Do Car Key Locators Work?

lost keys sitting on the ground.

 David Cornejo / Getty

Some people are inherently more organized than others, but almost everyone has misplaced their keys at least once. Keys are such a small item that if you set them down carelessly, or even drop them accidentally, you might never find them again. With the right car key locator, you'll never have to worry about that particular source of frustration ever again.

How Do Car Key Locators Work?

Car key locators come in a couple of different flavors, and even though they all perform the same basic task, the different technologies at play each have unique strengths and weaknesses.

The main technologies used by car key locators include:

  • Bluetooth: This is the same technology that you use to connect a wireless headset to your phone. Since most phones have Bluetooth built in, you can typically use an app on your phone to locate your keys.
  • Non-Bluetooth wireless: These locators use proprietary wireless connections. Since there is no compatibility with phones, you typically need a separate locator device.
  • RFID: These locators use the type of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that's commonly used for inventory management systems.

Some key locators rely on Bluetooth technology, others use non-Bluetooth radio transmission and receiver devices, and some newer ones even make use of RFID technology.

The other main differentiating factor you'll see is that some locators use a dedicated locating device, while others rely on your smartphone. Units with a dedicated locating device often have a wider range, but the locating device is just one more component to misplace.

Bluetooth Key Locators

Bluetooth car key locators rely on Bluetooth, which is the same technology that you can use to pair a headset or head unit to your phone or connect your phone to a hands-free calling system in your car. The advantage is that just about every modern smartphone has Bluetooth functionality, so you can use your existing phone to locate your keys.

Some Bluetooth car key locators work the other way around as well. What that means is if you have your keys, but you can't find your phone, you can use the car key locator fob to ring your phone.

The disadvantage of Bluetooth key locators is range. Although Bluetooth devices often boast ranges of 30 feet or more, you typically find that those ranges are significantly smaller in the real world. In practice, you’ll often find that a Bluetooth key locator will only work if you’re within ten feet or less of your missing keys.

Since various obstructions, like walls, can impede a Bluetooth signal, the specific place where you lost your keys can also be an issue. If they happen to be shut inside your fridge, for whatever reason, the actual range will probably be even less than the 10 feet you might expect otherwise.

Other Radio Frequency Key Locators

Although Bluetooth technically broadcasts on part of the radio frequency band, it uses a proprietary pairing and communication method. Most key locators that don’t use Bluetooth technology still make use of RF transmitters and receivers, but they use dedicated locator devices instead of apps.

The main advantage and disadvantage of these devices is that they use small dongles instead of smartphone apps. While it’s an advantage for anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone, it’s a disadvantage for anyone who is already prone to losing small items like keys and key locator dongles.

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

RFID Car Key Locators

The newest, and quite possibly coolest, type of car key locator uses RFID technology. Instead of a bulky dongle receiver unit, these locators use small RFID stickers or tiles.

In the most basic application of the technology, an RFID sticker is paired with a locator unit that typically has a greater range and the ability to actually pinpoint the location of your keys. This is handy since the RFID stickers are tiny, passive devices that don’t make any sound.

Are Car Key Locators Worth It?

Although car key locators all suffer from some potentially annoying weaknesses, they are the best way to guard against losing your keys.

Since these locators all have limitations, there are cases where you may still find yourself unable to immediately 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 down to almost nothing, and you have to hunt around before your locator makes a connection, the fact is that almost nothing is a whole lot better than nothing at all.