Photo by Michiel1972 from nl on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 / GNU FDL 1.2

VIN 101: What is a Vehicle Identification Number?

To many drivers, the VIN of their car is just a random string of numbers unique to their car. However, the numbers in your VIN aren’t just random numbers. Thanks to the introduction of the VIN system decades ago, your car’s VIN carries an abundance of information about the car. Knowledge of the VIN system is helpful whether you’re buying a new car or trying to find out more information about your current car.

What is the VIN?

VIN of a 1996 Porsche 993 GT2. Photo by The Car Spy on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

VIN of a 1996 Porsche 993 GT2. Photo by The Car Spy on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

VIN is an acronym that stands for vehicle identification number; it’s also sometimes called the chassis number. Every vehicle in the world, whether it’s a car, trailer, motorcycle, or commercial vehicle, has its own unique VIN. Modern vehicles have a 17-character VIN, which contains information about the vehicle’s manufacturer, engine specifications, trim level and optional features, in addition to a serial number to uniquely identify the vehicle. Some vehicles built before 1981 have shorter VINs.

History of VINs

VINs haven’t always been a feature of vehicles; before the early 1950s, there was no industry-wide push to give each vehicle a unique identifier. Some earlier vehicles did have unique numbers assigned to them, but these numbers were assigned to the engines of the vehicles, and each manufacturer followed its own system. However, starting in the ’50s, several manufacturers started adding VINs to their vehicles, using the number to track the car as a whole. These early numbers, however, didn’t follow modern standards; each of the manufacturers had their own standards, and the early VINS were anywhere from 11 to 17 characters long.

Although these early VINs were a step in the right direction, the disparity in standards reduced the usefulness of the VIN system. In 1981, the NHTSA established the first formal, national guidelines for VIN systems, fixing the length of the VIN at 17 characters and mandating that all vehicles be identified by a VIN. These standards were expanded in 1987 as part of new anti-theft legislation, requiring that all of the major components of passenger vehicles be marked with the VIN. Finally, in 1994, the marking requirements were added to several more parts of the vehicle, and the marking requirements were expanded to include light commercial vehicles as well.

What Does My VIN Mean?

VINs are not just random collections of numbers and letters; most of the characters have a specific meaning that can tell you something about your car.

  1. The first three characters are called the world manufacturing identifier and provide information about the manufacturer of the car.
  2. The next five characters are known as the vehicle descriptor section and describe some of the general characteristics of that particular type of car, such as engine or body style.
  3. The final nine characters are known as the vehicle identifier section and give information specific to that individual vehicle; each manufacturer assigns these final numbers according to its own internal system.

1. The World Manufacturing Identifier

The first character in the world manufacturing identifier tells you which continent your vehicle was manufactured in:

  • If the first character is between A and H, your vehicle was manufactured in Africa.
  • Letters J, K, L, M, N, P and R indicate a vehicle manufactured in Asia.
  • S-Z are assigned to vehicles from Europe.
  • Numbers 1-5 are reserved for vehicles manufactured in North America.
  • Vehicles manufactured in Oceania use numbers 6-7.
  • 8-9 are used on vehicles manufactured in South America.

The second character identifies the country that manufactured the vehicle; this country doesn’t always match with the headquarters of the manufacturer. For example, many Japanese manufacturers build vehicles intended for the North American market in the United States, Mexico or Canada.

The last character of the world manufacturing identifier indicates the vehicle’s type, such as a passenger car, light commercial vehicle, trailer or motorcycle. If the manufacturer builds fewer than 1,000 vehicles each year, however, then this character will always be a 9.

2. The Vehicle Descriptor Section

The next set of characters, the vehicle descriptor section, follows a unique system for each manufacturer. In order to find detailed information relevant to each manufacturer, you may need to use a dedicated website that decodes VINs. Typically, however, this section will describe the basic design, specific model and category of the vehicle. If the vehicle was offered with several engine choices, the last character of this section identifies the specific engine that the vehicle contains.

3. The Vehicle Identifier Section

Depending on the individual manufacturer, the vehicle identifier section may give more information about options installed on the car, but frequently this final set of characters is a simple serial number used to identify the car. The first character of this section is usually a check digit that verifies that the VIN is legitimate, and the second character identifies the model year. Other information that can be contained in this section includes the factory that manufactured the vehicle and options installed on the vehicle.

Where Can I Find My Car’s VIN?

The VIN can be seen in the windshield. Photo by Hans Haase on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The VIN can be seen in the windshield. Photo by Hans Haase on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Your VIN can be found in several places in your car. The easiest place to find it is on the top of your dashboard; in most cars, a small metal plate with the VIN stamped on it is visible through the windshield on the driver’s side of the car. It’s also printed on a sticker on the driver’s door jamb. On a motorcycle, the VIN is usually stamped into the frame near your gas tank. Finally, any official document related to your vehicle, such as your insurance paperwork, title or registration, will have the VIN printed on it.

What Can I Do With a VIN?

Once you know a vehicle’s VIN, you can find out quite a bit of information about the vehicle, although you might have to pay to access some of the information.

  • If you’re looking at a used car, you can use the VIN to find out many of the vehicle’s factory options without having to rely on the owner’s memory.
  • Vehicle recalls are usually listed by VIN, so you can find out whether your own vehicle is subject to a recall or whether a used vehicle was ever recalled.
  • Registration, service records and accident histories are tracked by VIN, so you can find detailed information about a used vehicle’s history.
  • Stolen vehicle listings include the VIN, so you can identify whether a vehicle is stolen by searching its VIN.
  • You can also find detailed odometer histories, helping to identify possible odometer rollbacks.

Knowing the VIN of your own vehicle, or a vehicle you might be interested in purchasing, can help you learn all that there is to know about a particular vehicle.

When you last purchased a vehicle, did you use its VIN to help make your purchasing decision? Do you have a better understanding of VINs now?

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