VIN lookup: Decoding your car’s VIN

VIN lookup: Decoding your car’s VIN

If you’re wondering what is a VIN number, you’re in the right place. Here’s how to check the VIN number for a car, why you might need a car VIN number check, and how VIN number decoding works.

VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) basics

The acronym VIN stands for Vehicle Identification Number, a unique 17-digit alpha and numeric string of characters for each and every vehicle manufactured or imported since the 1981 model year. (VIN “number” is redundant, but it’s commonly referred to as such.) The U.S. Department of Transportation mandates that every automaker stamp a VIN on every car off the assembly line or imported into the U.S. to track vehicle registrations, recalls, warranty claims, thefts and insurance coverage.

A VIN acts like a car’s unique social security number, but it’s used for most other vehicles that fall under the purview of government oversight and classified as a motor vehicle, such as passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, trailers, low-speed vehicles, restomods, one-offs, modified vehicles, motorcycles, and more. The NHTSA’s definition of a motor vehicle is “a vehicle that is driven or drawn by mechanical power and manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways.” But side-by-sides, ATVs, UTVs, and other off-road fun vehicles have VINs as well. 

Decode your VIN number

What does each digit in the VIN mean? Each character in the VIN has a specific purpose. If you’re curious about your car’s background and learning more about its assembly, here we’ll show you how to decode a VIN. It may be important for checking a car’s history or buying a car.

What does each digit in a VIN number mean?

1st character – identifies the country of manufacture and assembly. For example, U.S. (1 or 4), Canada (2), Mexico (3), Japan (J), Korea (K), England (S), Germany (W), Italy (Z). If there are parts manufactured in Mexico, for example, but assembled in the U.S., then the country code would be the U.S.

2nd – identifies the manufacturer. For example, Audi (A), BMW (B), General Motors (G), Ford (F), Honda (H), Mercedes-Benz (D), Nissan (N), Toyota (T), Volkswagen (V)

3rd – identifies the vehicle type or manufacturing division

4th through 8th – identifies vehicle attributes, such as body style and engine type

9th – called the “check digit,” the ninth character uniquely identifies the vehicle, ensuring that no two cars within a 30-year period have the same VIN

10th – identifies the model year

11th – identifies the assembly plant

12th through 17th – identifies the sequence of the vehicle off the assembly line, with the last four characters always numeric

Where is the VIN Number on a car?

The VIN appears in several places, both on the vehicle itself and in official documentation when registering vehicle ownership. Like a social security number, it’s important to protect the VIN to prevent fraud or make it easier to steal the car. Here’s how to find VIN number on a car. Auto manufacturers stamp the VIN in several different places on a vehicle.

The most visible one is near the driver’s side cowl, inside on the dash by the front windshield, located on the driver side interior dash by the windshield. It’s usually on a stamped plate or label, but some new car sellers and aftermarket shops offer to etch it into the windshield itself to prevent thieves from restamping VINs on stolen cars. Another location is on the driver’s side door jamb on the Federal Safety Certification Label. 

A VIN number on the car may be stamped on the front or top of the engine block, the engine frame, and many other hidden parts of the vehicle.

Consumers can also opt to have their VIN permanently etched into various parts of the car, a practice encouraged by insurance companies to help discourage theft and selling of car parts.

Where is the VIN number in paperwork and documentation?

The VIN typically appears in four places related to ownership, registration, and insurance of the car. It’s always on the vehicle title, typically near the top of the title, but it can vary based on the state.  It also appears on your vehicle registration card, which is typically kept in the glovebox with the insurance card and owner’s manual. The VIN also comes in the printed owner’s manual. Finally, your insurance card also shows the VIN. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What does each digit in a VIN number mean?

Each digit in a VIN has a specific purpose. It identifies the car’s country of manufacture, 

the automaker, the vehicle type, vehicle attributes, model year, assembly plant, and when in the production run the vehicle was built.

How do you find your VIN number?

Where is the hidden VIN number on a car? The easiest places to find the VIN are near the windshield on the dashboard and inside the door jamb, and a VIN may also be stamped on the front or top of the engine block, on or inside the engine frame, and in many other hidden parts of the vehicle.

Is a car VIN number important?

Yes. If you’re wondering what is a vin number on registration, it provides important information about a car. Tracking a VIN online lets you search the vehicle’s country of origin, manufacturing plant, and other historical data as provided by the decoder mentioned above. The NHTSA’s VIN decoder portal provides the information supplied by the manufacturer to the government. 

Is it OK to give out your VIN number?

While you’re required to provide your VIN for registration and insurance, you shouldn’t give it out otherwise. The only legitimate reason for someone else to need your VIN is if you’re selling the car and they want to use it for a vehicle history report.

How do I run a VIN number on my car?

Here’s how to do a VIN number lookup. On your own car, you can use the VIN number lookup to track safety recalls or known issues. Entering a VIN on the recall site will show what recalls have been made on a car. It also shows complaints lodged by owners for a specific make, model, and year, so you can see what kind of problems to expect with a similar model year vehicle.

Should I research the VIN before buying a used car?

A VIN lookup can give you important information. When considering a used car, check the VIN of the desired vehicle on national online databases such as Carfax that shows info supplied by DMVs, insurance claims, police and fire departments, auto auctions, collision repair places, and more. It can certify the odometer reading, ascertain if an insurance company has deemed the car a total loss through “salvage” or “flood” titles, or any natural disaster occurrence.

What can I do with my VIN?

The VIN lets you check the vehicle history, to seek out safety recalls, to register the car with the state and to insure it, to report or check for stolen cars, as well as other information. 

Why do I need to use the VIN for car insurance policies?

You need to file a VIN to get car insurance. Insurance companies use VINs to assess the car’s worth, and provide a quote specific to that car. You can still get a general insurance quote on the type of car and type of driver without the VIN, but to lock down the policy, you’ll need the VIN. Mechanics and shops use the car VIN number for repairs and parts, and body shops and repair services use the VIN to identify and order replacement parts, which is important if you file an insurance claim.

How do I use the VIN to protect against vehicle theft?

Keeping your VIN secret can help protect you against theft and fraud. Car thieves can troll parking lots or cars parked on the street, copy the VIN, create counterfeit tags, then steal a similar car and use the fake tag on it to sell the “clone” in another state, typically with false documentation, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The NICB offers a free VINCheck service that shows if a vehicle has been reported as stolen but not recovered, or is a salvage or flood vehicle that shouldn’t be on the secondary market. 


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