What is a recall on a car?

A recall is an acknowledgement by either a car manufacturer or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that a model has a design flaw that fails to meet safety standards. It could be something small, such as a bolt in the seat that's prone to come loose. But it could also be massively dangerous, like a computer error that causes a car to accelerate on its own. Typically, as soon as a manufacturer discovers a problem, a recall is issued to every vehicle that may be affected by the issue.

It's not unusual to assume that new and even late model used cars are designed and built safely; they mostly are. But sometimes it takes a car manufacturer time to discover a defect in their cars, and once they do, they have to recall all models that may have that particular problem. While you may hear about high-profile recalls in the news, many recalls go relatively unnoticed. That's why running a recall lookup is important.

Types of vehicle recalls

Car recalls fall under one of three categories: Car seat recalls, tire recalls or vehicle equipment recalls. It's possible for a vehicle to have multiple recalls from different categories. If issued, a recall will summarize the problem, outline potential consequences if they aren't fixed and prescribe the remedy to be carried out by the manufacturer.

Car seat recalls

These recalls are overseen by the NHTSA, but they don't often pertain to vehicle manufacturers. Instead, they typically concern the manufacturers of child safety seats designed to be used in cars. While some cars do come with integrated child seats, to this author’s knowledge, there are currently (at the time of this writing) no such recalls on the NHTSA's recalls list.

Tire recalls

Tires may be recalled if they show that they're prone to blowouts, punctures, sidewall separations or any other failures that may render them unsafe. Most car manufacturers do not produce their own tires, so a tire recall would only apply to models sold with the recalled tires; other trim levels of the same model sold with different tires may not need to be recalled.

Vehicle equipment recalls

This covers any other vehicle component that, should it suffer a safety-related defect, may compromise the safe operation of a vehicle. If a component or piece of equipment poses what the NHTSA describes as an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety and can be found in many of the same vehicle (i.e., not a one-off failure), then a recall may be issued.

How to check for car recalls

Checking for a car recall can be easier than other vehicle history searches because you don't necessarily need information specific to an individual vehicle. You can run a recall lookup using a car's VIN, license plate number or even just the make and model.

Vehicle recall check by VIN

If you have a car's VIN (which is typically visible from outside the car on the driver's side dashboard), you can run a search for a full vehicle history report on that car, which may include any recalls issued for that make and model.

Car recall check by license plate

Similar to the VIN, license plate numbers are unique to each vehicle within the state where they're registered. As long as you know the state, searching by license plate number can pull a vehicle history report for that car, which may contain current and prior recall information.

Check vehicle recalls by make and model

If you don't have an individual vehicle's VIN or license plate number, searching by the make and model may still turn up issued recalls. If you're able to include a specific trim level, that may help narrow the search as recalls may apply to some trim levels of a model, but not others.

How to search if your vehicle has a recall on Bumper

Bumper vehicle history reports may include recalls as part of the data. To try to see if a vehicle may have any recalls, simply run a Bumper search by VIN, license plate number or make and model. If there are any safety recalls included in the history report, they'll be listed in the "recalls" section.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do I do if I've gotten a recall notice?

The first step is to contact the dealer from whom you bought the car, or a licensed affiliate dealer if you bought it from an unaffiliated used car dealer. They'll tell you how to proceed, but typically you'll make an appointment to bring the car in so licensed technicians can inspect the vehicle and make repairs if needed.

How long is a recall notice good for?

Typically recall notices never expire. If a car changes owners and the recall has still not been addressed by the manufacturer, the new owner is typically still entitled to have the recall corrected free of charge.

How can I search to see if my vehicle has a recall?

Run a vehicle history report using the car's VIN, license plate number or search by the make and model. You may also be automatically notified of any new recalls if you purchased the vehicle from an authorized dealer.

Where can I find recall information?

Your Bumper vehicle history report may include recall information, when available. You can also search for your vehicle on the NHTSA's website, though they cannot provide full vehicle history reports.

How do I search for open recalls on my car?

You can find open recalls the same way you search for any other recall, by VIN, license plate or make and model. Technically all recalls are "open" because owners are always entitled to have the recall addressed by the manufacturer.

How to search to see if my car airbag is recalled

Run a vehicle history report by searching with the VIN, license plate or make and model. Airbags would fall under vehicle equipment recalls, so they may be listed in the "recalls" section of the report.

How to search if your car recall was fixed

If you have the maintenance records for your vehicle, the repair should be listed by the dealer that performed it. If not, contact an authorized dealer and be ready to provide them with the VIN. Their records may show if a recall was addressed. Failing that, bring your vehicle to an authorized dealer and have them inspect it.

Do I pay for recall repairs?

Almost never. Federal law requires recall repairs to be done free of charge on cars up to 15 years old (dated to when it was sold to the first owner, not the year it was made). Even beyond 15 years, t's not unusual for dealers to voluntarily repair recalls anyway—it's not good for a manufacturer's brand image to charge customers for mistakes they didn't make.

Are dealers required to check used vehicles for open recalls?

Recalls never expire and new car dealers are required to address them, regardless of the age of the car or how many owners it's had. However, used car dealers are under no such obligation. That's why it's a good idea to do a recall check on your own if you're considering buying a used car.

Ready, Set, Bumper...

Try Bumper today and learn more about a vehicle you plan to buy or already own.

TRY Bumper Today
Race flag