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Car “keys” hardly exist anymore. In place of the slim silver key in our pockets and the ignition switch next to the steering wheel now sits a bulky key fob and a “start” button that can be found in one of 83 different places around the front of the car. That being said, this nearly unanimous change has its conveniences, but one major downside lives rent-free in all our minds; “What happens if my key fob dies?”

Mercedes key fob
Mercedes-Benz key fob | Uli Deck/picture alliance via Getty Images

Can key fobs die? 

Key fobs can last a long time on a small battery, but they will eventually die, leaving us all in a pickle. As with all things, dealing with a dead key fob can vary from company to company. However, for the most part, key fobs are designed to work even with very little battery or a backup plan for if the battery is dead or gone. You can find the specifics for your car in the owner’s manual. 

Can you still unlock your car’s door if your key fob is dead? 

The keys of the Iranian President
The keys of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 1977 Peugeot 504 | HADI ABYAR/AFP via Getty Images

I learned this lesson the hard way. I drive a 2015 Mini Countryman S, and last year. I live in NYC, which means normal inconveniences get amplified by 50X. So, when my wife and I went to the car one morning to drive to the beach and found our key fob dead, we knew it would be a long morning. 

We hustled all over town, trying to find the right battery. It took a while. As we were in line at the hardware store, my wife googled it and found that our key “should have a little silver button on it….” To my surprise (and dismay for not already knowing about it), a little metal key popped out. 

And, of course, it did. In what world would they make a car key that can easily be rendered useless? Most car key fobs come with a real key hidden inside. As long as you have the fob, you can still get in your car. 

Can you start a car with a dead key fob? 

According to the Family Handyman, even if the battery in your key fob dies, you can still start your car. Once you use the physical key to open your doors, instead of using your finger to push the “start” button, put the metal key back in the fob and use the fob to push the button. This is a backup system many manufacturers use to ensure the car can start even when the fob is dead.

Now, in the Mini, there is a slot that the key fob can plug into, and that car will start that way. However, this design is a little old-fashioned at this point. This is why consulting your car’s manual is always smart. 

As the Family Handyman notes, some Mazdas and a few others may have a physical key slot somewhere along the steering column. However, this is the least common way to start a car with a dead key fob. 

Here are some other ways to start your car if your key fob battery dies

These days, many cars have apps that pair with a car. Many of these apps have remote starting and unlocking functions that can work in place of your fob. 

If your key fob batteries are on the last leg and your car won’t unlock from as far away as normal, don’t panic. This is often the first sign that your key fob’s batteries are dying. Just get closer to the car, and it should work, but also use it as a reminder to get new batteries. 

Key fobs are annoying, but…

I miss keys. Real car keys. You know, the ones that jingle when you go over a speed bump in a truck. But, those days are gone. Once you know how clever key fob technology has gotten, the annoyances can start to fade. So, don’t fret; even if your car’s key fob dies, you aren’t necessarily stranded. 


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