Similar to the way Apple Wallet can make it easier to go out without physical credit cards, Apple Car Key can theoretically make it possible to leave the house without your car keys, too. The feature was first introduced back in 2020, but adoption has been slow going, to say the least. Here’s a quick overview of how it works and how to set it up.

How to use Apple Car Key

Apple Car Key works on both the iPhone and the Apple Watch. To set it up, you’ll need to first make sure that your car supports the feature (there’s a list at the bottom of this post). Unfortunately, even in 2024, only a few select manufacturers have started supporting Apple Car Key, so the list is limited. You’ll also need to have an iPhone XS or later, an iPhone SE (2nd gen or later), or an Apple Watch Series 5 or later with the most up-to-date operating system.

The exact instructions you need to follow will vary based on the car that you have, but you’ll essentially need to contact the manufacturer and ensure your account is associated with your car. Then, you can use the car’s display or the manufacturer’s app to set up a key and add it to the Apple Wallet app. From there, you’ll simply need to hold your iPhone or Apple Watch close to the reader, just like you would if you were using Apple Pay.

By default, your Apple Car Key should be added to whatever Apple Watch you have synced to your iPhone. If it isn’t, you can add it by navigating to Wallet & Apple Pay > Add in the Apple Watch app on your phone.

Once you have added your key to your Apple Wallet, you can take advantage of both passive entry and proximity entry. Passive entry is the more automated option: It allows your device to unlock or lock your car when you cross a certain distance threshold, and as long as you have the iPhone in the car with you, you’ll be able to start the engine. Proximity mode works similarly to keyless entry in that it detects your iPhone when you hold it close to the door, and then unlocks the car. You’ll then need to hold the iPhone or Apple Watch close to the car’s reader to allow you to actually start the car. With Apple Car Key, you can also easily share car keys with others, which can be useful for large families that share a vehicle or for giving temporary access to someone who’s housesitting, for example.

Another handy feature that Apple’s Car Key offers is that your iPhone will still work as a car key, even if it needs to be charged. This functionality requires you to be using Express Mode, which doesn’t require TouchID or other biometric/safety measures to unlock access to your keys. It’s a bit insecure, considering anybody could grab your phone and have access to your keys, but Apple says it could work as long as you’ve had it enabled for up to five hours beforehand. You can see what cards and keys are available when your iPhone needs to be charged by pressing the power button.

What happens when all of the power reserve is gone, though? Well, according to an interview with The Verge, your phone should always work as a key for your car. It might not be as reliable, meaning you may have to hold it up to the handle a couple of times, but it should always work. That’s because when the reserve gets low enough, it swaps to NFC to make those connections. NFC chips don’t require a power source of any kind, so they should technically work even when the phone is dead. If you turn your phone off, though, Apple says that Car Key won’t work at all.

What cars support Apple Car Key?

As I noted above, there are still a few cars that actually support the Apple Car Key. You’ll need to contact your manufacturer to verify if your car supports the functionality. However, some users have managed to put together lists of all the cars that are currently known to support Apple Car Key:

2021 – 2023 BMW 1 Series

2021 – 2023 BMW 2 Series

2021 – 2023 BMW 3 Series

2021 – 2023 BMW 4 Series

2021 – 2023 BMW 5 Series

2021 – 2023 BMW 6 Series

2021 – 2023 BMW 8 Series

2021 – 2023 BMW X5

2021 – 2023 BMW X6

2021 – 2023 BMW X7

2021 – 2023 BMW X5 M

2021 – 2023 BMW X6 M

2021 – 2023 BMW Z4

2022 – 2023 BMW i4

2022 – 2023 BMW iX

2022 – 2023 BMW iX1

2022 – 2023 BMW iX3

2023 BMW i3

2023 BMW i7

2024 BMW i5

2022 – 2023 BYD HAN

2023 Genesis GV60

2023 Genesis G90

2023 Hyundai Palisade

2023 Hyundai IONIQ 6

2024 Hyundai Kona EV

2023 Kia Telluride

2023 Kia Niro

2024 Kia Seltos

2024 Kia EV9

Lotus Emeya EV

2024 Mercedes-Benz E‑Class

Why is there so little support?

It may seem strange that we’re four years into the lifespan of this Apple Car Key tech and yet there are still less than 150 car models that support it. Well, there’s a good reason for that. While having your car key on your iPhone might sound good on paper, there are a lot of factors that have to be taken into consideration, like digital safety.

The concern here is that hackers can theoretically access anything that is digital. Sure, we have various levels of encryption, and Apple offers some of the strongest encryption you’ll find on a smartphone, but at the end of the day, none of our cybersecurity systems are completely foolproof, and bad actors are always looking for new ways to get in. As such, even if a system is designed to be secure, hackers may find a way inside, thus giving them access to your car key. Even some of the most notorious car manufacturers who have pushed digital keys, like Tesla, have opted to offer physical fobs as well, just because they are less susceptible to hacking—and sometimes the apps that power the phone-as-a-key systems just don’t always work correctly. Sure, someone can still steal the physical fob off of you, but that requires physical interaction, rather than remotely hacking your phone and getting access to your keys.

There’s also the fact that Apple and others trying to push these digital keys have yet to come up with any standardization. Cars use different tech inside of them depending on the manufacturer, and that means that you have to create a system that is both secure and able to run off a multitude of different types of hardware and software configurations, or get every manufacturer in the world to agree on a singular tech setup. It’s a massive undertaking, and considering how much trouble we’ve had in just getting the smartphone manufacturers around the world to agree on standard baselines, it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon with car manufacturers (of which there are a vastly higher number of). That isn’t to say it is impossible, it’s just going to take a lot longer before it happens, the same way it is taking a long time for EV manufacturers to all agree on a standard charging setup.

Ultimately, the world just isn’t ready to overcome all of the hurdles that Apple Car Key and digital keys pose, from both a technical and consumer standpoint, and that’s why we’re not seeing them fully embraced across all car manufacturers yet. Concerns over cybersecurity, as well as technical hurdles are still very much at the forefront of this technology. It’s possible that another four years could bring more cars under the Apple Car Key umbrella, or it’s possible we’ll see manufacturers give up on digital keys altogether and look for other methods (this is unlikely, but it’s always something that could happen if the tech stagnates enough, which isn’t likely as Apple and others see the tech as “growing”). For now, though, Apple’s Car Key system will have to settle with its much smaller pool of supported vehicles. At least for a little while longer.