Can I Open a Locked File Cabinet

File cabinets allow us to safely store and secure important documents but can be a cause of nuisance when you can’t find the keys or if the lock is broken. Still, with a few skills, you should be able to quickly get the file cabinet open and access your files.

How to open a locked file cabinet

If you urgently need to grab some documents from your locked file cabinet but have misplaced the keys, there’s no need to panic. There are several methods you can use to access the cabinet without having the key. Picking the lock is the most common and effective of these methods, as many of the other methods will leave your file cabinet lock damaged and needing replacement.

To pick a locked file cabinet with a furniture-type lock, you can either use a straightened paper clip, a nail clipper file, or a paper clip + a bobby pin.

Use a Paper Clip

Most types of file cabinets feature a simple locking mechanism that can be easily picked using a paper clip. Start by straightening the paper clip using your hands, then slightly bend the tip of the clip using a pair of pliers. Next, insert the clip into the lock’s keyhole, with the angled tip vertically positioned to accurately push down on the lock’s pins.

With the clip correctly positioned, try to locate the unlock position by moving it horizontally as you feel for a spot where the clip doesn’t catch. Once you’ve found this ‘smooth action’ spot, you’ve found the unlock position and can now turn the pin in a clockwise direction until the keyhole is horizontally aligned. At this point, you can remove the clip and open the cabinet as this is the position of most locks when open.

Note: Some cabinet locks don’t open until the keyhole is in an upright position, thus you should try turning the paper clip until the keyhole is vertical if the first option doesn’t work. Also, cabinet locks whose keyholes are vertical when open typically turn in a counter-clockwise direction.

Use a Nail Clipper File

A nail clipper- specifically the fingernail file- also works just as well as a straightened paper clipper when it comes to lock picking tools. However, the nail clipper file has to be the type that has a curved tip, not straight-tipped. Simply insert the file into the lock’s keyhole, making sure to push it as deep into the keyhole as possible.

 Meanwhile, the curved tip should be facing downwards to allow you to push down on the lock’s pins. Now, just as in the previous method, find the unlock position by turning the file left and right until you feel a smooth action spot where it doesn’t catch on to anything. At this point, you can push against the lock’s pins by moving the file up and down.

Note: Once you feel no resistance when moving the file up and down, it means that you’ve moved all the pins and can now turn the file either clockwise or counter-clockwise to get to the unlock position.

For clockwise locks, the unlock position is usually where the keyhole is horizontal; while for counter-clockwise locks, the open position is reached when the keyhole is upright. Once you’ve turned the keyhole to the unlock position, remove the file, open the file cabinet, and access your files.

Use a Paper Clip + a Bobby Pin

You can also pick a cabinet lock using a paper + bobby pin (the two-handed method). This technique is the most difficult to master of the three lock picking methods discussed. It borrows heavily from the fundamentals of lock picking using a paper clip, but also includes a bobby pin bent into an L-shape to create tension.

How to break into a filing cabinet without key

If you find the lock picking methods discussed above to be too complex for you to pull off successfully, or if the cabinet doesn’t use a wafer lock with movable pins, you can still forcefully break into the file cabinet. This option will leave you with a damaged lock cylinder that needs replacement, but that shouldn’t be a priority concern if whatever you’re looking to access is of utmost importance.

Drill through the Lock

One such method is to drill out the file cabinet lock. Start out by drilling through the pins by using a drill bit that’s a tad bit broader than the keyhole. If this doesn’t work, proceed to larger drill bits to drill through the whole lock cylinder. Once done, you should be able to easily screw the lock loose using a screwdriver.

Note: Drilling through a file cabinet lock is a dangerous procedure that requires you to wear safety goggles.

Pry the Cabinet Open

If you don’t fancy drilling through the cabinet lock, you can still force the cabinet open by prying it open with a pry bar. The pressure you put on the pry bar forces the cabinet to bend, especially if it’s made of thin sheet metal. Beware, though, that this method requires some elbow grease to successfully bend the cabinet and get it to open.

How to open a file cabinet with a broken lock

Apart from the lock-picking methods and forceful access methods already discussed, other tools you can use to gain access to a locked file cabinet include a knife, a metal bar, and a strong shim tool that can fit between the file cabinet and the case (like a metal rule).

Meanwhile, if the lock on the file cabinet is broken, you can seek the services of a professional locksmith. Most cabinet file locks feature a code number imprinted on the bezel that locksmiths can use to cut a new key similar to the original one. And that’s not all, they also have special tools and skills that they use to open locked cabinets without causing any damage.

If you can’t afford a locksmith, you can reach out to the file cabinet manufacturer for help. Most companies will offer you guidelines on how to bypass the lock at no cost.


  1. Arizona State University (ASU): Different Lock Mechanisms to Choose From 

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