needed to recognize the ECU and enable the push-button starting of the vehicle.

Two sets of keys with transponders and other features embedded into the key fob are included with purchasing new vehicles.

It is strongly advised that you retain one spare set in a secure area or even get a second spare set of keys produced by a locksmith.

How to Do Locksmiths Program New Car Keys or Fobs? 

Some automakers may only let you get a replacement key from their dealer network if you provide ownership documentation and the vehicle identifying number (VIN).

Such dealer-supplied keys will either arrive programmed or require a self-programming procedure specified in the vehicle’s owner’s manual. Be prepared to pay more for these keys because the manufacturer and the auto dealer want to profit from your misfortune. The average price is $600, excluding shipping and handling.

A trained locksmith can cut and program a replacement key for about $350 per call out if you’re fortunate enough to own a Japanese, Korean, or US-made vehicle. Because the US and Asian automakers have disclosed their key programming protocols, locksmiths may now purchase specialized key-cutting and programming equipment.

The necessity for expensive towing to get the car to a locksmith’s business is eliminated by using mobile service vans by certified locksmiths that provide this service. The locksmith specialists can help with practically all automobile makes and models because they have received the necessary training and certification from industry training organizations to cut keys and program transponder chips.

Locksmiths must purchase the numerous software applications and tools required for this job. Since no single program covers all makes and models, professional locksmiths cannot afford the expenditure necessary to acquire it. As some automobile brands only let a certain number of keys be programmed to the car’s ECU, the locksmith can add new keys and remove old ones using the software to program the key. The locksmith will remove the ECU programming for lost or stolen keys.

Locksmiths can buy the tokens required to activate each programming event. By ensuring that tokens are only sold to authorized and licensed locksmiths, the software developers can reduce the possibility of car thieves gaining access to the hardware and software.

Therefore, the locksmith must spend money on hiring professionals, investing in mobile workshops and machinery, and buying tokens for each programming event. A callout to come and cut and reprogram a fresh set of keys must account for all these expenses.

Without factoring in the distance travelled, the cost of getting the cutting code, and any other fees needed to finish the process, changing a car key ranges from $25 to $100 per key. Be prepared to pay roughly $350 for each event.

German automakers don’t divulge their procedures. Owning a Mercedes, BMW, VW, or Porsche will teach you to value and protect your car keys because changing them requires a dealer and will cost you a lot of money.


How are car keys programmed?

To establish a handshake between the key and the automobile and enable the engine to start, car keys are equipped with transponder chips that must be programmed to match a voltage signal set by the manufacturer into the electronic control unit. Some locksmiths are equipped to program chips in devices.

How do you program a car key without the original? 

Without the original, you cannot program a transponder key. As you can imagine, many autos aren’t safe. However, any key without the proper programming can open the doors to your car.

Can you program a key fob without a programmer?

Your car may only be compatible with one or two key fob programming methods. They consist of Self-programming – You can program the key fob on some cars, especially older models, without any specialist tools or a trip to the dealer.

How long does it take to reprogram car keys?

According to most of the dealers we spoke with, key-fob programming usually only requires 15 to 30 minutes, and the entire process, including creating the mechanical replacement key, usually lasts up to an hour. Even if they handle everything for you, going to the dealer doesn’t have to be expensive.



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