What is a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)?

Just as every human has a unique fingerprint, every vehicle has a code that gives it a unique identity.

That code is known as a VIN number, and it’s very important in so many ways.

For starters, you can use it to see the information of the previous owner(s) and also check all prior accidents and damages.

What’s a VIN number?

What is VIN number
VIN number with 17 Character long. Credit: Obdstation.com

So, what exactly is a VIN number? It’s a code made up of numbers and letters, each of which has a significant meaning. Collectively, the characters form a unique identifying code for your vehicle.

In short, we can say that a car’s VIN number is its fingerprint.

A VIN contains 17 characters which are usually a combination of capital letters and digits. Each character carries a meaning.

When you decode them you will know such things as the car’s specifications, features, manufacturer and so much more.

What if my car’s VIN number is not 17 characters long?

Standardized VINs were introduced in 1954 following a directive from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

At the time, VIN numbers varied in length and format but they all had between 11 and 17 characters.

It all depended on the vehicle manufacturer, brand, and model.

From 1981, all VINs were standardized to 17 characters.

So, to answer the question, if your VIN has less than 17 characters then it means the vehicle is a pre-1981 model.

While the VIN will still be useful, it won’t offer a lot in terms of vehicle information.

Where is my car’s VIN number?

where is the vin number
Where is my car Vin number?
Credit: OBDstation.com

For most vehicles, the VIN number is usually found at the dashboard.

It’s usually visible when you view the dashboard on the driver’s side from outside the vehicle.

Try standing close enough and examine the corner where the windshield meets the dashboard.

If you can’t see it then it probably isn’t there.

There are a few other places to check, both on the vehicle itself as well as of the vehicle.

Possible on-vehicle locations

  • The front part of the vehicle’s frame. Scan the area near the container that usually holds washer fluid.
  • Doorjamb on the driver’s side. With the door open, check underneath where your car’s side-view mirror would be located had the door been shut.
  • Doorpost on the driver’s side. With the door open, check the location where the door latches. It shouldn’t be far from the seatbelt return.
  • Engine block. You can do a VIN number check at the front of the engine block after popping the hood.
  • Hood underside. Some newer vehicles have the VIN located on the underside of the hood, or in some cases the fender.

Possible off-vehicle locations

You can also do a VIN number check on the vehicle’s documents.

The first and perhaps most obvious place to start is the vehicle’s title. If you can’t find it there try checking its registration paperwork (registration card).

Other documents that might contain the VIN number are:

  • Vehicle’s owner manual
  • Insurance paperwork
  • Police reports
  • Records provided by auto repair shops

If you still can’t find the VIN you can contact the manufacturer or your dealership. They may be able to help.

What do individual characters of a VIN number mean?

Locating your car’s VIN is one thing, decoding and understanding it is a whole ‘nother thing.

As mentioned already, it is a 17-character code, and each character carries a meaning.

To interpret the whole VIN you first need to know what the individual characters stand for.

Here’s a guide:

1stVehicle’s country of origin- 1 to 5 mean North America
- 6 means New Zealand
- 7 means Australia
- 8 & 9 mean South America
- A to H mean Africa
- J to R mean Asia (except O & Q)
- S to Z mean Europe
2ndManufacturer of the car- Z – AutoAlliance International (Ford & Mazda car builder)
- T – Toyota
- J – Jeep
- G – GM
- F – Ford
- C – Chrysler
- 6 – Cadillac
- 4 – Buick
3rdDivision of the manufacturer- 1GC represents Chevrolet trucks
- 1G1 represents Chevrolet passenger cars
4th, 5th, 6th, 7th & 8thVehicle descriptor. They describe the type, brand, and size of the engine. Each manufacturer has their own sets of characters but the 8th is specifically for engine sizeFor a Ford, HT82H means it’s either a Coupe GT, Coupe Shelby GT or Mustang Bullitt. The last H (8th digit) indicates that the car is a 4.6-liter modular V-8.
9thThis is the Check Digit. It proves that the VIN number is not fake.Requires calculation to verify the legitimacy of the VIN
10thYear of manufacture1 to 9 are used for cars made from 2001 through 2009. J to Y are for 1988 to 2000 models. A to H represent two sets of cars: either those made between 1980 and 1987 or 2010 and 2017.
11thManufacturer’s plant where the vehicle was built. Each manufacturer has their own set standardAutoAlliance’s auto plant in Flat Rock, Michigan uses the digit 5
12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th & 17thGive the serial or production number of the car. This part is unique in each vehicleWhile most are 6-digit numbers like 113456, a manufacturer can use both numbers and letters

Why do I need to check the VIN number?

What next after finding a VIN number and using it to identify a vehicle?

Well, you could use it to do a VIN number lookup.

That may be necessary, not only if you are planning to buy the car but also if you already own it.

A VIN number check will help you discover information that may be useful in situations like:

  • When you need to know where the vehicle is manufactured, just in case you want to import it
  • Registering a brand new car or registering your vehicle in a new state
  • Trying to find out details about a car’s previous owner(s)
  • Checking to see a vehicle’s prior accidents and damages
  • Buying parts that need to fit your vehicle according to its build
  • Filling a bill of sale immediately after selling your car
  • Helping law enforcement to recover your vehicle if its stolen
  • Tracking such things as recalls, warranty claims, registrations, insurance coverage etc.

How to look up the VIN number?

There are two ways of doing a VIN number check.

The first is using online resources and the second involves the use of a scanner.

Bonus: Best OBD2 Scanners Review and Comparison 2021

Lookup Your VIN Online

Some auto manufacturers offer a VIN lookup for their vehicles.

Visiting their website is a sensible place to start from. But keep in mind that not all of them do.

If your manufacturer doesn’t have the option you can try one of the many online lookup services.

While some are free, others will require you to pay a certain amount before accessing a vehicle’s historical information.

To find one, simply search “Check VIN number online” and a list of options will come.

Lookup Your VIN by Scanning

There are scanning devices whose sole purpose is to scan VIN numbers.

Popularly known as VIN decoders or VIN checks, these devices are capable of scanning a VIN number’s barcode.

They then provide you with all the data that you need, including the manufacturer, model and year of the vehicle as well as its historical data.

Beside a VIN scanning device, you can also use an OBD scanner to check VIN number.

The best OBD scan tool will automatically identify your vehicle and display its VIN.

Some go as far as pulling the CIN and CVN information.

In Summary

You may be interested in finding out some specific information about a vehicle.

Or you may simply be curious about its build.

Either way, having its VIN number will help a great deal.

You will not only be able to get a wide array of information regarding the vehicle itself but you can also learn a thing or two about its previous owners.

That bit is important if you are planning to buy it.

And if you are a car owner, be sure to record your VIN and store it somewhere safe outside the vehicle.

You may find yourself in a situation where you need that information yet you cannot access the car.

Bonus: Complete buying guide for the best OBD2 scanner

5/5 (6 Reviews)