If my understanding is correct, the term to "program a key" is misleading as you program a device in the car rather than the key.

I'm primarily talking about transponders for immobilizers. Remote controls might be different, though I don't see a reason why the principles should be different.

All car key transponders that I have read about are passive and "dumb", and all that one of these can do is transmit the ID that it was given at birth. When you buy a new key with transponder, and you want a car to accept that transponder, you need to tell the car that it should accept the key with this specific ID.

Even if you imagine a car key with a much more complex transponder that does a digital signature, similar to the chips in credit cards, you will still need to instruct the car to accept that digital signature, and I see no reason to make any change to anything in the key transponder.

So what you need to change is some settings in the car electronics, not anything in the key. Therefore "programming the key" is very misleading.

Wouldn't a better term be: 'To pair a transponder to the vehicle'

The term "cloning a key" refers to making a transponder, that responds with exactly the same ID as an existing transponder. In that case you obviously change something in that key, but in almost every tutorial I have watched, this is not what they mean, when they talk about "programming a key". Also cloning of keys seems like a much less used practice than "programming" (ie adding new keys to the car).

So my questions are: Do we actually program the key or the vehicle?

Why isn't it more common to clone a key rather than pairing it to the car?

What types of transponder are there and how do we program them?

  • So what, really, is your question - on my car 3 keys can be paired with the car.
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 10:42
  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this site has no authority to change industry terms or definitions. The question it is not related to maintenance and repair.
    – CharlieRB
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 11:55
  • @CharlieRB: Let me first understand, does key programming not belong on this S.E.? I think it does, and there are several questions regarding this already. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 14:55
  • Dealing with replacement keys can be, but your question is not. It reads more like a rant about terminology you don't agree with. That is not something this site can help you with. If you want to avoid your question being closed, edit your post to state what actual problem you are trying to overcome, what vehicle you are working on and what you have attempted so far. We can attempt to help you from there.
    – CharlieRB
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 15:02
  • Ok. I will come back soon with a rewritten question :) Until then, here is a short argument for why I believe the question belongs here. Well, my question is in the title "What is key programming", and all the text in the question is context for why I am confused by the term, and why I would like an authoritive person to answer with exactly what key programming is. Perhaps sometimes/always there is something changed in the key. Perhaps the term is used for historical reasons. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 15:34

2 Answers 2


Do we actually program the key or the vehicle?

Yes. There are so many different vehicles that all 3 combinations exist.

  1. 2000 Honda Accord; they key is programmed to match the vehicle. I used to own one. Had the key copied to add remote start system (placed the key in a piggy back box to fake out the security system). The dealer cut the key and copied the existing key info inside the new one (genuine Honda key). No vehicle programming was involved.
  2. Name a Ford in the last 10 years; The key is dumb and only provides an ID when asked. The vehicle has to learn the key ID. Procedure involves connecting a scan tool and then requesting that the vehicle learn the key.
  3. 2006 Mazda 6 with smart keys; The vehicle and the key get something. When an unprogrammed smart key is inside the vehicle and the vehicle is instructed to learn the key there is a handshake. The handshake moves information from the key into the vehicle and from the vehicle into the key. (not sure if the process is permanent for the key).

Why isn't it more common to clone a key rather than pairing it to the car?

It is very common but can have problems. Hardware stores have equipment that can suck out an ID and inject it into a new key. I have seen this for Ford and Chrysler vehicles (other vehicles probably as well). The problem comes during service. For example, if a security related part needs replaced in a Ford then to reinitialize the security system you need two unique keys, meaning that the ID numbers can not match. So if you have one original key and one clone everything is fine until something needs replaced.

What types of transponder are there and how do we program them?

This is so open ended that it's effectively unanswerable. There are simply too many verities and combinations to list.


As others have mentioned, just because something is called something, that doesn't mean that's an appropriate descriptor.

For instance, the British laugh at American's use of the word "trunk" for the rear locking storage compartment of a motor vehicle, while Americans tend to make light that the British call it a boot. Same for petrol vs gas ("it's actually a liquid"), and driving on the "right" side vs driving on the "correct" side.

It's a word, a label. Often, things get mislabelled and then cultural inertia carries them forward for a good long time. "Pairing" lacks the robustness and exclusivity of "programming", which is what people want to think about in regards to anti-theft devices.

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