What Does "Key to the City" Mean? It Doesn't Actually Unlock City Hall

Did you know Taylor Swift received the "Key to the City" of Arlington, Texas, when she performed their for her Eras Tour?

Alex West - Author

May 28 2024, Published 10:21 a.m. ET

From Taylor Swift to Audrey Hepburn, plenty of public figures have been handed a "Key to the City" as a special recognition. While this always makes for a flash headline, few know what this really means.

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Afterall, a key implies that there is something to unlock, but it's obviously not possible to unlock a city. So, the spirit behind the key is just that, an abstract honor.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and New York City Mayor Eric Adams during a ceremony as Composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is given the key to the city
Source: Getty Images
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What does "Key to the City" mean?

There is some deviance between each city as to what the key means and signifies. Also, any perks that come with the key vary drastically too, but they have the same general concept.

For example, in New York "the Key to the City is a beloved symbol of civic recognition and gratitude reserved for individuals whose service to the public and the common good rises to the highest level of achievement," according to the city's website.

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The city also notes that it symbolically shows their "wish that a guest feel free to come and go at will." This basically means that the distinguished individual is being not only invited to return, but told that they are wanted.

The concept of the key dates back to medieval times when cities were fortified, barricaded, and gated. While the key still didn't typically open much of anything, the symbol did make more of a direct connection.

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 Mayor Francis Suarez presents the Key to the City to DJ Khaled
Source: Getty Images

When handed a key in medieval times, the individual was being bestowed a level of respect just like today. However, they often received perks. For example, merchants with a key would often have their tolls waived which helped their business significantly.

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The tradition of holding an elaborate ceremony dates back to that era too. Nowadays, public figures will often be handed the key on the City Hall steps or another major building in town.

Does a "Key to the City" open anything?

Short answer: no. It isn't a functioning key and won't get you into City Hall. While the city welcomes your visit, deciding to enter a secure building at random without authorization will probably cause some questions, with or without that symbolic key.

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The key itself is ornamental and often is secured to a nice plaque that can be hung up and look fancy. It'll even be engraved with the honoree's name.

Sujan Katuwal poses after receiving the 'Freedom of the City of London' award
Source: Getty Images
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Does a "Key to the City" come with perks?

In most cities, not really. Of course there's likely a fancy dinner following the key bestowing ceremony and there might even be a cash reward with it, too. In most cases, though, the key itself is the reward.

Can you buy a "Key to the City"?

In most cases, no. It's not the sort of thing you can typically pay your way into, but who knows? Maybe if you have enough cash you can do some bargaining. Overall, though, it really is just a sort of honor.

However, some cities have tourist passes that are named similarly, such as Las Vegas. In Sin City, there's a super limited edition theoretical key which unlocks an array of benefits. However, this is just an app and not the actual honor from the city.

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