How to find and decode a VIN


A VIN or vehicle identification number is like a social security number, serial number or UPC code for a car. It is given to a car by its manufacturer and no two VINs are identical. The VIN is a unique 17-character string that identifies a variety of characteristics of a car, including:

  • Where the car was built

  • The manufacturer

  • The brand, engine size, finish and type

  • A vehicle security code (meaning the car has been verified by the manufacturer)

  • The assembly plant where the vehicle was assembled

  • The serial number of the vehicle

VINs can also tell you things like the type of airbags are present in the car, the type of restraint system it has (think seat belts) 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 beginning in 1981 when the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) began requiring all vehicles to 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 lot about the car you are looking at.

The first three digits are called the World Manufacturer Identifier or WMI.

  • The first number or letter identifies the country of origin. Cars made in the USA, for example, get the number 1while cars made in Germany are given the letter W. You can find a list of codes on Wikipedia.

  • The second digit or letter is part of the code that identifies the manufacturer. Sometimes it is the first letter of the company name, but not always. The third letter will help specify the manufacturer.

  • The third location identifies the vehicle type or manufacturing division. When reading the VIN, you take this third point into account to fine-tune the details of the car.

The following six digits further identify the vehicle:

  • The numbers in positions four through eight tell you the car’s model, body type, transmission, engine, and restraint systems.

  • The number in the ninth position is called a “control number”, which is a number that was generated by a specific formula that was created by the US Department of Transportation. This number helps identify whether or not a VIN is genuine.

The last seven digits correspond to the serial number of the car.

  • The letter or number in the tenth place will tell you the model year with the letters B through Y indicating the years 1981 through 2000. However, they do not use the letters I, O, Q, U, or Z. From 2001 through 2009, the numbers one through nine were used, and the alphabet started again in 2010. So a 2022 car would get the letter N in tenth place to identify that year.

  • The letter or number in the 11th place is the code associated with the manufacturing plant where the car was built.

  • The next six digits are unique serial numbers that the car receives from the manufacturer as vehicles roll off the line.

This unique VIN is then combined with a database of information about a car’s ownership history, accidents and title information and can tell you a ton of things about what kind of events the car has had. has crossed.

Where is the VIN on your car?

The VIN is usually found in various places around the vehicle. These include:

  • Stamped on a metal plate which is mounted on the dashboard near the windshield

  • Stamped on the driver’s side door pillar

  • Inside the engine compartment stamped on the firewall

  • On the engine itself

  • On the driver’s side door just under the latch

  • On the car chassis

You can also find a VIN on all ownership documents like title, registration and Assurance paperwork.

Read more: What is a vehicle title or pink slip?

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 about and you’ll get a variety of information, including from the location of the airbags to the type of fuel it’s designed to work with.

It’s best to use VIN decoders as a starting point for learning more about a car, as well as its owner and accident history. VIN decoders and vehicle history reports should be combined with an inspection by a certified mechanic to ensure you get a good used car. Never rely solely on the vehicle history report to determine whether or not you should buy a specific used car. There may be errors and omissions that could cause problems. Read below to find out more.

Using the VIN to Pull a Vehicle History Report

You should consider pulling a vehicle history report before buying a used car. Usually these come at a cost and range from $40 for one report to $100 for multiple. The best 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.

Read more: 7 questions to ask yourself before buying a car

You should also consider running the VIN through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. This system is operated by the Federal Department of Justice. All salvage yards, insurers, junkyards and auto recyclers are required by law to report regularly to this body. For $10 you can get a basic report showing if the car has any brand titles (trash, salvage, flood, etc.). A marque title is issued when a car has been in a major accident or has suffered other major damage.

Read more: Red flags to avoid when buying a used car

It’s important to understand what a VIN does and what it can tell you so you can make an informed decision when shopping for a car. You may find it 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 depositing your hard-earned cash.

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