Key Programming

Key Programming

Three situations might require key programming capabilities at your shop.

If you think the technician shortage is terrible, you should consider the locksmith shortage. Twenty years ago, it was easy for a locksmith to offer services for all vehicles. If a customer needed a new key, it was easy to cut a key. If a customer lost all their keys for a vehicle, they could get the key code or re-key the car with new tumblers. But with more advanced security and immobilizer systems, many locksmiths decided to get out of the vehicle market or retire.

In the past 30 years, the mechanical key has been transformed into radio frequency-enabled devices that offer a new level of security. The number don’t lie. In 1991, more than 1.7 million vehicles were stolen in the US. For 2019, only 724,872 vehicles were stolen.  

Three situations might require key programming capabilities at your shop. First, being able to diagnose and program keys can be a tool as part of some no-start diagnostics. Second, you may run into a situation where a key or fob needs to be reprogrammed to the vehicle if a module is replaced. Third, a customer might want an extra key, or all the original keys were lost.


For most vehicles you see at your shop, it is not as much about programming a key to the car but programming the car to the key. Programing a vehicle to the key might require a procedure to put the vehicle into a learn mode; this is typically called onboard programming. 

Most vehicles require a scan tool to learn a new key or remote. You might already do this at your shop if you have the correct scan tool, software and hardware. 


To increase security, some OEMs are requiring the key to transmit more than just the ID code. Many manufacturers require that the key transmits the unique VIN of the vehicle. Specialty key programming tools can program the transponder code and VIN onto a key. Some of these units even use a “rolling code” that changes every time the key and vehicle communicate.

Many of these procedures require that you have at least one functioning key. With these procedures, the scan tool and key can put the vehicle in a learn mode.  


Data can go both ways when it comes to some key programming tools. Information from a key can be programmed into a module, or information from an existing model can be programmed onto a key. This tool function can save you if a module has been replaced and the key information is lost. It is also helpful if you are in a situation where all  keys have been lost.

Some key programming tools and vehicles will allow you to clone key transponders in the vehicle’s memory. The key programming tool communicates with the vehicle to find the information about the existing keys and then burn that code to a new transponder using a specialized attachment for the key.

On some vehicles, the situation may call for reflashing completely new transponder codes to a module that handles the keyless entry and security. For some cars, this can be performed through a J2534 interface. Other cases may require the module or EEPROM chip to be removed for reprogramming. Specialized key programming tools let you do it at your shop.

The shift from mechanical keys to electronics is an opportunity for your shop. The skill set for these security items matches an automotive repair shop more than a locksmith.

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