Before the 1990s, losing your car keys – though inconvenient – wasn’t particularly harrowing or expensive. You could get a replacement key at any hardware store or locksmith… or the car dealership. But the ease of making a new replacement key also made it much easier for thieves to steal cars.

These days, advances in key fob technology have made vehicles more difficult to steal, but the price of replacement keys has skyrocketed.

Here’s a rundown of what you’ll face in the way of cost if you have to replace your key, along with some alternatives that could lower the bill.

Basic Keys and Fobs

On most modern cars, an electronic key fob is an integral part of the key set. The cost of replacing a fob remote can range dramatically, depending on the automaker and complexity of the fob. All key fobs need to be programmed. While some dealerships will do it for free, others charge a half-hour to an hour of labor.

But there is a way around this fee. Most key fobs can be programmed with a specific combination of button presses on the remote and key turns in the ignition. Some owner’s manuals will show you how to do it; you can also find information online. You can also purchase aftermarket fob remotes online or from a locksmith. Like most aftermarket products, quality varies, but they are a less expensive alternative.

Transponder Keys

After the mid- to late 1990s, manufacturers began placing a transponder chip in the plastic head of the car key. The chip emits a signal to a receiver in the ignition. If this “immobilizer” detects the wrong signal (that the wrong key is in the ignition), the vehicle will not start.

A transponder shank is either a basic car key or a laser-cut key. The major difference between a basic car key and a transponder key is that the chip in the transponder key must be programmed before it can start the vehicle.

Sometimes, the transponder key and fob are an all-in-one unit, which adds to the price of the car key replacement and limits the places you can find one. Replacing one can cost upwards of $200, but a potential low-cost alternative for someone who is notorious for locking their key in their car is a basic key without the transmitter. This key will do everything but start the engine.

If you’re the type who frequently loses car keys, you might be able to save money on the programming by creating a third car key to keep as a spare. If you already have two car keys, a number of vehicle brands allow you to program a third key on your own. You can have a locksmith cut this new key. Then you can follow the procedure for programming, which can frequently be found in your owner’s manual. If the manual doesn’t show you, try searching online for the procedure, with search terms like, “How to program a (insert your year, make, model) key.”

Laser-Cut Keys

You can tell a laser-cut (or sidewinder) key from a basic car key because the shank is slightly thicker and has fewer carved-out grooves. The machines needed to cut these keys are significantly more expensive than standard key-cutting machines and are probably not found at every locksmith or hardware store.

Laser-cut keys also have built-in transponder chips and need to be programmed at the dealership or by a locksmith, preferably one who is a member of the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA). All-in-one laser-cut keys are becoming more popular, but they are more expensive and typically need to be replaced at the dealer. Cost can range between $150 to $250.

Switchblade Keys

Switchblade keys have shanks that fold into the key fob when they’re not in use and pop out with the press of a button. They can have a basic cut or a laser cut. One small advantage of the switchblade key fob is that its components can be purchased separately. If for some reason your key is damaged and no longer works, you can buy just the shank for about $60-$80. If you’ve lost your key you’ll need both the shank and the fob into which it folds, which can cost between $200 and $300 once you factor in the programming of both components.

Keyless Entry Remote

A keyless entry remote, or “smart key” is a key fob that is either inserted in the dash or, in newer vehicles, stays in your pocket. It allows the driver to enter the vehicle and start the engine with the press of a button.

A keyless entry remote’s main form of security is its ability to use rolling security codes, which randomizes the correct code and prevents thieves from hacking it. The vehicle’s computer recognizes the code emitted by the smart key and verifies it before starting the engine.

These keyless entry remotes limit your options for a new key. The replacement remote must be purchased at the dealer or a factory parts reseller. The cost of replacing and reprogramming a smart key can range from $220 to over $500 for some luxury vehicles.

Better Safe Than Sorry

The best defense against losing your key is a good offense. It is better to get a spare key now, on your terms, than to stress out and spend the money in what might be an emergency. You can take advantage of the cost-cutting methods provided above to help avoid or reduce labor charges by programming the key yourself.

If you are someone who tempts fate by only having one set of keys, consider this: If you lose all the keys to your car, you will need to get it towed to a dealership, and it can potentially cost you close to $1,000 to replace the locks on your car.

Source: Edmunds