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A locked steering wheel is a frustrating experience. It gets you wondering what’s the quickest way to unlock it so you can get to where you need to go.

But be thankful for those simple automatic anti-theft devices. Lots of owners of base model Kia and Hyundai vehicles wish they had steering wheel locks because an online car theft “challenge” shared by millions of TikTok viewers in the past year has propelled them onto the list of most stolen vehicles. Using a car charger, the ignitions of certain models can be hijacked and the vehicles driven away very easily.

Steering wheel locks are safety features built into most modern vehicles. They’re not visible and seem to slip into place when you least expect it. But, they prevent the car from being operated without a key. Thus, if someone wants to steal your vehicle but jams a screwdriver into the ignition to start it, the steering wheel won’t allow a full range of motion, frustrating a thief who wants to take off with your car.

How Do Steering Wheel Locks Work?

A steering wheel lock jams up your steering wheel by slapping a hefty bar across it. This bar locks in tight, so there's no way to wiggle the wheel or steer the car unless you get that lock off. It's like putting your steering wheel in a straight jacket – no moving, no turning, no car-napping adventures without cracking the code or key to freedom first.

How to Unlock Steering Wheel?

If your ignition key is straight, not bent, and not worn out, you should be able to activate the steering wheel lock easily by inserting it into the ignition. A gentle turn of the key should unlock steering wheel.

If the wheel won’t move, try these steps:

  1. Make sure the vehicle is in park. If it’s in gear, the ignition is unlikely to turn.
  2. Remove the key from the ignition and turn it over before re-inserting.
  3. Gently move the wheel clockwise about a quarter-turn at the same time as you turn the key in the ignition.
  4. Remove the key again and check the ignition for debris. Use a can of compressed air to blow dust or debris out of the ignition via the keyhole.
  5. Check the key for excessive wear or a bend in the shaft.
  6. If the vehicle will start using the key – and if you’re in a safe place away from traffic and other vehicles, try putting the car in gear and moving it a few feet forward, firmly holding the steering wheel. This may release the locked wheel.

If these steps don’t unlock your steering wheel, you may consider getting a new key from a dealership (if yours is excessively worn or bent), or a new ignition cylinder or ignition switch. A locksmith might be able to help you, but a specialized mechanic with the knowledge of the make of your car (from the dealership) is probably a better person to start with for basic information and help. The cost of a new key with a fob from a dealership is $50 to $200 and may require shipment, so you’d need to make alternative transportation plans until it arrives.

How to Unlock Steering Wheel Without Key

First things first, try the simplest trick in the book – the gentle wiggle. Hold the steering wheel with both hands and try to turn it gently to the left and right. Sometimes, the steering wheel locks because it’s slightly turned when you remove the key. A little pressure in the right direction can help disengage that lock. Be gentle, though; we’re not trying to Hulk out on the steering wheel.

Check the Battery

If the wiggle doesn't work, there might be an issue with your car’s battery. A dead battery can sometimes cause the steering wheel locked. Make sure your battery is in good shape and properly connected. If it’s dead, jump-starting your car might just do the trick.

Use a Different Key

If you have a spare key, give that a shot. Sometimes the problem isn't with the steering wheel but with the key itself being worn down or damaged. A fresh key might not have the same issues and could turn in the ignition smoothly, releasing the car wheel lock.

Penetrating Oil for the Win

In cases where the lock mechanism might be a bit jammed or rusty, a quick spray of penetrating oil can work wonders. Just apply a small amount into the keyhole (if it's accessible) or around the ignition area. Give it a few minutes to work its magic, then try turning the wheel again.

Call in the Cavalry

When all else fails, it might be time to call a professional. Whether it’s a locksmith or a tow to the nearest garage, sometimes you need that expert touch to get things sorted without causing damage.

While knowing how to unlock your steering wheel is handy, it’s super important to use these powers for good. Always make sure you’re working on your car or have permission to be fiddling with someone else’s vehicle. Steering wheel locks are a security feature, after all.

Comparing Car Anti-Theft Devices

Anti Theft Devices

Automatic steering wheel locks that are integrated with the ignition are helpful for traditional vehicle theft because the car can’t be driven unless the lock is released by the key in the ignition. However, in older model vehicles a thief with a dent-pulling device and a screwdriver can remove the ignition assembly and start the car with a screwdriver.

  • Old-fashioned steering wheel bars: These are recommended for vehicles in which anti-theft technology is being overridden by hackers and thieves. These are solid, three-foot hooked bars that are woven through the steering wheel and locked in place with a key. When set, they prevent the steering wheel from being moved more than an inch and are reliable anti-theft devices.
  • Kill switches: These are usually after-market devices that can be hidden under seats and will deter theft because the engine will not start without the proper key. Kill switches can also be wired to alarms that sound if anything but the original key is used to start the vehicle. However, this can be a problem for an owner who loses a key.


The following are security devices in modern vehicles and ways that creative thieves may overcome them:

  • Keyless ignitions: The new, push-button ignitions reduce issues with worn keys but have their own issues. These vehicles only start when the key is present, but crafty thieves have learned how to use technology to read the radio signal coming from your key fob and use it to unlock and steal your vehicle. The latest technique, which uses a smartphone to unlock high-end vehicles, can also be stolen through radio frequency theft.

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