What should I do if I forgot to turn in a hotel room key card after checking out?

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Most of the time, especially when you check into a hotel in the U.S. or Canada, you do not have to bother about returning the room key card after checking out. So, the answer is, keep them as ‘free’ souvenirs.

However, sometimes, it may have been made mandatory by the hotel to return the key card after checking out. In that case, if you forget to turn in the room key card at the front desk or to someone working in the hotel’s management, you may be charged with a fine. Although the fine shall be minimal in most cases, some hotels can charge a hefty amount for not returning the key card. 

The thing is, if ever a hotel requires you to turn in the room’s key card after checking out, they make it very clear on the website you are booking from or somewhere in the reception area. Most of the time! And they make sure the guests are well aware of it. So, when you know you will be fined if you do not turn in your key card after checking out, you are most likely not going to forget to return it.

What should you do if you forget to turn in a hotel room key card after checking out?

Now, coming to the question, what should you do if you forget to turn in the hotel’s room key card after checking out? Here is what you can do:

  • Call the reception and tell them you forgot the key card in your bag and if it is necessary to return it. Most of the time, the person on the other end will ask you not to fret about it and keep the key card (or throw it). Then, you can keep them as souvenirs or throw them away.
  • Return the key card if the hotel says that you will be charged with a hefty fine. If you are still close to the hotel and do not need to spend any extra money to reach it, you should just return it. In case you need to book a vehicle to get to the hotel to return the key just because they are fining you for it, you are better off not returning it.
  • If the hotel says you will have to pay a hefty fine for not returning the key card, such as $20, it is ideal to post the key card if you have left the vicinity. That shall be cheaper than paying a substantial amount for forgetting something as insignificant as a hotel room key card in your purse.

Why are most hotels okay with unreturned key cards?

As mentioned, most hotels are okay with guests not returning the key cards after checking out. But why, exactly?

1. key cards expire after your check-out period.

The most important reason why most hotels do not care enough about you returning the hotel room key card after checking out is because they expire anyway. Every hotel key card has a check-out date that is encoded into the key card. 

Once you hit the check-out date, the key card is no longer functional unless wiped off of the previous data and reprogrammed again (which is all done by the key card reader accessible by the receptionist). 

Now, some hotels may still insist that you return the room key card, even though they have already expired after the check-out period. This is because some amenities of the hotel may still be accessible by card, such as the pool, the gym area, etc. 

Nonetheless, since an expired room key card can not be exploited by the user to access the room they have already checked out of, most hotels do not care if you returned the key card after checking out.

2. Hotels buy key cards in bulk.

Myriad hotels will not blink twice before charging their guests for stealing items such as comforters, mattresses, robes, towels, etc. But, on the other end of the hook, most hotels will let you off without any fine for an unreturned key card. 


Because key cards are cheap. Hotels buy key cards in a stash of several thousand, and each one costs about 10 cents only. Even the key cards that come with smart chips (the implication is that these key cards are more advanced than the magstripe key cards) cost only a dollar. 

If you do not take us for our word, we’d say you go to the kiosk and tell the receptionist that you lost your room key card (even though you still have it). You will most likely get a replacement key card for no cost at all.

3. Hotel key cards are a cheap source of advertising.

The newer key cards, especially the magnetic striped key cards, make for a cheap source of advertising for the hotel. Most hotels imprint the hotel name and address on the key card of every room, along with a logo. 

Should you choose to take the key card with you, it is possible you will show it to someone who could be a potential future guest at their hotel. Thus, letting the guest keep the key card with them when checking out is more or less a free source of advertisement for the hotel’s brand. 

4. Hotels know most travelers love collecting souvenirs

It is quite obvious that you would like to hold onto the memory of your fun beach trip to that beautiful Cuban island. And what better way to do that if not keeping the hotel key card with you. Some people like collecting hotel room key cards as souvenirs, and some might just keep one because the trip was special to them. 

In any case, hotels know that key cards are considered souvenirs or mementos by most travelers. Thus, they are fine with letting you keep them, even if you did not intend to and just forgot to turn them in at the reception.

5. Unreturned key cards do not pose a risk of security breach to the hotels

A metal key could easily be copied, but it’s not the same with a key card. This way, neither the guests nor a layman can have access to any room by ‘forging’ a key card. As mentioned earlier, key cards are encoded to the length of your stay, which means the hotel does not have to worry about you accessing the room long after your check-out period. 

This reduces the risk of a security breach for the hotels. In fact, most systems simply allow the hotel authority to manually or remotely describe cards in case they are stolen, unreturned, lost or accidentally taken.

