Keyless entry systems that can lock and unlock vehicles remotely have become popular among both new- and used-car buyers, and with good reason. They enable quick access to a car on a rainy day. Most come with a panic alarm that engages the vehicle’s horn to ward off potential attackers or to help find an automobile in a parking lot. Depending on the car or truck, a remote can either be attached to a vehicle’s key or exist as a separate device. Newer systems enable a motorist to enter and start a vehicle while simply carrying the key fob in a pocket or purse.
The downside comes should you lose the remote or it becomes damaged. In simpler times, replacing a car key meant a trip to the hardware store or locksmith to have a replacement cut. Today’s remote access key fobs not only require you to purchase a new transmitter, but to also have it programmed to work with your particular vehicle.
Replacing a keyless remote can be a costly proposition. Depending on its complexity, a new key fob can cost anywhere from $50 to $400. If you buy a replacement from a locksmith or a dealer’s service department and have them program it for you, you’ll pay full price for the unit as well as labor costs. Some car dealers may do this for free, but one independent vendor we checked charges $45 for this service.
A money-saving alternative would be to shop around to find the lowest price on a new remote and, if possible, program it yourself. Still, if the remote is incorporated into a key, you’ll have to get it cut. If you don’t have a spare key that can be used as a guide, you’ll have to go to a dealership to have a new one created.
You usually can find generic replacement remotes at hardware and auto parts stores, though not all units work with all vehicles. You’re more likely to find a suitable aftermarket replacement if you’re driving an older vehicle that relies on less-complex technology. The best way to go is to purchase an original equipment (OEM) replacement key fob. Several internet retailers sell OEM key fobs and remote entry keys.
However, be aware that you may not be able to program a new unit at home depending on the vehicle. European brands, in particular, include special security chips and encryption codes in their devices that require programming be performed at a dealership. Some internet vendors we checked do not sell replacement units for either Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Volkswagen vehicles. The ones we checked that do offer replacements for vehicles from those brands note that they require professional programming.
The procedure for do-it-yourself programming varies from one make and model to another. Some automakers provide instructions in their owner’s manuals, and we easily found information on how to do it via the internet. The catch is you may need two working key fobs to expedite the procedure or perform it at all. That means it’s prudent to buy and program an extra remote before you need it.
Here’s how programming a keyless entry transmitter works on a 2018 Chevrolet Malibu:
1. Place the two recognized transmitters in a cup holder.
2. Remove the key lock cylinder cap on the driver’s door handle. Remove the vehicle key from the new transmitter, insert it into the key lock on the outside of the door and turn the key counterclockwise five times within 10 seconds. You will have then entered programming mode.
3. Place the new transmitter into the transmitter pocket in the center console with the buttons facing rearward.
4. Press the engine start/stop button for 12 seconds to exit the programming mode.
5. Return the key to the transmitter.
It’s also possible to program a transmitter for the Malibu without having a pair of working remotes on hand, but it can take as long as 30 minutes.
To accomplish this, begin with step 2 above. Wait 10 minutes until a message that reads “Press engine button to learn” is displayed on the instrument panel. Press the start/stop button three times, after which any other transmitters will no longer work with the vehicle. If you have one extra, you’ll have to reprogram that as well. Follow step 3 above, and press the start/stop button until a prompt shows it is ready to program another remote. When all transmitters have been programmed, follow steps 4 and 5 above.
As another example, here’s how programming works on a 2015 Ford Explorer:
1. Close all doors, then open the driver’s door, press the unlock button on the driver’s door and insert the key into the ignition.
2. Turn the ignition from “off” to “run” 8 times within 8 seconds, with the 8th time ending in “run.” The door locks will cycle to confirm you’re in programming mode.
3. Within 10 seconds, press any button on the first keyless remote to be programmed. The door locks will cycle to confirm programming. If you only have one remote, skip to step 5.
4. Within 10 seconds, press any button on a second keyless remote you want to program. The door locks will cycle again to confirm programming. Repeat step 4 for all other remotes.
5. Turn the ignition to “off.” The locks will again cycle to indicate programming mode is ended.
One final word: If you still have the keyless transmitter but it’s malfunctioning, you might want to check the battery before bothering to replace it. If changing the battery doesn’t work and your vehicle is covered under warranty, you’ll probably be able to obtain a replacement from a dealer free of charge.