Everything You Need to Know About Apartment Key Fobs

Maybe you just moved into a new highrise in Philadelphia, PA, or a studio apartment in Columbus, OH, and you just got your new keys. When you go to unlock your apartment, you may notice that there isn’t a hole for a key but instead, there’s a small box next to your door. Don’t worry, you haven’t been scammed. Most likely, your building is just set up to use key fobs instead of keys.

Key fobs are sleek, usually black or gray, and a little smaller than your average key. In fact, you’ve probably seen a key fob before, since more and more cars use them instead of keys to start their engine. You can find your apartment key fob on the keyring your landlord gave you when you moved in. Depending on how your building is set up, you can use your key fob to access your building, apartment, and other amenities in your apartment building, like the elevator and gym.

If you’ve never had an apartment key fob before, you may have a bunch of questions. How do apartment key fobs work? How do you copy an apartment key fob? How do you get an apartment key fob replaced? Can apartment key fobs be tracked? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

Modern apartment building using a key fob system as added security for their tenants

What are apartment key fobs?

Apartment key fobs are a convenient entry option for apartments. Usually, they are small, circular objects a little smaller than a key. You can easily put them on your key ring and they unlock doors simply by tapping them against a sensor near the door you want to open.

Every apartment building uses apartment key fobs differently. For example, one building may have key fobs that open only the front door, while other buildings will have you use your key fob to enter the building, stairwell, elevator, and even your apartment. If you’re apartment shopping, you may want to check in with each apartment building to see how and where they use key fobs.

How do apartment key fobs work?

Key fobs use RFID, or radio frequency identification. What does that mean? Basically, your key fob is programmed to transmit a certain frequency when tapped against a sensor. The sensor will pick up on that frequency and run it through a central computer system, which will tell the sensor whether it’s a match or not. If it’s a match, the door will unlock for you.

Most apartment key fobs will stop working if the power goes out, since they require a central computer system to recognize the fob and unlock the door. So, make sure your apartment building has a back-up plan or generator if they use key fobs, just in case a power outage hits.

Can you copy a key fob?

Maybe you have a pet sitter coming over, or you just got a roommate. Are you allowed to copy your key fob? The short answer is, probably.

If you need an extra key fob or an apartment key fob replacement, there are a few ways to go about getting one. First, most property managers offer the option to buy additional key fobs from them. This is a great way to go because you know it is allowed by your building, and you know the key fob will be programmed correctly. On the other hand, the convenience of this option usually comes at a cost.

You may be able to copy your apartment key fob at a lower cost by going to a locksmith or key copying kiosk. However, there are some situations in which you can’t copy your key. For instance, some lease agreements forbid copying key fobs. Other keys and key fobs have “Do Not Duplicate” written on them, so you can’t copy them. Other apartment key fobs are copy-protected, which means that they have special software installed which prevents machines from being able to read and replicate them.

As with any new apartment, make sure to read through your lease agreement before you move in, so you know what options are available to you.

An apartment building using a key fob system for rental units

What to do if you lose your key fob

There are some situations where you may lose your key fob, or your key fob stops working, and you get locked out of your apartment. What can you do if that happens?

As explained above, you can probably copy your key fob like any other key, or you can ask your landlord for an apartment key fob replacement. “If any key fob is stolen, lost, or damaged, it can quickly be deactivated and replaced with a reprogrammed fob. You will never have to change locks again,” adds Tom Krones from Host Tools.

If your key fob stops working, you can ask your landlord to have it reprogrammed or ask for a new fob. Hopefully, your property manager won’t charge you for a new key fob if your old one just stopped working.

In case you want to know how much either of these options will cost you or what you should do if you get locked out for any reason, go back through your lease agreement, it should be listed out for you.

In the meantime, before your key fob is back to working again, your landlord can probably help you out. Most property managers and maintenance workers have a master key ring, including a key fob, which they can use to unlock your door for you.

Again, check out your lease to see what options you have if you get locked out of your apartment or if you have trouble with your key fob.

Are key fobs safe?

In some ways, key fobs are actually safer than physical keys because the locks can’t be picked and if you lose it you can have it deactivated. Plus, they can be connected to cameras and other security systems to monitor entrances and exits. In other words, you can check out when your apartment is being entered or exited. Ori Residential’s Assistant Property Manager, Jesse Tavenner, explains, “Not only can you see every person who comes in and out of the apartment, but you can also control the access they allow to certain places in the building. For example, if you want to use the elevator you have to first scan your fob before it will move to a floor, and it will only let you go to the floor that your unit is on (other than common areas, of course). This prevents strangers from being able to gain close access to people’s units if they somehow were able to get into the building.” Key fobs essentially add an extra level of security.

