How to change headlights

On the Road 4 min read

Most new cars have LED headlights that should last the vehicle’s life, according to Jonathan Ganther, co-founder of Brakes to Go, a mobile brake repair company in Texas. However, you may need a replacement headlight if you have an older car. We asked Ganther how to replace a headlight yourself and when to seek out a professional.

Begin by determining if the problem is with a faulty lightbulb or a dead fuse. If only one headlight is out, it’s likely a faulty bulb. If both lights are out, then you may have blown a fuse. From there, you can gather the tools you’ll need to change the headlight or replace the fuse.

What tools do you need to replace a headlight bulb?

If you’re going to change a headlight, here are the required tools:

  • Screwdriver (flathead or Phillips head)
  • Locking grip or bulb pliers
  • Socket wrench set
  • Cotton gloves
  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Replacement headlight bulbs

Consult your owner’s manual to find the appropriate replacement bulb. Bring the owner’s manual to the auto parts store to ensure you purchase the correct bulb.

Can I replace my headlight myself?

“Most owner’s manuals are going to tell you how to do a headlight bulb removal — if it’s doable,” says Ganther. If it’s not doable, they won’t include it, and it’s best to get help from a professional. If you’re looking to buy or lease a luxury car, keep this in mind: “Luxury vehicles don’t list [changing the bulb in the manual] because they don’t want you doing anything in there and messing stuff up,” he says.

How to change a headlight bulb

The two most common methods for installing and removing headlights are the twist-and-lock and spring clip systems. You can identify a twist-and-lock headlight by looking for metal tabs along the outside of the adapter or off to one side that line up. A spring clip headlight typically has five or six spring clips evenly spaced around the perimeter that hold the headlight glass into the headlight ring.

Your vehicle may have another system, so consult the owner’s manual for instructions before removing your headlights. Then follow these steps to change the headlight yourself:

  1. Park your vehicle on a flat surface in a well-lit area and let the engine cool off if the headlights were recently used.
  2. Disconnect the negative ground cable from the battery using a socket wrench. The negative ground cable might have a black cap or a negative symbol, while the positive cable might have a red cover or a plus sign.
  3. Use a flashlight to find the headlight connection and disconnect the wires from the bulb. Refer to your vehicle’s manual if you have trouble accessing the headlight assembly.
  4. Put on the gloves to protect the bulb from the oils on your skin
  5. For twist and lock systems: Push the tab, twist the headlight counterclockwise, pull it out, and set it aside. To install a new bulb, twist it clockwise until it locks into the socket.
    For spring lock systems: Press the spring to release the bulb and pull it out. To install a new bulb, push it in and lock it into place.
  6. Reconnect the bulb to the headlight.
  7. Plug the electrical connector back into the bulb until it clicks into place, which ensures the connection is secure.
  8. Reconnect the negative ground cable to the battery
  9. Close the hood, ensuring that it latches securely
  10. Check that the replacement bulbs are working by turning on your car and headlights. If they’re still not working, you may have a more complicated electrical issue that requires you to find a professional mechanic.

How to check the headlight fuse

If both of your headlights are out, you may need to replace the fuse instead of your headlight. Here’s how to check and change a headlight fuse:

  1. Locate the fuse box — the owner’s manual will tell you where it is. It’s typically in the engine compartment or inside the car.
  2. Find the diagram in the manual that maps the fuse with the malfunctioning headlight.
  3. Before you begin, ensure the engine is off and the keys are out of the ignition.
  4. Remove the fuse with pliers and examine it.
  5. If the metal wire is broken or looks burnt, you’ll need to replace the fuse with one of the same type, which you can find listed in the owner’s manual.
  6. Check if your headlights work now by turning on your car and headlights.

How to change headlight housing on classic cars

If your car uses sealed beam halogen bulbs, you won’t be able to replace the bulb alone because it doesn’t come out. You’ll need to replace the entire headlight housing, containing the bulb and the plastic piece. “Muscle cars and old vintage cars are almost always going to be full housing replacements,” says Ganther.

Here are the steps for changing headlight housing:

  1. Turn the vehicle off and open the hood.
  2. Disconnect the negative ground cable from the battery.
  3. Locate the headlight housing and unplug the wires for the blinker and headlight.
  4. Disconnect any electrical connection from the back of the headlight housing.
  5. Use a screwdriver to loosen the bracket on the headlight housing and remove it.
  6. Put in the new housing and secure it into place.
  7. Reconnect the housing to the headlights and blinker.
  8. Reconnect the negative ground cable to the battery and close the hood.
  9. Check that the headlights work by turning on your car and headlights.

Once you’ve changed your headlights, learn how to clean your headlights and keep up with other car maintenance tips.

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