Since unreturned key cards are in no way a means for resource exploitation or security breach, most hotels will let you leave without returning them. 

Do hotel key cards ‘really’ contain personal details?

Some guests purposefully keep their hotel room key cards instead of returning them because they make great keepsakes. Others forget to leave them in their hotel room or at the front desk by accident.

Then again, there are those who refuse to return their hotel room key cards in order to protect the ‘supposedly’ critical information they contain.

A hotel room key card simply carries your room number and check-in and check-out dates, so if you’re one of the many people who assume that a hotel room key card has information that the hotel or a thief may use, you’ll be disappointed to have your bubble burst.

The notion that a hotel key card includes a wealth of personal information is, of course, a fabrication.

It all began in Pasadena, California, in 2003, when investigators were looking into a fraud that was going on at the time. As a piece of proof, they were able to locate a key card belonging to a well-known hotel.

A key card reader was used by police in an attempt to get a glimpse of the pieces of information stored on it. The detectives believed they saw the home address and credit card number, among other pieces of information on the key card.

Some Pasadena police officers were made aware of the investigation’s findings by the detectives. The narrative was subsequently passed on to the officers’ families and friends.

However, the whole thing subsided when the allegations were unsubstantiated and could not be verified upon further investigation.

How Do Hotel Key Cards Work?

Room access is generally similar in terms of technology used and the underlying principle. Proximity or insertion of a digital key unlocks the door to your room.

Below we have explained how key cards in hotels work:

Step 1: Guest Checks In

You check-in at the hotel reception when you arrive. There will be a staffer at the counter who takes a Key Card and gets everything started for you.

Step 2: Key Card is Assigned

The front desk or concierge will fill in the information on each Key Card before they are used to unlock the doors.

Your room will be linked to the digital system by an attached keypad, which will transport the temporary data to your Key Card via a USB cable.

Step 3: Your Key Card Unlocks Your Door

In most cases, you’ll either slide the card into a card reader or touch it against a reader when you get to your room.

Both techniques will unlock your door by reading your card’s info and scanning it. You should be able to hear the mechanism unlocking within a few seconds of the process beginning.

Step 4: Cards Provide Power

In many hotels, your room’s electricity is provided via a small reader next to the door. In order to cut their energy use and create a supplementary use for your credit card, several hotels are now using this green program.

If you don’t need your room key, you may want to place a library card or something else in the reader, which is meant to be triggered by any credit card.

Step 5: Check Out Card Reset 

A fresh card is created for each new lock and door when a guest checks out. The next guest can then begin the process all over again.

It’s easier to replace a Key Card if it can be linked to any of the hotel’s doors, as all of the cards can be tied to the same door.

What to do if you lose your hotel key card?

There could be an instance where you lose your hotel key card. What happens next? Do you never get access to your room back again? That’s an exaggeration! 

Here is what you can do in the event you lose your hotel room key card:

1. Report to the hotel

The first thing to do when you lose a hotel key card is to report the loss to the front desk or to the receptionist. Make sure to keep an eye on the room and keep your valuables under vigilance at all times since anyone untrustworthy could have your lost key card. The whole point is that it is lost, and you do not know who the key card could be in possession of. 

The good thing about key cards is that they can be deactivated both manually as well as remotely. Thus, the receptionist or someone else from the hotel authority will deactivate the original key card in the system. This will prevent the old key card from being used to grant access to your room ever again.

2. Check the using record of the old card.

If you were out too long and unsure as to when and where exactly you lost the key card to your room, it is a good idea to check the using record of the lost key card. 

This could help you make sure that your room was not entered illegally by someone who could have your lost key card. If you do not remember your own last accessing time and find difficulty in analyzing if there was an unverified usage of the lost key card, we suggest asking the security at the hotel to pull up the camera recording.

3. Get a new card

Once you have scrutinized if your lost card was used to access your room and had it deactivated, it is time to request a new card from the receptionist. After the deactivation of the old card, the receptionist will assign you a replacement key card that can now be used to access your room. 

The new key card for your room will be encoded for the rest of the length of your stay. Most hotels will give you a replacement key card for absolutely no cost. However, some of them may charge you depending on the hotel’s policy.

Note: Some hotels might need you to show some proof, such as ordering details, before they give you a replacement key card for your room.

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Author - Willa Carson
Happywayfarer author Willa Carson
Hi, I'm Willa Carson, a passionate traveler who has been exploring the world for 7 years. Whether it's trekking through the Himalayas, exploring ancient ruins in South America, or simply savoring a cup of coffee at a local cafe, I believe that travel has the power to enrich our lives in countless ways. So join me on my journey and let's discover the world together!
Read more about me here.


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