What is a VIN number?

A vehicle identification number, or VIN, is a 17-digit unique identifier assigned to a vehicle by the manufacturer. Unlike license plates, which can change over time, the VIN is constant. That makes it one of the best ways to find information about a vehicle. A car's VIN contains important information about the basics of the vehicle, including the year, make, model and trim level. By using a VIN number search, it may also reveal more about the vehicle's history, damage reports, service records and more.

Where to find the VIN number on a car?

Since 1968, the government has required that VINs be visible from outside the vehicle, stamped on a plate on the driver's side dashboard, near where it meets the windshield. This is useful for car dealers, buyers and law enforcement. You may also find the VIN on the driver's side door jam. Beginning in 1969, vehicles are required to have a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards certification sticker, which also includes the VIN. The VIN on older model cars may be harder to find, with the number either engraved into the vehicle's frame or even the engine. In those cases, you may be better off checking the title, registration or insurance, all of which will note the VIN.

How to read a VIN number?

VINs for vehicles produced in 1981 or later all use the 17-digit format. Older cars have VINs, but they could follow one of many formats. The 17 digits can further be broken down into three sections:

The first three digits are the world manufacturer identifier, indicating where the vehicle was built and what type of vehicle it is. The next five characters are the vehicle descriptor section, which breaks down the vehicle's brand, engine size and type. The final nine characters are the vehicle identifier section. The first is a security code to prove that the VIN is valid. The next indicates model year: The format started with B for 1981, C for 1982 and so on. In 2001 car manufacturers switched to numbers, with 1 signifying 2001, 2 signifying 2002 and so on through 2009. In 2010 the format switched back to letters, using A for 2010, B for 2011 and so on. This will continue through 2030. The letters I, O, Q, U and Z are not used in a VIN. The next character indicates the car's factory code, which is determined by each manufacturer. The final six act as the car's serial number, and are unique to each manufacturer but usually indicate the order in which the vehicle came off the plant's assembly line. For example, the 200th such vehicle off the line will likely include the number 200 in the VIN.

What information can a vehicle identification number provide?

If you know how to decode a VIN, you can confirm that the vehicle is the year, make and model that the seller claims it to be. But the real power of a VIN number search is what's often associated with them. Given how closely government agencies and industry partners monitor VINs, a search may reveal much about the history of the vehicle, including:

Accident history and damage reports

  • Sale history, including purchase prices
  • Whether the vehicle was ever totaled or listed in a salvage auction
  • Standard equipment
  • Estimated ownership costs based on factors including maintenance, fuel and insurance costs

This is valuable information for buyers and sellers who would otherwise have a hard time compiling this data independently.  A reliable VIN search simplifies things by putting it all in one place for one cost.

How can a VIN number search help me?

A VIN lookup can put you in a stronger position to negotiate a fair deal on a car by potentially providing you with its accident history, cost of maintenance, market value and more. 

Even if you're the owner or seller, a VIN number search is beneficial. If you're trying to sell, a search may give you an idea of what you can realistically expect to get for your vehicle. Even if you own the car and are happy with it, a VIN lookup can inform you of any safety recalls or recommended maintenance.

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