Do Car Key Locators Work?

Despite flaws, car key locators can be a godsend for forgetful people

lost keys sitting on the ground.

 David Cornejo / Getty

For forgetful people, car key locators can be a lifesaver. But a lot them have annoying design flaws or oversights that make the experience of using one a bit of a hassle, or possibly even useless.

To learn whether or not a car key locater is right for you, you first need to understand how these devices work.

How Do Car Key Locators Work?

Some car key locators rely on Bluetooth technology, while others use radio frequency (RF) transmissions to mark locations. Some newer key locators use RFID technology, which is a bit more sophisticated than RF, in that it uses local electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags.

The other key difference between key locators is that some require a dedicated locating device and others rely simply on your smartphone. Units with a dedicated device often have a wider range, but it also means one more component to keep track of.

Bluetooth Key Locators

The advantage with Bluetooth is that pretty much every smartphone has Bluetooth functionality, which means you can use your phone to locate your keys—no need to get a separate tracking device.

Some Bluetooth key locators work the other way around. If you have your keys but can't find your phone, you can use the locator fob to ping and locate your phone.

The downside with Bluetooth locators is their range. Although Bluetooth devices claim ranges of 30 or more feet, the actual ranges are often much smaller. Many people find Bluetooth key locators only work within ten feet of their missing keys. Physical obstructions like walls and doors can make the effective range even shorter.

RFID Key Locators

RFID locators work much like Bluetooth. Instead of having to keep track of a standalone receiver unit, RFID locators use small stickers or tiles that you can tag to your possessions. This is handy because RFID stickers are tiny, passive devices that don’t make any sound. All you have to do is pair the sticker with a locator unit that has the ability to pinpoint the location of the stickers.

Other Radio Frequency Key Locators

If a key locator doesn't have Bluetooth, chances are it has a dedicated tracking device—a dongle used in lieu of a smartphone app. While helpful to anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone, a locator dongle can be a nuisance to anyone already prone to losing things like keys or phones.

Some of these locators boast ranges of 60 feet or more, but they suffer from the same issues as Bluetooth locators when it comes to obstructions. Although radio waves can penetrate solid objects like walls and refrigerators, doing so attenuates the signal and reduces the available range.

Are Car Key Locators Worth It?

Although car key locators all suffer from some potentially annoying drawbacks, they can be an effective way to locate lost keys.

Since these locators all have limitations, there are cases where you may still find yourself unable to locate your keys. However, keys that have a locator attached will always be easier to find than keys without a locator.

Even if the signal on your locator is attenuated and you have to hunt around before your locator makes a connection, the assistance of a locator is better than nothing.