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Home / Features / What is Apple CarKey? The in-car iPhone tech explained

What is Apple CarKey? The in-car iPhone tech explained

Free parking in the Apple ecosystem this way - how you'll eventually be able to unlock your car with your iPhone

So, no wallet, no loose change, no door keys. What’s left in your pocket? Car keys! Well, Cupertino appears to have an answer for that too – sand it involves your Apple smartphone. Enter Apple CarKey.

If you’re already using Apple Pay and have installed an Apple Home-compatible smart lock to your front door, the excuse for leaving the house with anything other than an iPhone and a pair of fresh kicks is starting to wear thin. Think about it – all your cards on Apple Wallet, even gig tickets, match tickets, boarding passes and hotel bookings. The requirement for anything other than a tap-and-go payment is slowly dissipating.

What’s this about Apple having a CarKey?

Well, it’s not quite a car key. Introduced first in 2020, CarKey is a car-controlling feature available in iOS 14 and later. It’s buried away in the Wallet app and allows you to unlock your car from your iPhone. Like Apple Pay, you can also access the key from your Apple Watch. It joins house keys, hotel keys, and ID cards in Wallet, which were introduced back in iOS 15.

As you’d expect from an Apple feature, it comes with all the extra cherries on top. You can toggle on notifications for locks and unlocks, share keys via iMessage, and customize shared keys with restricted access. It’s a little like Tesla’s app, which allows you to unlock the car and toggle some quick settings.

How does it work?

With the feature set up, your iPhone (and Apple Watch) can become another key fob for your vehicle. After pairing your iPhone with the car, it copies the unlocking code to a saved key on your device. Using NFC, it then unlocks your car when you hold your iPhone to the door handle. It works just like Apple Pay.

Some automakers don’t let you start the car with CarKey, only unlock it. It won’t give you the full experience, so it’s worth checking any restrictions on your car (more on that later) before you set it up. There’s also Express Mode, which will unlock your car when your iPhone gets close enough, so you don’t even have to take it out of your pocket. It’s just like a key fob!

But a dead phone battery means being locked out and stranded?

Nope. It’ll even work if you’re out of juice because NFC chips harness the power of whatever device is reading them – in this case the car. Though, Apple warns it may only work for up to five hours after your iPhone dies. That’s plenty of time to charge it back up!

You can adjust the settings for this feature in your Apple Wallet once you’ve paired your phone to unlock, lock and start your NFC-compatible wheels.

So if someone nicks my phone, they nick my car?

Er… good point. You can disable the key from your iCloud account, but you’ll need to get online to do so. We’re not quite sure how Apple is going to get round that one. For now, let’s say you probably shouldn’t set your lockscreen to a picture of your car with its reg number displayed… unless you’re really, really thick. Or really, really cocky.

Does Apple need the permission of my carmaker?

Yep, you’ll only be able to use CarKey on cars that support the feature. Carmakers have to build support into the vehicle, so you’ll know whether your new set of wheels supports it or not before you drive home.

Currently, only 27 different models support CarKey. 19 BMWs, 2 from Genesis, 3 from Kia, 1 from BYD, and 2 from Hyundai. At the time of writing that included the latest BMW 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8 series, X5, X6, and X7 SUVs, the Z4 convertible, and i4, iX, iX1, iX3, i3, and i7 electric models. The spicy M8, X5 M and X6 M also make the grade. Kia supports CarKey on the new Niro, Telluride, and Seltos models. Genesis supports it on the GV60 and G90. Hyundai supports it on the 2023 Palisade and IONIQ 6 models. While BYD only supports it on the HAN from 2022 or later.

You can check if your car (or future car) does by checking out Apple’s handy CarPlay list and looking for the key icons. It’s certainly true that industry adoption has been slow – car manufacturers understandably want to keep things in their own control. Apple has now introduced a CarKeys Tests app to the App Store for manufacturers to test integrations of CarKey, though – so it’s a safe bet to assume more manufacturers are probably testing it out.

It’s not just the car that you need to check for compatibility. Since the feature uses NFC, you’ll need an iPhone with the right tech inside (and the Apple Watch too if you plan to use it). You’ll need an iPhone XS or later (including the SEs), and you’ll need an Apple Watch Series 5 or later (also including the SE).

Any benefits other than to the criminal fraternity?

CarKey can be shared with others, just like time-limited electronic access on a smart door lock. You invite who you like through Wallet, and they’re subsequently granted access through their Apple devices. Express Mode lets you keep your phone in your pocket, as we explained.

Essentially, the biggest benefit is not having to carry around your car key. How much you value that, well, that’s up to you.

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About

Connor is a writer for Stuff, working across the magazine and the Stuff.tv website. He has been writing for around six years now, with writing across the web and in print too. Connor has experience on most major platforms, though does hold a place in his heart for macOS, iOS/iPadOS, electric vehicles, and smartphone tech. Just like everyone else around here, he’s a fan of gadgets of all sorts! Aside from writing, Connor is involved in the startup scene. This exciting involvement puts him at the front of new and exciting tech, always on the lookout for innovating products.

Areas of expertise

Mobile, macOS, EVs, smart home

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