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It's worse than running at night with one eye closed: You've lost the illumination from one of your headlights. Either a bulb has burned out or a minor accident has claimed the lens, reflector, or perhaps the lamp's entire housing. Besides the obvious danger, there is also the risk of a citation, not to mention the possible gouge from a repair shop's hourly rate.
But you can handle the situation yourself, saving precious greenbacks while feeling the warm glow of accomplishment by replacing a broken headlight yourself. We at Car and Driver know you can. Here's how to do it.
What To Expect:
We highly recommend watching a YouTube video before diving in. Just search your make/model; someone is bound to have a video up. Or source a quality service manual. If you're lucky, it's an easy job. If you're unlucky, you're in for a full day's work. Finding out beforehand can help you be prepared, as the skill level for this type of job varies greatly.
Estimated Time: 10–20 minutes for an easy bulb swap, 45 minutes for a tougher bulb replacement, and up to 3 hours for a headlight assembly replacement
Experience Level: Amateur for an easy bulb fix; Professional for a full headlight housing R&R
What You'll Need:
Table of Contents
How to Replace a Headlight Bulb: Step-By-Step Guide
Step 1: Open the hood and identify which bulb needs to be changed.
The best way to start this job on the right foot is to identify which bulb you need to replace. Is it the high-beam bulb? Low-beam? Some cars have separate bulbs for these, and you'll want to figure out where that bulb is in the housing before you get started. Pop the hood and look behind the headlight housing—locate the plug you need to remove, and then you're ready for step 2.
Step 2: Identify the type of bulb you need.
Once you locate the bulb you need to replace, you'll want to figure out which replacement bulb you need to buy. The first place to look is in your owner's manual. If the manual is missing but you know the make, model, and year of your car, you can consult with a counter person at an auto-parts store or refer to the headlamp booklet that usually resides in the parts store's headlamp aisle. A search online is also worth a try. And finally, you can always pull the bad bulb and bring it to the store for reference.
Step 3: Gain access to the bulb.
Some vehicles require some preliminary steps before you can extract the bulb (the YouTube video you watched before should help with this). This can mean removing plastic panels, battery hold-downs, air intake ducting, and/or a headlight housing cover. In some cases, the bumper cover may need to be removed and that is an entirely different skillset.
Word of advice: Give yourself as much room as possible before trying to remove the bulb. Move as much stuff out of the way as you can; your knuckles will thank you.
Step 4: Remove the bulb.
Most of today's halogen high-intensity-discharge (HID) or light-emitting-diode (LED) bulbs are held in place by thin wire clips or rotating bayonet-style retainers. Don't go in blind—know what you need to do before trying to remove the bulb.
Thin wire clip-style bulbs usually latch, so press down on the swinging part to unlatch it. For rotating bayonet-style retainers, most turn lefty-loosey. They can get stuck in there, so some might need some grunts. But don't grunt too much—you don't want to damage the retainer (that means a headlight assembly replacement, cha-ching!)
Don't forget to unplug the connector. You can do this before or after the bulb is free from the retainer. These plastic components are exposed to heat all the time and can become frustratingly brittle. They're designed to be disconnected by pressing a certain spot with your thumb and pulling, but beware! This can cause it to break. We recommend getting a pocket screwdriver or a small pick and manually lifting the connector tab before separating. This is much more gentle than your thumb, Popeye.
Step 5: Install the new bulb.
First off, do NOT touch the new bulb. Contamination by the natural oil from your skin and even small amounts of dirt will cause early failure. We recommend throwing on a new set of gloves before handling new bulbs, just in case.
Next, assemble in reverse order. Carefully insert the new bulb into the housing, and either turn righty-tighty or fasten the clip-style latch. Plug in the connector until it clicks, and verify everything is secure. Before reassembling anything, put the ignition into accessory mode and make sure your new headlight works as advertised. Once it's good to go, then reassemble any parts you removed to gain access. Close the hood, and you've done it!
How to Replace a Headlight Housing: Step-By-Step Guide
Step 1: Know what you're getting into.
