What's the most surefire/easy way to unlock a car door without the key?
December 29, 2014 7:17 AM   Subscribe

I sometimes lock my keys in my car, my friends do sometimes, I like to be uber-prepared, i already carry around jumper cables, and a small repair kit, and I'd like to add a car door unlocker kit to my car. I see a slim jim is a common tool, and an inflatable bag thingy. Is this the best way? Will it damage the paint/car? What are my options? Thanks.
posted by kikithekat to Travel & Transportation (38 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Why not just get an additional set of keys, or a slim key you can fit into your wallet? (For your own car, that is.)

The slim jim is probably the best bet, but it can be really tricky to use. Better to have a AAA membership and ask them to unlock your door. Way easier, and free with membership!
posted by xingcat at 7:21 AM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

slim jim's don't work as well as they used to because most cars have power actuated locks now. Older models had an actual armature for the slim jim to catch. By far the easiest option is to just get a second set of keys made. For models that have expensive keys with RFID or whatever built in, just get a spare key cut without the RFID. It will still work to open the door, and if you've only locked your keys in, that solves your problem. Also, owning/carrying a slim jim might get you some unwanted attention from law enforcement.
posted by cosmicbandito at 7:35 AM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Make 2 copies of your main key and hide one on the car and one in your purse/wallet.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:35 AM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Better to have a AAA membership and ask them to unlock your door.

Yeah, this.
FWIW, in some localities, having a slim jim could be an arrestable offense. YMMV.

I'm kind of surprised you and your friends have so much trouble with locking keys in your cars. Do you have the remote fob separate from the key?
posted by Thorzdad at 7:37 AM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you carry a slim jim around in your car and you lock your keys in said car you would have had to remember the slim jim prior to forgetting said keys. Otherwise you'd also have to convince all your friends that this is an essential car kit item. My brain hurts. Get a spare key.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:39 AM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I prefer advice about how to unlock cars. Not advice on how to prevent myself from getting locked out. Thanks.
posted by kikithekat at 7:39 AM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are little magnetic key hider boxes that you can buy and stick to the under-carriage or fenders of your car. (As long as they're metal.)

Slim Jims aren't all that good any more, mostly because of electronic locking systems. Besides, if you keep it in the trunk, it can't do you a lot of good if you've locked yourself out.

More modern cars have aps where you can remotely unlock your car, check out Viper.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:56 AM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Unlock the car with the key you attached to the underside of your car with a magnet. I was doing some work on my car a few years ago and I found a key behind the muffler in one of those magnetic boxes. I had owned the car for 8+ years at that point, and I didn't put the key there. Those things apparently hold up quite well.
posted by COD at 8:11 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have a close local friend hold onto the second key for you?
posted by cecic at 8:13 AM on December 29, 2014

Consider buying a car (GM) with the OnStar service, then a phone call to the service should get it unlocked.
posted by sammyo at 8:14 AM on December 29, 2014

I prefer advice about how to unlock cars.

You are asking for advice on how to break into cars, which is illegal. You may think it is altruistic and helpful to people, but it is just breaking into cars with permission. It is illegal unless proven otherwise and you are leaving yourself open to legal difficulties if a policeman sees you. In addition, carrying any tools on a regular basis that allows you to break into cars is also illegal and (as has been noted) often an arrest able offense. Also, if there was a simple tool to break into most cars then nobody would keep their cars very long, would they?

It is not realistic, legal, or smart to ask 'how do I have the ability to unlock several different types of cars and carry the equipment to do so'. That is why you are getting the superior advice of how not to lock your keys in your car in the first place. It is a simple enough procedure - usually just through changing a personal habit of only ever locking the door *with* the key instead of the old 'lock it and shut the door' technique.

So if you are asking 'how can I break into a car' then your question violates the legal requirement of the site and should be deleted. In addition your question is flawed because it is addressing the symptoms and not the cause. It's like asking 'how do I quickly put out a fire on my bed because I habitually fall asleep with a cigarette burning'. The problem is locking the keys in/falling asleep with the cigarette. Not the ensuing fire/locked car.
posted by Brockles at 8:22 AM on December 29, 2014 [50 favorites]

Brockles may be wise about cars, but I believe he/she is dead wrong about the law. It is not 'illegal' to break into your own car. Or your own house, or cell phone, or jewelry store. Not saying these things would never interest a cop, who might cause hassle. But there's a big difference between that and breaking an actual law.
Perhaps we could see a citation on that? From any state?
posted by LonnieK at 8:36 AM on December 29, 2014

Seconding spitbull -- you just need something plastic but strong to pry with and a wire clothes hanger to push/pull the lock button. Last time I did this, I scratched the paint on the inside of the door frame working the hanger too much. Next time I'll wrap some tape around it.
posted by bradf at 8:40 AM on December 29, 2014

