Vehicle Identification Number

A vehicle identification number (also called a VIN number) is used to identify the specific vehicle and vehicle type. It is—cue dramatic music—a car’s fingerprint.

What is a VIN number?

A VIN number is a unique code assigned to a car, similar to a social security number given to a person or a serial number applied to a product. 

It’s assigned by the vehicle’s manufacturer for all vehicles available for sale in the United States, and is used to track and identify detailed information about a car. 

In 1981, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) created a standardized requirement for VINs. VIN numbers are made up of  a combination of 17 characters, both numbers and letters. It is also used to pull up more detailed information about your car’s model year, engine type, manufacturer, production, body style, accidents/insurance claims and more. Every digit in the 17 digit VIN is intentional, and used to indicate something specific about the vehicle. 

If your vehicle was manufactured before 1981, the VIN will most likely contain 11 characters. Don’t be sad, it works just as well. 

Where can I find my car’s vehicle identification number?

Your vehicle identification number could be printed in a number of locations on your car. The primary location is on the VIN sticker, located on the inside of your driver’s side door in the door jamb. 

You can also find the VIN number on the driver’s side of the car by looking through the very bottom of the windshield, on what’s known as a VIN plate. It can also be found listed in the documents that you receive when you purchase or register a car—paperwork like the vehicle title, registration, or car insurance details. If your vehicle comes with an app, you can likely find the VIN in there as well.

How do I decode my VIN number?

The VIN is a complex string of letters and numbers that all mean something. (We’re eagerly awaiting that new Dan Brown summer blockbuster, The VIN Code…) 

You can use a VIN decoder to do a VIN lookup on some websites to get basic information about your vehicle. 

Can we really nerd out about this for a sec?

Oh yes! Any of the following factoids make a great introductory line when trying to chat someone up at the bar. Take notes… 

The country of origin or world manufacturer identifier (WMI) is determined by the first character. Cars with a VIN number that start with 2 are made in Canada, and 3 is Mexico. Cars made in the US typically start with a 4, 5, or 1, while Japan starts with a J and South Korea a K. Other countries are less intuitive: S is for England, W for Germany, and on and on. 

The second digit will inform you about the manufacturer of the motor vehicle. In some cases, this is straightforward, but usually, decoding is a bit more complicated. “A,” for example, can be for Audi, Jaguar, or Mitsubishi.

The ninth digit is known as a check digit. The check digit is designed to work as a fraud detector of sorts.  

The rest of the VIN number conveys helpful info like the year your car was manufactured, its assembly plant, manufacturing division, and other stuff like engine and transmission type, submodel, and body style. 

What would I need my vehicle identification number for?

As a car owner, you’ll need your VIN more often than you might expect. You’ll likely need those digits when you register your car at the DMV, purchase insurance, buy parts, get your car appraised, or bring your car to the shop for repairs.

Since the vehicle identification number is like a social security or serial number, it’s used to track things like car accidents, repairs, and title problems. 

If you buy a used car you might run a VIN check to verify the information you get from the seller. You can get a vehicle history report from sites such as CarFax, which tracks information like mileage, accidents—including categorizing the extent of damage like airbag deployment or frame damage—number of owners, and even title flags (like a salvage title). Running a report using a VIN is a bit like calling a potential job candidate’s references—you might dig up some helpful info that will inform your decisions.  

Your VIN will also come in handy if you’re at the auto garage. If you purchased a car that’s had the brake system replaced more than once, for example, the VIN would be needed by a parts store to narrow down the specific system that your year, make, model and submodel have. In fact, even if your car isn’t “complicated,” most parts stores will request a VIN from you prior to purchase to confirm that the parts are the right ones.

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