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Forget the Repair Shop! Here's How to Replace a Broken Headlight Yourself

the front of a car
How to Replace a Broken HeadlightGannon Burgett - Car and Driver


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Jakob Dylan may argue that he "can drive it home with one headlight," but we wager for most of us, that plodding about with just one low- or high-beam is a recipe for disaster. Besides the obvious danger, there is also the risk of a citation from law enforcement. But why pay a shop big bucks to take on this job when you can do it yourself?

Replacing a broken headlight is—in most cases—a reasonably easy thing to do on your own. Not only will taking on this task save you a few greenbacks, but it'll also give you that warm glow of accomplishment that comes with DIY work. Here are the basics to replacing your vehicle's broken headlight.

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: Around 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 the bulb that requires replacement.

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.

Replacing a Broken Headlight Bulb
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Step 2: Identify the type of bulb you need.

Once you locate the bulb you need to replace, you'll want to figure out the specific bulb type you'll need. 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 may 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, which is an entirely different skill set.

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Word of advice: Give yourself as much room as possible before trying to remove the bulb. You'll want to move as much stuff out of the way as you can; your knuckles will thank you.

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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 you to put in a bit of muscle to fully release. But don't put in too much extra muscle—you don't want to damage the retainer (which means you're likely looking at 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 often get frustratingly brittle. They're designed to be disconnected by pressing a certain spot with your thumb and pulling, but beware that this can cause a brittle connector 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.

Filament lamp used in automotive headlights in vehicle
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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.

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 vehicle 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 pat yourself on the back, because you've just successfully replaced a broken headlight bulb!


How to Replace a Headlight Housing: Step-By-Step Guide

Changing a Headlight Module
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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, then things are more complicated. You'll want to replace the entire headlight unit, generally referred to as the "housing."

These molded housings are generally 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. (Note that 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 (i.e. cheaper) parts. You can even practice your first removal procedure on the donor car if you go to a "you pick it" salvage yard.

Step 3: Remove the old headlight housing.

Thanks to that handy video you watched, you'll know exactly what steps you need to take before removing the old headlight housing. This process can be as simple as removing a few simple plastic pieces to taking off the grille or even the entire front fascia. Unless you're working on an older vehicle, you're likely 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 bulbs, make sure to purchase new ones or transfer the bulbs from the old housing to the new one. 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 everything's fully functioning. Do this with the vehicle in its accessory mode.

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 get the job done right.

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FAQs

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. Expect to pay more for LED or HID replacement bulbs.

Headlight housings can get into the four-figure mark, 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 properly adjusted. Before buying aftermarket LED headlamps to install on your car or truck, look into the legality of replacing your halogen headlight bulbs with LED bulbs or adding accessory LED driving lights.

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Jack Keebler contributed to this story.

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