The thing about using hangers or wedges or slim jims is that it presumes you've either locked your keys in your car when you're outside your house, or you always remember to carry the wedge/hanger/slim jim when you're not home (and don't lock them in the car accidentally along with the keys). That's why a slim wallet spare or hide-a-key are better suggestions.
posted by rtha at 8:49 AM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Somebody upthread mentioned getting a non-RFID key to open the door with. This is fine if your keys are in the car, but if you can't find them it may not be a good solution since in many cars (like Fords) using a non-RFID key to open your door will cause a countdown until the car alarm goes off that can only be disarmed by the RFID key.
posted by selfnoise at 8:58 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I keep a spare car key attached to the lining of my purse -- stitched in, at the bottom, so it can't fall out or be accidentally removed. I sometimes get out of the car without grabbing my car keys, but I never get out of the car without grabbing my purse. Some of you may not be lucky enough to carry a purse in which case I can't help, but maybe you could stitch a spare key to the inside of your always-worn coat or something.

Can't help you with your friends' cars. Would not want a friend jimmying my car anyway.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:09 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of the coolest tips I ever got from a locksmith was when he pointed out it's kinda silly to keep a remote keyfob on the same ring as your car keys; he suggested that it makes more sense to keep the fob in your pocket, that way, if you leave the keys in the ignition, the fob is still with you.

Don't know if this helps, or is relevant, but I always lock my keys in my car now (I hide them in the center console, I don't leave them in the ignition). Because the fob lets me lock/unlock it without messing with keys.
posted by valkane at 9:13 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

'illegal until proven otherwise.'

Yegads. It is illegal to break into a car. You have to prove you have permission to do so to stop it being illegal. That is pretty obvious, no? That is the burden of proof. I'm not suggesting you'd go immediately to jail until the court case showed you had permission, but that if a cop sees you with a slim jim in a window gap he's going to be all over you with questions. If the owner of the car is standing there, then it is no genuine issue, but if not you have a headache.

However, having said Slim Jim in your car can be (in some jurisdictions) flat out illegal unless you have some kind of professional justification for having it there. Like, if you are not a locksmith (sometimes even needing to be on a call) it is flat out illegal to have it there. Having tools to break into a car (commit a crime) with you at all times is stupid and illegal in many places, regardless of potential intent. In the UK it is considered 'Going equipped to commit a crime' and 'my mate sometimes locks his keys in his car' would be considered a laughable response and no help at all to you.
posted by Brockles at 9:19 AM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, this isn't a debate, and the legality/illegality can't even be settled without knowing the jurisdiction. Please stick to the actual question, or move on if you feel you can't answer it constructively.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 10:15 AM on December 29, 2014

Since there are many days when I don't use my car, I keep my car key on its own key ring and leave it at home when not needed.

I keep an extra non-RFID key that opens my car door on the non-car key ring, which is always with me.

I have locked my car key in the car about once in the last decade, and that extra non-RFID key is how I broke back into the car.

Also, when driving outside my home area, I keep a second RFID car key in a different pocket and there's little chance of losing both of the usable RFID keys.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:05 AM on December 29, 2014

I prefer advice about how to unlock cars. Not advice on how to prevent myself from getting locked out.

There's really a lot of overlap between your two concepts.

You've asked about tools, and spare keys are pretty much the smartest and most convenient tools for getting into your own car.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:15 AM on December 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

What sort of vehicle do you have?

It's not clear to me that a slim jim on it's own will be sufficient to open your car. You may need to go under the window with a tool to pop the door lock, and if your door locks are at all sticky, that can be problematic and not work. Locksmiths do have to break windows sometimes. You could look up your car on a locksmith forum and see if you can find out the easiest way to unlock it.

Depending on the tool you use, you can also easily scratch your windows or damage your car's locking mechanism if you do it too often. As for friend's vehicles, I realize you have an earnest desire to help them, but you may need a variety of tools, depending on the vehicle, and you can easily damage their car. Car repair, even for minor cosmetic stuff, is expensive and you wouldn't have insurance.

But beyond that, here is the Ohio Law that seems to cover the subject, assuming you are still from Ohio. http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/2923.24

I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice, but it seems like you could be charged for merely having such an item. I would not recommend breaking into your own car, if you can get a separate key made.
posted by gryftir at 11:50 AM on December 29, 2014

A slim jim/ inflatable bag/wedge/coat hanger's utility is really going to depend on your particular car model. None of those things are going to be worth anything unlocking the door on my Tiburon for example which doesn't have electrical unlock buttons and has shrouded lock mechanisms.
posted by Mitheral at 11:56 AM on December 29, 2014

If you have a remote keyfob, get into the habit of only locking the vehicle using it outside the vehicle. That's what I do, and it works great.

