How Can I Open a Locked Filing Cabinet?

by Keith Evans; Updated September 26, 2017

If your file cabinet is locked and the key is nowhere to be found, or if the key is even inside the cabinet itself, you’re not completely out of luck. There are a few tricks that will likely help you open the cabinet.

Understanding File Cabinet Locks

Filing cabinet locks use a long vertical metal bar to secure the cabinet drawers, according to Keypass Locksmith. When you turn the key to lock the cabinet, the movement rotates a cylinder that causes the metal bar to lower. Once the bar has lowered, it blocks the drawers from opening. The cylinder is designed to work only with matching keys.

Manipulate the Locking Mechanism

Some file cabinets have an emergency access port on the bottom that you can use to unlock the cabinet without the key. To unlock the cabinet using this port:

  1. Tilt the cabinet backward so the front lifts off the floor.
  2. Feel or look under the front lip of the cabinet, on the right side, for a small hole.
  3. Insert your finger in this hole until you encounter mild resistance from the metal locking bar.
  4. Press gently but firmly to move the metal bar up, unlocking the file cabinet.


  • If you have a tall or heavy file cabinet, have a colleague help with this step. Tilting your file cabinet could create a tipping hazard.

Pick the Lock

If you are handy with small tools and very patient, you may be able to pick the lock.

  1. Bend two safety pins or paper clips bent into “L” shapes.
  2. Insert the first pin in the bottom of the lock and maintain tension in the direction you would turn the key to open the cabinet.
  3. Insert the second into the upper part of the lock, where the lock’s pins are located.
  4. Wiggle and twist the top pin until you open all of the pins, then use tension to turn the lock.

Obtain Another Key

Many file cabinet manufacturers use only a small number of key designs, so you may be able to obtain a working key. Look carefully at the locking mechanism, noting any numbers etched into the metal. Other file cabinets from the same manufacturer with these same numbers on the lock use the same key, and you can use one of those keys to open your cabinet. Alternatively, contact the manufacturer to obtain a replacement key.

Drill Out the Lock

You can remove the locking mechanism with a drill, allowing you to manually open the metal bar that holds the file cabinet drawers closed:

  1. Using an electric drill, insert a large drill bit into the lock hole.
  2. Pressing firmly into the lock, activate the drill.
  3. When you feel the lock give way, use the drill’s reverse mode to pull the drill bit out of the lock.
  4. Use a screwdriver to turn the empty lock housing to open the file cabinet.


  • If you do not have an electric drill, you can achieve the same result with a hammer and large screwdriver. Insert the screwdriver into the lock opening and then strike it with the hammer until it penetrates the lock.


  • Drilling out the lock will irreparably damage the lock. You must replace the entire lock to secure your file cabinet in the future.

About the Author

Keith Evans has been writing professionally since 1994 and now works from his office outside of Orlando. He has written for various print and online publications and wrote the book, "Appearances: The Art of Class." Evans holds a Bachelor of Arts in organizational communication from Rollins College and is pursuing a Master of Business Administration in strategic leadership from Andrew Jackson University.