Dealing with car lockouts: What to do and not to do

We’ve all been there before – excitedly walking towards our car, keys in hand, only to grab the door handle and realize it’s locked tight. Uh oh. That sinking feeling starts to set in. How will I get to work on time? What if I’m stranded here after dark? Panic starts to set in. But never fear – with some simple preparation and knowledge of what to do next, car lockouts don’t need to ruin your day. In this article, we’ll explore some pro tips for avoiding lockouts in the first place, step-by-step advice for getting back into a locked car, and what not to do that could make a bad situation worse. Arm yourself with this knowledge so you can deal swiftly and smartly with any car locking emergencies headed your way.

Preventing Lockouts

Have spare keys made

The best way to avoid being stranded by a locked car is to have spare keys made ahead of time. Give one to a trusted friend or family member who lives nearby and could easily come rescue you with the spare if needed. Keep another spare key in your wallet, purse or work bag – as long as you remember to transfer it to whatever bag you take to your car each trip. Some even wear their spare car key on a necklace or bracelet, for quick access at all times. Just make sure to get the spare cut by the dealership or a locksmith – copies made at a drugstore may be labelled “do not duplicate” and not work in your car’s locks.

Memorize where your spare is kept

It doesn’t help much to have a spare key if you can’t remember where it’s hidden! Take the time to memorize where your spare car key lives – taped under the side mirror? Buried in a fake rock by the flower garden? Slid into the secretly unlocked mailbox? Carefully think through the hiding spot when stashing it, making sure it’s kept dry and is easy for you to describe and locate in an emergency situation.

Install smart locks

If your car has power locks, you may be able to upgrade to smart locks that connect to an app on your phone and can unlock remotely or detect when your keys are still inside the car. This takes the hassle out of manually locking doors and having to retrieve keys you left inside. Smart locks do require professional installation but give great peace of mind. Some even allow you to grant virtual access to others – so AAA or a family member can rescue your locked car.

Get lockout service with your auto insurance

Many auto insurance plans or roadside assistance memberships offer emergency lockout service. This means a professional will be sent to assist you into your locked vehicle, with no hassle or out of pocket fees for you. Check your plan details or call your agent to confirm you have this protection. It’s one of the most affordable ways to ensure help is on the way if you do experience an accidental lock out on the road.

What To Do If Locked Out

Try obvious solutions first

Before you panic or call for help, methodically try all the “easy” solutions for getting in a locked car. Make sure it is actually locked by tugging every door handle and pressing the trunk release button. Look inside and check all doors – sometimes one is accidentally left ajar. Try pressing the key fob lock/unlock buttons, in case the car just needs that signal again to unlock. Check for any doggie doors or other inventive entries kids may have created. Don’t skip the simplest steps in your haste to call a locksmith!

Call a locksmith

If the obvious attempts failed, your next step should be calling a professional local locksmith. Get a few options by searching on your phone – avoid randomly selecting the first sponsored ad that pops up, as it may be a predatory scam company. Vet the locksmith carefully by checking for lots of recent positive reviews on multiple sites and ensuring they have a local address and phone number listed on their website. Get an exact upfront estimate of all fees – legit locksmiths will ask questions about your make/model and type of locks before quoting a fair price. Avoid any company insisting payment be made upfront or only by cash. A reliable locksmith will spring your lock open quickly and not overcharge.

Call your roadside assistance or insurance

If you have auto insurance or belong to a roadside assistance club like AAA, give them a call next. There’s a good chance your policy includes free lockout service and a pro will be dispatched promptly to assist you. Manufacturers like BMW also provide free annual roadside assistance to customers. Save time and money by utilizing this pre-paid coverage when possible. Ask how quickly someone can arrive and if they can handle all car brands – specialty or high end vehicles may require a professional locksmith’s expertise. If you left keys inside, roadside assistance can often use special access tools to retrieve them without damaging locks.

Use lockout kits sparingly

Some drivers keep DIY lockout kits stashed in their cars with tools like slim jims or inflatable air wedges to pop open doors. Use extreme caution with these – they can easily damage weather stripping or window seals when used aggressively in the wrong spots. Only attempt to use these tools if you have older, simple locks and are familiar with proper technique. Watch tutorials to avoid harming your car. The inflatable wedges may provide enough lift to slide something thin into the top of the door seam and hit the unlock button. Slim jims open doors by quickly slipping into the crease and grabbing onto the locking mechanism. If you’re unsure, it’s better to call for expert assistance.

Break a window as a last resort

Only break a window to get into your locked car if you have tried every other option and getting inside quickly is an emergency (extreme temperatures, remote location, impending darkness). Use a heavy pointed object like a large rock or hammer to smash one of the small side windows – the windshield and large windows cost much more to replace. Try wrapping the object in a jacket or towel to prevent shards of flying glass. Only break a window that allows you to reach inside and unlock a door handle – don’t make a larger hole than necessary. Assess the risk of cuts from broken glass before proceeding. This should be an absolute last ditch effort to get safe access into a locked vehicle.

What Not To Do If Locked Out

Don’t force the lock

It may be tempting to try forcing your key into the keyhole harder or jimmying the lock mechanisms. Avoid this! Forcing the locks can cause internal parts to break and then require expensive repairs to fix everything. You’re also at risk of snapping off your only metal key, which can’t easily be replaced. Damaging the locks should always be avoided. Call for professional assistance instead.

Avoid the hanger trick

We’ve all seen movies where a locked car is accessed by swiftly slipping a coat hanger through the window gap and hooking it to pull up the lock button. This rarely works well in real life! Rigid metal hangers are too thick for most car window openings. If you do scratch up the rubber seals around windows, it can lead to leaks, wind noise, and repairs down the road. You’re also likely to damage the paint around the window. Leave the hanger tricks to Hollywood – call a pro instead.

Don’t call the police

Getting locked out of your car is inconvenient and frustrating but it’s not an emergency situation requiring the police. Calling 911 would take first responders away from real crises happening. Even calling the non-emergency line could result in a fine for misusing police services. In most regions, police policy prevents officers from assisting with lockouts anyway because of liability concerns if they damage the car. You’ll get much faster help calling a professional locksmith or roadside assistance. Only involve the police if you notice signs of a potential break-in or theft along with the lockout.

Don’t break expensive windows

As mentioned before, only break a car window in true emergencies and as a last resort. Be strategic – avoid smashing the windshield or larger side and rear windows if at all possible. Not only does breaking them make quite a mess, but their repair or replacement costs are astronomical compared to smaller fixed windows. A windshield usually exceeds $200-300 to replace, while smaller side and rear windows may only be $100-150. It’s also safer to break a smaller window you can easily reach into to unlock the car rather than making a large windshield hole. Think through what will be cheapest and easiest to fix later before deciding which window to break if needed.


Finding yourself locked out of your car can certainly be stressful in the moment. But arming yourself with knowledge ahead of time removes some of that panic. Have spare keys made and know where they’re kept. Install smart locks you can control from your phone. Memorize who provides you with lockout service. And know what quick, cheap steps you can attempt first before calling for costly professional help. Following these prevention tips and understanding exactly what to do (and what not to do!) if you do experience a lockout will save you time, money, stress, and potential car damage. Stay calm, be prepared, and you’ll be back on the road quickly.

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