For general cases, just get a AAA membership, and you don't ever have to worry about being locked out of any car you drive or are a passenger in. Otherwise, I'd tend to agree with the general sentiment that being uber-prepared would mean not locking yourself in in the first place or having a spare key around that you can get to from outside the car. I wouldn't rely on any generic tools to get you unlocked.

As a note, I had a car that was unlocked using an air-bladder wedge when I got the keys locked inside, and the power window mechanism broke not long after. While I can't prove causation, I'd say that those options do have the potential to damage your car.
posted by Aleyn at 12:38 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ruthless Bunny: There are little magnetic key hider boxes that you can buy and stick to the under-carriage or fenders of your car. (As long as they're metal.)
Close, but no prize.


Go get a magnetic keysafe, a spare car key, and a 2-part epoxy (any will do, but J. B. Weld is the best thing ever). Put the key inside the key safe. Mix the epoxy together on the back of the key safe. Use a twig or toothpick, then throw that away. Lay a piece of cardboard down at the edge of your car, lie down on it, and scrub the dirt off of the frame somewhere you can reach easily the next time without lying down. Don't pick a bottom surface - you don't want the next pothole to scrape your keysafe off. You can use an old toothbrush, a wire brush, a bristle brush, a long-handled pushbroom (not the easiest), a putty scraper, a wet rag and elbow grease - just get the dried mud off. Press the magnetic key safe (with epoxy on it) against that cleaned-off part of the frame. The magnet will hold it in place until the epoxy dries.

Now, the next time you get locked out, reach underneath, slide the keysafe door open (it's often stuck with dirt, so this part isn't trivial, but if it slid open easily your key wouldn't still be there after all those miles!), and open the door with your key. PUT THE KEY BACK IN THE KEYSAFE.

As long as the keysafe isn't visible to someone walking around the car (and probably even if it is), no thief will ever search your car frame for keys. Hell, even if I knew there was a key somewhere underneath, I'd rather just walk down the block looking for unlocked car doors, instead of crawling underneath on my back looking for where you put it.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:06 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

As for unlocking a car, I carry a jimmy kit - plastic wedges, long hook-ended springy L-shaped thing, a flat jimmy - in my spare tire well. It's illegal in some jurisdictions, so I don't want it visible if a cop looks in my windows or open trunk.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:08 PM on December 29, 2014

Listen to the broom! Don't rely on the magnet alone.

I have another solution, I attach mine behind the ... using one of the screws holding the ... on. Easy to get at, invisible, no dirt involved.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:42 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Car dealers used to use slim jims and I can tell you from experience that locking keys in cars is a MAJOR problem at a car dealer but, as others have noted, they don't really work anymore. My dad is car thief levels of proficient with them and as early as the late '90s he was complaining about not being able to get into cars with one anymore. He switched to a plastic wedge (that could pry open the door a little) and bent rod that could hit the power-lock switch or pull up the lock, depending on location and shape.

It might be worth asking around a local dealer to see if you can find out what they use as my info might be a bit out of date.
posted by VTX at 6:58 PM on December 29, 2014

Reiterating others' comments that specification of make, model and year are necessary to accurately answer this question.
posted by Rash at 7:48 PM on December 29, 2014

If you do decide to use the wedge & wire method, be very careful about how far you pull the top of the door frame out. Depending on how the door is constructed, you run a reasonable risk of cracking the window frame or breaking the window. I certainly wouldn't use a mallet to hammer any kind of wedge into the top of the door and it's not necessary anyway - just work your fingers into the gap above the door and alternate between pulling only as hard as is required to move the frame out a bit and pushing the wedge carefully into the new gap. Only pull it out the absolute minimum you need to get a piece of wire in and manoeuvre it.

If the cops see you, regardless of whether it's illegal or not, have fun trying to prove that you own the car when you have probably locked all your ID in the car with the keys. Get a copy of the key, glue it under the car as IAmBroom described. Odds are nothing but the key will open the door anyway, depending on how modern and/or needlessly complex your car is. A friend of mine was without her car for weeks after losing the keys, because a new key had to be made in Germany after a complex ID procedure (not to mention the $600 charge) and then posted to Australia.
posted by dg at 9:51 PM on December 29, 2014

If you do have a fob, a friend trained herself to use hers by literally putting a piece of tape on top of the outer lock to the car (meaning it could ONLY be locked/unlocked with the fob, not with a key). A little unsightly, but only had to do it for a while until she got into the habit, and then she never had the problem of being locked out again.
posted by rainbowbrite at 4:54 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

One more thing that I remembered. On cars that use RFID chips in they keys (which is all of them for the last few years) there are a couple of ways that they go about it.

1. The car only looks for the RFID chip when attempting to start the car (or sometimes only after it's been running for 30 seconds or only if you put it into drive).

