Headlights Burned Out: What’s the Cost to Replace?

By Chris Hardesty 11/09/2022 4:00pm

A handful of various headlight bulbs.


Headlight Replacement Quick Facts

  • Headlight replacement costs vary depending on the vehicle and type of lighting.
  • Common halogen replacement headlight bulbs cost about $20 each.
  • New models may use xenon bulbs that can cost $100.
  • Some vehicles have LED headlights and may require entire assembly replacement.
  • Restore the lenses when replacing car headlight bulbs.

Having a headlight burn out when driving on an unlit road is unnerving. You might also feel a pit in your stomach when finding what it might take to fix it. Headlight bulb replacement isn’t as clear-cut as it used to be. Once upon a time, sealed-beam incandescent headlamps were tightly regulated, and car headlight replacements were relatively uniform in size, inexpensive, and easy to replace.

Over the years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has relaxed the design standards somewhat. Now you see an array of lighting options that are as unique as the car’s look. And the variety of headlamps, from projector beams to LEDs, present equally confusing options. Some vehicles require simply replacing a bulb, while others might need an entirely new headlamp module when a light is damaged or burns out.

Regardless, car headlight replacement is a crucial safety matter. Replace a burned-out or malfunctioning headlight promptly.

What Type of Replacement Headlight Should I Get?

The first step is to determine the proper replacement bulb for your vehicle. Check your owner’s manual for the part number, or visit a reputable auto parts store. The store needs your vehicle’s brand, model, year, and trim level. For example, let’s say the car is a 2009 Toyota Camry. It’s important to mention the trim level: Is it the base Camry, an LE, SE, XLE, or hybrid trim? Some cars might use a premium replacement bulb providing a wider range of illumination with a particular trim.

Avoid brands that do not have “DOT” inscribed on each bulb, and avoid brands you have never heard of. “DOT” stands for U.S. Department of Transportation. These bulbs without this inscription likely do not meet NHTSA’s standards, so don’t buy an unknown, low-priced replacement that might fail months after installation.

The U.S. Department of Transportation or NHTSA does not certify headlight replacement bulbs, despite what you might see on websites or hear from auto parts store employees. Essentially the bulb manufacturers conform to what might be called an honor system where they submit documents to NHTSA showing they meet federal standards.

“NHTSA enforces the (standards) by randomly selecting and purchasing equipment from the marketplace and testing to the requirements of the standard at independent test labs,” an NHTSA spokesperson told Kelley Blue Book. If the bulb fails to meet its standards, NHTSA can impose fines.

Headlight Bulb Standards

A person replacing a car headlight bulb.

NHTSA said its standards include guidelines on handling corrosion, dust, humidity, extreme temperatures, vibration, inward force, connector contacts, aiming adjustment, and other criteria.

“For headlamps, maximum and minimum candela are required to be projected in different directions ahead of the vehicle. In general, a lower beam must direct high levels of luminous intensity at angles down toward the road but is limited in the amount of luminous intensity that can be directed above the road where it will glare other road users,” the NHTSA spokesperson said.

Headlight Bulb Basics

Let’s get to the basics of headlight bulbs. There are four replacement headlight bulbs available on the market. The key is determining which bulb fits your car — incandescent, halogen, high-intensity discharge (sometimes called Xenon headlights), or light-emitting diode (LED). This story targets the last three bulbs because automakers stopped installing sealed-beam incandescent bulbs about 20-25 years ago.

We also won’t say much here about laser technology in headlights. These advanced laser headlights enable a half-mile of visibility, but they come at a hefty price in a few high-end cars. For example, the laser light headlight assembly for a BMW i8 sports car costs more than $5,000 to replace.

Halogen Headlight Bulbs

The average age of cars on U.S. roads is about 12 years old. That means most cars have headlight units that use replaceable halogen bulbs. If yours burns out, you can upgrade to a brighter replacement. We recommend you buy them in pairs because, although it may be working now, the other light may have limited life remaining. Moreover, a halogen headlight dims 20-40% over its life. Replacing both headlight bulbs helps ensure the best lighting performance on both sides of the car.

The average price for a replacement halogen bulb that matches the quality of the factory-installed headlight is about $20 each. Automakers often install what the industry calls a basic halogen bulb. However, halogen replacement bulbs range in brightness from basic to premium. The price rises as the bulb’s capability increases.

A premium halogen replacement bulb has considerably whiter light, is much brighter, and lets the driver see farther down the road — big pluses in terms of safety. The drawback is that the more intense bulb’s life is shorter than the basic bulb’s. Generally, a basic halogen bulb lasts from 500-1,000 hours.

High-Intensity Discharge (HID) Headlight Bulbs

Many newer vehicles use xenon HID bulbs. The bulb requires an electrical charge to ignite the Xenon gas in the bulb, and then the ballast in the bulb maintains it. HID bulbs are three to five times brighter than halogen bulbs. A replacement HID bulb can run $100 or more. However, a benefit is that it can last 2,000-3,000 hours.

Replacing halogen bulbs isn’t tricky for most vehicle owners, but replacing HID bulbs can be a challenge. We recommend you visit a professional to install a xenon headlight replacement. It is a high-voltage situation that might be out of your comfort zone.

HID bulbs also dim over time, eventually casting a pinkish hue on the road. The discoloration usually indicates degradation inside the bulb, meaning it’s time for a replacement.

Light Emitting Diode (LED) Car Headlights

LED is the newest and longest-lasting replacement headlight bulb. The light-emitting diodes last about 30,000 hours. Check with the vehicle dealer to determine if an LED replacement headlight bulb is available for your ride. It might be necessary to buy a complete headlight assembly that is equipped with a new LED bulb. However, the price is steep.

For example, the headlight module for a 2022 Subaru Forester costs from about $600 to $900, depending on model; 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited, $675; 2020 Toyota Corolla, $900; 2019 Cadillac XT5, $1,350; 2018 Volvo XC90, $2,800. The headlight module for a 2019 Tesla Model 3 is about $1,000. That’s just the cost to replace a burned-out LED headlight and doesn’t include installation.

Automakers like LEDs because they emit plenty of light, require very little electric power, and are small enough to give designers more options for headlamp and taillamp shapes.

LEDs last about 30,000 hours, but the replacement cost will likely give future owners of that 8-, 12- or 15-year-old vehicle a financial headache. They will be longing for the good old days when a halogen headlight cost about the price of two lunches at a fast-food place.

Inspect the Headlight Lens

Cloudy car headlight lens

Changing a burned-out headlight bulb is the perfect time to give the headlight lenses a little TLC. The front end of a vehicle faces a lot of road debris that can cause pitting on the soft plastic headlight lenses, which causes a dull headlight. In more severe cases, pitting can ruin the protective clearcoat and leave the lenses susceptible to UV damage. Cloudy headlights are not only an eyesore but a safety hazard when driving at night or during inclement weather.

The good news is that headlight restoration kits are readily available at local auto part stores and online retailers. For roughly $20 and a few hours of your time, you can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars restoring an old headlight compared to buying a new one. If you aren’t confident in your DIY car detailing skills, a professional car detailer can restore the lights for approximately $150.

“No matter the headlight restoration method, applying a new layer of protection to headlight lenses is imperative,” said Trevor Speddon, a Kelley Blue Book SEO analyst who is an expert car detailer. “Otherwise,” he said, “they will start to cloud from UV damage very quickly.”