A VIN or Vehicle Identification Number is like a social security number, serial number or UPC code for a car. It's given to a car by its manufacturer and no two VINs are the same. The VIN is a unique string of 17 characters that identify a variety of characteristics about a car including:
Where the car was built
The brand, engine size, trim and type
A Vehicle Security code (meaning the car has been verified by the manufacturer)
The assembly plant where the vehicle was put together
The serial number of the vehicle
VINs can also tell you things like what kind of airbags are present in the car, what kind of restraint system it has (think seatbelts) and the year of the vehicle. Basically, the VIN offers a quick way to decode the details of a car.
These numbers have been required on vehicles since 1954, but were standardized starting in 1981 when the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) began requiring that all vehicles have a VIN that followed the specific 17-character pattern we see today.
What does the VIN mean?
The VIN has a set pattern that tells you a whole bunch of things about the car you are looking at.
The first three numbers make up what is called the world manufacturer identifier or WMI.
The first number or letter identifies the country of origin. Cars made in the U.S., for example, get the number 1, while cars made in Germany get the letter W. You can find a list of the codes over at Wikipedia.
The second number or letter is part of the code that identifies the manufacturer. Sometimes this is the first letter of the name of the company, but not always. The third letter will help narrow down the manufacturer.
The third slot helps identify the vehicle type or manufacturing division. When reading the VIN you take this third spot into consideration to narrow down the details of the car.
The next six numbers help identify the vehicle further:
The numbers in positions four through eight tell you about the model, body type, transmission, engine, and restraint systems in the car.
The number in the ninth position is called a "check number," which is a digit that has been generated by a specific formula that was created by the U.S. Department of Transportation. This number helps identify whether or not a VIN is authentic.
The last seven numbers are the car’s serial number.
The letter or number in the tenth spot will tell you the model year with the letters B through Y indicating the years 1981 to 2000. They don’t use the letters I, O, Q, U or Z, however. From 2001 through 2009 the numbers one through nine were used, and the alphabet started over in 2010. So a car from 2022 would get the letter N in the tenth spot to identify that year.
The letter or number in the 11th spot is for the code associated with the manufacturing plant where the car was built.
The six digits following are unique serial numbers that the car gets from the manufacturer as vehicles roll off the line.
This unique VIN is then associated with a database of information about the history of ownership, accidents, and title information of a car and can tell you a ton of things about what kind of events the car has been through.
Where is the VIN on your car?
The VIN is usually found in a variety of places around the vehicle. These include:
Stamped on a metal plate that is mounted on the dashboard near the windshield
Stamped on the driver’s side doorjamb
Inside the engine bay stamped on the firewall
On the engine itself
On the driver’s side door just under the latch
On the car’s chassis
You can also find a VIN on any ownership paperwork like the title, registration and insurance paperwork.
How to Decode a VIN
Decoding a VIN is relatively easy in today's modern world. Do a quick search for a VIN decoder online and you’ll find a variety of options. Plug in the VIN you want to know more about and you will get a variety of information including everything from the location of airbags to the type of fuel it is designed to run on.
It’s best to use VIN decoders as a jumping-off point to find out about a car, as well as its ownership and accident history. VIN decoders and vehicle history reports should be combined with an inspection from a certified mechanic to ensure that you are getting a good used car. Never rely on the vehicle history report alone to determine whether or not you should purchase a specific used car. There can be errors and omissions that could cause problems. Read on below to find out more.
Using the VIN to pull a Vehicle History Report
You should consider pulling a vehicle history report before purchasing any used car. Usually, those come at a cost and range anywhere from $40 for one report to $100 for multiple. The most well-known reports come from CarFax but they are also the most expensive. Other companies like AutoCheck (owned by Experian) also offer vehicle history reports based on a vehicle's VIN.
You should also consider running the VIN through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. This system is run by the Federal Department of Justice. All salvage yards, insurance providers, junkyards and auto recyclers are required by law to report to this body on a regular basis. For $10 you can get a basic report that shows if the car has any branded titles on it (junk, salvage, flood, etc.). A branded title is issued when a car has been in a major accident or been the subject of some other major damage.
It’s important to understand what a VIN does and what it can tell you so that you can make an informed decision when you’re shopping for a car. You may find it's best to start with the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System and work from there to find out as much about the vehicle as possible before putting down your hard-earned cash.