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The Real Cost of Keys

Updated on May 19, 2015

There are essentially five types of car keys. What kind do you have? A basic car key? A transponder key? A laser cut key? A switchblade key? Or the advanced smart key? Do you know the cost of a replacement key? The latter four are in use today and vary from $100 - $400. Since car keys have become more advanced, the cost to replace them has gone up in turn. All in the name of safety and anti-theft.

The basic key is what all cars before the mid-90’s used. These keys are similar to a house key, but with a plastic head on the base of the key. This type of key could be replaced for cheap, virtually anywhere a key could be made. Since the basic key was so easily copied, it became a serious problem for car owners. With advancing technology came the transponder key.

What sets the transponder key apart from the basic key is the transponder chip placed in the plastic head of the key. Older keys were made with basic keys, while newer keys are laser cut. The transponder chip is programmed solely to the vehicle and is required to start the engine. Without it, the car simply will not start. Also, most transponder keys come with a fob, which locks and unlocks the vehicle electronically. The transponder key/fob is a bit trickier to replace, which is good news and bad. The average locksmith will not have the equipment to program the transponder chip. Your options are to go to the dealership or find a locksmith that is a member of the Associated Locksmiths of America. The average replacement cost is around $100 for the key and around $75 for the fob. You may save money by using a locksmith, but not a lot.

Laser cut keys are the standard key for newer vehicles. The way to tell if the key is laser cut is by the cut design and the thickness of the shank. Laser cut keys have a distinctive winding cut along the shank and they are slightly thicker than a basic cut key. As with the transponder key, laser cut keys also have a built-in transponder chip and come with a fob. Unfortunately, laser cut keys are more expensive, costing around $150-250 to replace. It is recommended to visit the dealership to get a replacement key.

A newer trend for keys is to use the switchblade style. They are an all-in-one package. The key and fob are combined and not separate. The key folds into the fob when not being used, making the package smaller and sleeker, a more convenient shape to carry compared the cumbersome length of a traditional key. This smaller package also makes losing the key that much more likely. The switchblade key is the second most expensive to replace, with the smart key being the most expensive. The typical switchblade key replacement runs between $200-300 each.

Lastly there is the smart key. This type of key is the most advanced. What differentiates the smart key from the others is that there is no actual key shank to insert into the ignition. Instead, the key is electronic and built into the fob. A security code is sent out from the key to the vehicle’s computer. If the code is recognized, the engine can start. One convenience the smart key has over the other is that the car can be started electronically by the push of a button. The only downside to owning a smart key is that it costs upwards of $400 to replace. And unfortunately the only option is to go to the dealership for a replacement.

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While it is costly to get a new car key, there are ways to get around the bigger costs. For example, if you have a key with a transponder chip, having a replacement key without the chip can come in handy if you lock your keys in the car. Otherwise you’ll have to pay a locksmith to open your car . One of the easier costs to avoid is the programming fee most dealerships and locksmiths will charge. In most cases you can program your key yourself. Many car user manuals have a section that explains the process. If your manual doesn’t, you’re likely to find the information online. Sadly this only applies to transponder, laser cut and switchblade keys. It’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your car keys. Having a second set or a basic spare will get you out of having to pay for car towing and locksmiths. And in the end, isn’t saving money what it’s all about?


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