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Circuit Board Repair Resource Blog

Key Programming - Programmable or Clone?

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There comes a point in almost everyone’s life when you lose a key to a vehicle. For the longest time, if your key was a transponder key, your only option was to pay a fortune at your local dealership to have them cut and program a new key. Now there are mobile locksmiths and hardware stores offering to make another key and even program it. Technology has changed, and so have the keys. Here’s some information to help you along the way.

Key Programming:

Depending on the year, make and model of your vehicle, the key programming information can be stored in your engine computer, instrument cluster, immobilizer module, or steering column ignition lock module. When you try to start your vehicle, the key has a digital signature that has to match a corresponding module. If these do not match, the vehicle will not start. The key has to be programmed correctly to match the signal that your vehicle transmits when trying to start your vehicle. Most vehicles require at least two distinct key signatures for the vehicle to accept key programming.

Different Types of Keys:

Programmable Keys - These are they types of keys that you will get if you take your vehicle to the dealership to get another key. They are programmed and have a unique digital signature. Your vehicle recognizes each key as a different key.

Clone Keys/ Non-programmable - These types of keys are made by copying the digital signature from one of your original keys to another key. Your vehicle cannot tell the difference between the original and clone key.

How do I know which type of key I have?

If your key has a manufacturer’s logo on it, then it is most likely a programmable (unique) key. If the key is an aftermarket key, and it was created without the use of a programming device that was connected to your vehicle (laptop or standalone programmer connected to OBD-II port), then it is a cloned key. In other words, if your transponder key was copied in a hardware store, it is a cloned key.

Which key is best?

Both options are valid and can be good options. There are some pitfalls to both as well. The programmable keys can be expensive from your local dealership. Cloned keys are often cheaper and can be bought from your local hardware store. The problem with cloned keys is that your vehicle cannot tell a difference between the two keys. This means your vehicle really only thinks you have one key. This only becomes a problem if you ever replace a module on your vehicle that requires the keys to be reprogrammed. Ford and Mazda are two of the manufacturers that require two unique keys when programming a replacement module. Since cloned keys are an identical copy (program-wise), the vehicle sees them as the same key and will not complete the security programming with cloned keys.


When purchasing one of our exchange PCMs, key programming must be completed. For the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner, we send instructions on how to do so. The vehicle is looking for two distinct keys (not clones) to complete the programming process. If you have one original key and a clone, the programming will fail. 

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