If the lamp's lens is broken, if the lens is super cloudy, or if an accident has damaged the housing, things are more complicated. You'll want to replace the entire headlight unit, referred to as a housing. These molded housings are clipped or bolted to the front end's radiator support. At the back of the housing are the wiring-harness connections, which must be removed. Unfortunately, in some cases (for example, versions of the Ford Fusion, Chevy Malibu, and Toyota Camry), the front bumper fascia must be loosened or removed to reach the housing's fasteners.
We'd suggest purchasing a repair manual or at least watching multiple YouTube videos for housing replacement specific to your vehicle. (But be careful—these gritty DIY videos vary in quality and thoroughness.) And if replacing an entire headlight housing requires removing parts like a bumper cover, you'll probably also need access to slightly more sophisticated hand tools.
Step 2: Obtain a new headlight housing.
The cost for new housings, including a new lens, ranges from expensive to very expensive. And yet a relatively inexpensive fix is still possible, particularly if you have a good salvage yard nearby where you can pick up used (way cheaper) parts. You can even practice your first removal procedure on the yard's "you pick it" donor car.
Step 3: Remove the old headlight housing.
Thanks to the handy video you watched, you'll know exactly what steps you need to take before removing the old headlight housing. This can range from a few simple plastic pieces to the grille or the entire front fascia. Unless you're working on an older vehicle, you're in for a few hours of fun.
Once the preliminary work is done, you can remove the actual housing. Take out any fasteners that hold it in place, and carefully disconnect any electrical connectors (see our tip above about using a pocket screwdriver). Once everything is free, simply remove the housing and take it to a bench for the next step.
Step 4: Transfer any bulbs or additional components over to the new housing.
If the new housing you purchased doesn't come with the bulbs, make sure to transfer them from the old housing. Do a thorough visual inspection for any other clips or seals that may have been omitted from your new unit. Transfer everything over properly, and you're ready to install.
Step 5: Install the new housing.
Reassemble in reverse order. Install the fasteners that hold the housing to the vehicle, and plug in all electrical connections. Before reinstalling any parts you've removed to gain access to the unit, cycle the lights on and off to make sure that the high- and low-beam replacement bulbs and reattached wiring are fully functional. Do this with the accessory in the On position to prevent starting the vehicle with previously removed parts that could throw a check engine light.
Once you've verified that everything is operating properly, finish installing the rest of the components you removed.
Step 6: Aim headlights.
Yes, you need to aim the headlights after installing a new housing. You don't want to be that person that blinds everyone in their rear-view mirrors. For this we suggest taking the car to a repair shop; you could attempt to aim them out on the road, but this is a hit-or-miss process at best. A shop has the expensive aiming gear to do the job right.
Our Recommended Products to Help You Replace a Broken Headlight Like a Pro
Clip Removal Tool
Mini Needle Nose Pliers
How long does it take to change a headlight bulb?
Unfortunately, this really depends on your vehicle. Some headlight bulbs can be changed out in a matter of minutes, others can take up to an hour. Our best advice is to do some research beforehand to help give you an idea of how long the job should take.
How much does it cost to change a headlight bulb?
Replacement bulbs can cost anywhere from $20–$100. The price depends on a variety of factors, such as bulb type, brightness, and the actual part number. Typically, LED replacement bulbs are more expensive than HID bulbs up front. While it seems like such a conventionally cheap component, do some research before to avoid sticker shock.
Headlight housings can get into the four-figure marks, depending on your vehicle. The cost will also vary if you purchase a housing new or pull one from a junkyard.
What is the difference between halogen, HID, and LED headlights?
Halogen, HID, and LED each have distinctive features.
Halogen are the traditional light bulbs that use tungsten filament and halogen-filled glass bulbs. They are generally considered less bright than HID and LED but produce a pleasing, warm, yellowish light.
HID (High-Intensity Discharge) lights use gas to produce light. An electrical charge ignites the gas and creates a high-intensity light. HIDs are brighter than halogen and produce white or blue light.
LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights use semiconductors that emit light when an electrical current runs through them. They are energy efficient, long-lasting, and produce a spectrum of light colors, including blue. However, they can be overly bright for oncoming traffic unless they're adjusted properly. For this reason, before buying aftermarket LED headlamps to install on your car or truck, the legality of replacing your headlight bulbs with LED bulbs should be a concern.
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