My freshman year of college, my roommate and I discovered we could use a coat hanger to unlock the door of the second bedroom in our four-person suite—the hook of the hanger would grab the angled face of the latchbolt and retract it from the striker plate on the jamb. I wish I could say we used our powers for good, to help a frazzled friend who locked a semester’s worth of notes in his room on the day of the big test. In reality, we broke in, hid some stuff and moved some other stuff around, and almost got the cops called on us.
It did teach me a lesson though: which is that when you’re locked out, if you just remember that a lock is a pretty simple mechanical device designed primarily to keep honest people honest. If you need to, you can probably find a way to get through it. Here are your options, in ascending order of destruction.
NOT DESTRUCTIVE AT ALL
The Technique: Unlock it with a substitute key. (For interior doors.)
The Tool: Eyeglass Screwdriver/Paperclip/Spam Key
Residential interior doors, like those on bathrooms and bedrooms, lock for privacy but aren’t really made to be impassable. The non-locking side of the door should have a small hole, likely on the face of the knob. Inside is a small button that needs to be pushed to unlock the door. You simply need a straight, stiff tool to unlock it—try a straightened paperclip or a small screwdriver. Some people swear by the Spam Key. (Though why anyone still has one of those lying around is beyond me.)
In some cases, the lock will require you insert a tool and twist. For that, the screwdriver will be indispensable, but in a pinch you may be able to hammer the tip of the paperclip flat. Or, if it isn’t clear already, you should really just carry around a Spam Key.
The Technique: Remove the doorknob
The Tool: Screwdriver(s)
Another option for doorknobs that are designed to have a lower level of security—e.g., this probably won’t work on the front door of your home—is to remove the doorknob and disassemble the lock. One some knobs, the mounting screws are obvious. (They usually call for a Phillips head screwdriver.) On others, you’ll need to remove a series of pieces, like the shank, the rose, etc., before you get down to the mounting screws. In that case, a flathead screwdriver can help you release the mounting mechanisms that hold those extra pieces in place.
POSSIBLE AESTHETIC DAMAGE (ESPECIALLY TO THE JAMB)
The Technique: Pull the bolt.
The Tool: Wire coat hanger
If the locking mechanism is a latchbolt—the kind of bolt that is spring-loaded and has one angled edge—and the angled edge is facing away from you, you can hook it with a wire hanger. First, bend the hanger so it becomes a hook with a long handle. Then feed the hook into the gap between the edge of the door and the jamb. The goal is to get the hook around the latchbolt. Once the hanger is in position, hold it with one hand and grab the doorknob with other, applying some turning force in the direction the knob would turn if it were unlocked. Pull the hanger towards you, and as it pulls on the latch, forcing it to retract, the knob should turn and the door should open.
Note: This won’t work if the jamb blocks the gap between the door and the wall.
The Technique: Push the bolt.
The Tool: Credit Card
If the locking mechanism is a latchbolt but the angled edge is facing toward you, you can pop it free with a credit card. (Or other flexible plastic card, which is probably the wise choice because the card might get damaged.) The principal here is the same as the coat hanger technique, but you’re using the edge of the credit card to push on the angled edge of the latchbolt. Carry it out the same way—pressure on the knob, etc. One advantage here: the flexibility of the card means you may be able to bend and wiggle it into the gap even if the jamb is blocking access.
THE LOCK WILL BE FINE. PROBABLY.
The Technique: Pick the lock.
The Tool: Bobby pins
Yes, you can pick a lock with bobby pins, just like you’ve seen in the movies. (It’ll take you longer than it takes them, though.) You need two bobby pins, both of which are bent into a specific shape for a particular job. The first bobby pin is essentially going to be a replacement for the key—a way to turn the cylinder. Bend the last centimeter or so of the fulcrum end so it is perpendicular to the two free ends; stick this part into the bottom of the key hole and use the rest as a handle. Then, take the second bobby pin and bend it at the fulcrum to make one long, straight piece. Add a small upward bend to its straight end; this is the “pick,” and it goes into the top half of the keyhole.
When it’s locked, the lock’s cylinder, which turns the bolt, is prevented from turning by a series of spring-loaded pins that protrude into holes in the cylinder. The key’s unique shape pushes these pins up and out of the way, allowing the cylinder to turn. To pick the lock, you use your pick to push the pins up, one at a time, until the cylinder is free to turn. This video shows the technique pretty clearly:
You can purchase the clear practice lock from the video if you’d like to practice at home. You can also buy lock-picking kits, if you find yourself frequently encountering this problem. We won’t ask why.