Apartments with key fobs come with some advantages

Since apartment key fobs can be programmed and deactivated remotely, they come with a ton of benefits:

  • Quick to program
  • Quick to deactivate if you lose them
  • Can be connected to alarms, cameras, and other security features
  • Can be connected to your phone for alerts
  • Can create custom codes for certain levels of access
  • Your key fob gets a code that’s unique to you

Key fobs come with some drawbacks

On the other hand, key fobs aren’t perfect:

  • They’ll stop working if there’s no electricity
  • You’ll need help from management if you have technical issues
  • Your key fob may need batteries
A key fob system installed into a residents front door

Guidelines to apartment keys for all renters

As with any apartment key, there are a few guidelines you should follow in taking care of your apartment key fob. Following these general rules will help you waste less money on keys and get your security deposit back when you eventually move out of your apartment.

Duplicate if you can

To avoid paying any extra money to your landlord for replacement keys or lockouts, duplicate keys yourself, if you can. Copying keys yourself is usually cheaper than buying extras from your property manager. And you can use that extra key as a back-up if you ever get locked out or if you decide to live with a roommate.

Return all your keys

When you move out, make sure you give all of your spare keys back to your property manager. Having loose keys is a security problem for your landlord, and you’ll probably have to pay a fine for not returning all of your keys when you move out.

Don’t hand out extras

A huge part of being able to return all your keys when you move out is being able to round up all of them. For that reason, make sure not to hand out too many extra keys to friends and family. Consider giving a spare key or two to one or two trusted people and that’s it.

Turn in your keys on time

Lastly, hand your keys in on time. Most landlords will charge a late fee if they have to wait weeks or months for you to get your keys in.

A modern apartment with a keyless access control system for entries and exits

Other types of apartment keys

The following are other types of apartment keys you may find through your apartment search. Each can be used in different ways, depending on how the property manager wants to secure the building best. For instance, an apartment building may use a traditional key for building and unit access, while they use a key fob for access to amenities like the gym. Or, they may use a key fob for everything.

Keyless entry

If you’re prone to locking yourself out of your apartment, keyless entry may be the best option for you. With keyless entry, you can let yourself in using your phone, passcode, or other “key.” You also have the ability to grant temporary access codes to people like friends or babysitters when you’re away. More and more apartment buildings are offering keyless entry since it is a convenient and trendy smart home addition. Vincent Breslin, the founder of Uplisting, believes keyless entry is the way of the future, “Especially for property owners that rent out their units. Not only is it a safer option, but it also simplifies the turnover process! While the initial cost may be greater than that of traditional key fobs, the time you save by not having to be physically present during turnover more than makes up for it.”

The one downside to keyless entry is that it isn’t so great if there’s a power outage or power failure.

Key card

Key cards usually use a magnetic stripe or RFID, depending on what kind of key card you get. Most apartment buildings don’t use key cards anymore, but they may be used to unlock the building, access the elevator, gym, or other amenities.

Key cards are inexpensive, small, and can easily be created or replicated, which makes them pretty convenient. They are wallet-sized, which is another plus. As with traditional keys and key fobs, you’ll have to ask for help if you lose your key card, and power outages can be a problem if your building isn’t prepared.

Traditional key (metal key)

Metal keys are the only physical keys that won’t let you down if you lose electricity. Plus, they’re usually the easiest and least expensive to copy. The major downside with traditional keys is that you can’t deactivate them if you lose them, which could become a security problem. And, if you get locked out, you’ll need to find help.

Frequently asked questions about key fobs

Can apartment key fobs be tracked?

Your property manager can see when you unlock doors using your key fob data, but they can’t track your key fob’s location.

What can cause a key fob to stop working?

Key fobs will stop working in a handful of different circumstances. If they are damaged, deactivated, lost, or stolen, you won’t be able to use them anymore. Same thing goes if your apartment building’s computer system is having an off day or if the electricity goes out, they won’t work, unless your building has a backup generator.

How long does a key fob battery last?

While not all key fobs require batteries, some do. They last for a long time though, most often somewhere from 4-7 years.

How much does a key fob battery cost?

If you have a key fob that requires a battery, you can expect them to cost usually less than $10.

How do you program your key fob?

Your key fob can be programmed by your property manager or a key copying service. If your key fob has technical difficulties, you’ll probably need to bring it to your landlord to be reprogrammed.

Are all apartment key fobs the same?

Each apartment key fob is programmed so that every tenant gets a unique code. In other words, no apartment key fob is exactly the same, even though they look exactly the same and sometimes open the same doors.

Do apartment key fobs have a GPS?

No, apartment key fobs don’t have GPS. But, your apartment building can track when you enter and exit your building by tracking your key fob usage data.


Author:Holly Hooper

Holly is part of the content marketing team and enjoys writing about home improvement and lifestyle. Her dream home would incorporate both an industrial and biophilic design.

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