2. If the car door was locked and is then opened, the alarm goes off and the car won't start until it's disarmed (through a couple of methods depending on the car, check the manual).

You can test it by opening the car's window, locking the car, and then pulling up the lock and opening the door. If the alarm goes off, it's #2, if not, #1. Usually the alarm get's disarmed by pressing (and sometimes holding) the panic button on the key fob, sometimes you have to stick the key in the door and turn the key, on some you can just start the car with the correct key, sometimes the key must be turned in the passenger side lock.

If you concern is simply keys getting locked in cars, getting in without the key and it's RFID chip isn't really a problem so I don't know why people keep bringing it up. Unless some new cars can only be opened (not just started) when the RFID chip is present? But every car I've been in in the last decade or so has a mechanical link between the interior handle and the lock such that pulling the handle always unlocks and opens the door to prevent people from being locked inside.

As long as you're prepared for the alarm to go off and have the actual keys handy, you just need to get into the car. Read your manual to figure out how your car works and be familiar with the other common methods for your friend's cars. You might also be able to get a cheap copy of your key made that doesn't have the fob or RFID chip. It will only open the door and only on your own car (so you'd still need the wedge and wire to help your friends) but it might be thin enough that you can keep it in your wallet or something (as long as you don't ever leave that behind too).

The other issue that you question brings up is, where are you going to keep these tools? If you keep them in your car with the jumper cables and repair kit, they're just going to be locked inside the car where they'll do you no good.
posted by VTX at 6:39 AM on December 30, 2014

Megan Flechaus locked herself out of her car so much, she really came to appreciate "The AAA Guy", and wrote a song about it.
posted by achrise at 10:59 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rash: Reiterating others' comments that specification of make, model and year are necessary to accurately answer this question.
Untrue. A wedge and coathanger/hook-ended-L tool don't care who made the button they're going to pull open.

But, again... if you have access to those two things, you have access to the keysafe you attached to your car body. I like the license-plate screw idea, too, but I'm a glue kinda guy.
dg: If the cops see you, regardless of whether it's illegal or not, have fun trying to prove that you own the car when you have probably locked all your ID in the car with the keys.
This is silly. You will have ID (once it is open), an online photo the cops can pull up in one minute's time, and most car thieves don't stick around when the cops show up. My only problem will be the ticket if my $12 jimmy kit is illegal in their municipality.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:27 PM on December 30, 2014

dg: If you do decide to use the wedge & wire method, be very careful about how far you pull the top of the door frame out.
You don't wedge the door frame; you wedge the window.

Be extra careful in cold weather, but door window glass will bend an amazing amount.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:28 PM on December 30, 2014

You don't wedge the door frame; you wedge the window.

Er. Do you mean you wedge the window down against the winder mechanism? Forcing it out of the window frame and down far enough to get a wire hanger in between the door frame and the window (rather than between the door frame and the car. That's maybe 10mm of window travel required by the time it has cleared the window seals and door frame before you have a gap and to do that without damaging the window or the mechanism? That sounds... unlikely to me.

Unless you are only referring to prying the window away from a car with a frameless door? Otherwise you can't wedge the window without wedging the door frame too unless I am completely misunderstanding you.

The only time I have done it and seen it done, it's been to gently pry the top of the door away from the body of the car and put the wedge/s in vertically and drop the wire down that way. It's not easy and not all buttons can even be pressed (direction of travel of the lock and style of lock is important), so the make and model does matter.
posted by Brockles at 1:56 PM on December 30, 2014

This is silly.
Yeah, true, at least a little bit :-(

You don't wedge the door frame; you wedge the window.
Maybe it's a difference between US cars and those available here, but pretty much all cars here (some Subaru and Audi models are exceptions) don't have frameless windows and the window slides into a channel at the top of the frame when closed. In these cases, it's impossible to wedge the window out of the door frame (even if the window is open clear of the channel at the top, because the channel on the sides prevents the window from being pulled out) and the only way to get access this way is to wedge the door frame itself out against the body. Significant care is needed to avoid damage and, on some cars it's impossible because of the design of the doors - where the top of the door wraps over where older cars would have rain gutters.

Really, the only sane solution is to get into habits that stop you from locking your keys in the car in the first place - it's a not-insignificant amount of trouble to resolve this in most modern cars. If this is impossible, use the hidden key method, but be aware it will invalidate your insurance in the unlikely event that a thief uses that key to steal your car.
posted by dg at 2:03 PM on December 30, 2014

You don't wedge the door frame; you wedge the window.

Only if the window is frame-less. You wedge it into the upper right hand corner (as you're facing the driver's side door from outside). It's the farthest point from the lock or the hinges so it will allow you the widest gap while flexing the door the least and the upper corner usually has more support than the bottom one (which will mostly just bend).
posted by VTX at 2:19 PM on December 30, 2014

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