Vehicle Identification Number 101


What are they and what can they tell you about your vehicle? We've got the facts.

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Even if you’re not a car expert, you’ve probably heard of a VIN—a Vehicle Identification Number. You know it’s something important (especially when buying or selling a car—and especially a used one), and you definitely know VINs have to be scraped off by car thieves in the movies to properly evade the law. But if cars aren’t your business, or your hobby, you might not know everything there is to know about that 17-character string—and that everything is actually quite interesting—really!

Things you can learn about your car from its VIN include which country it was made in, which company manufactured it, the engine type, the year it was manufactured, and even safety features in the vehicle, like airbag locations. Check out the full details about what you can learn about your vehicle with just the VIN, below.

VIN FAQs

What is a VIN?
A Vehicle Identification Number is an alphanumeric string of 17 characters that combine in a unique way for each and every vehicle manufactured—kind of like a fingerprint. VINs have been used since 1954, but they’ve only been standardized since 1981.

2015-Ford-Expedition-VIN-Tag
What does a VIN tell you?
So many things. Our VIN decoder:

Characters 1—3 are called the, “World Manufacturer Identifier” and tell you where your vehicle was manufactured, the manufacturer, and the vehicle type.

Characters 4—8 are called the, “Vehicle Descriptor Section. Characters 4—8 will give you information about your car’s safety features, transmission, engine type, and body style. Your mechanic will use this information to properly service your car. The 9th character is called a “check digit” and is generated by a mathematical formula to ensure the VIN isn’t fraudulent.

Characters 10—17 are called the, “Vehicle Identifier Section.” Character 10 tells you the model year of your vehicle, based on a key. Esurance says, “Cars from 1980–2000 typically carry a letter A–Y, such as A for 1980, B for 1981, and so on. Cars built between 2001 and 2009 use the numbers 0–9, in order. In 2010, many companies simply reset the lettering system.” The 11th character reveals the manufacturing plant (each has their own set of codes). Finally, characters 12—17 tell you the vehicle’s production number.

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Where are VINs located?
There’s no shortage of places to look for a VIN. You can find your vehicle’s VIN on a variety of paperwork, or on the vehicle itself. The VIN is on the title, on your insurance card, and on your registration card. On your vehicle, the easiest spot to locate your car’s VIN is on the dashboard, on the driver’s side, up close to the windshield. If it’s not there, check the driver’s side door, near the handle. A VIN may also be etched on the engine block, underneath the spare tire, on the front of the car frame, on the transmission, on the front and rear bumpers, and on the steering column.

Do boats have VINs?
No, boats have a HINs—Hull Identification Numbers. They function just like VINs (but they’re only 12 characters, not 17).

Do motorcycles have VINs?
Yes, and so do trailers, scooters, and mopeds.

A VIN can reveal a surprising amount of identifying information about a car, with just 17 numbers.

When can a VIN be helpful?

VINs are especially helpful when researching used cars. From Esurance: “Say a dealer tells you that a prospective ride has a passenger-side air bag, but upon decoding the 4-8 VIN slots for yourself, you find it has a driver-side bag only. Now you know either the dealer’s wrong or the extra bag was added outside the factory. You can also cross check the VIN with companies like CARFAX to learn more about a car’s individual history. These reports may not include everything, but they can give you an idea of how safe the car is and how it’s been treated by previous owners.” When you’re thinking of buying used, it pays to do your own VIN search. A handy VIN check can be found here.

If you’d like to find out what your vehicle’s VIN means, check out a VIN lookup here, or if you’d like to take a deeper dive into the specifics of VIN decoding and how it varies among vehicle manufacturers and market segments, check out this blog series from DataOne Software.

You can also see if your vehicle has any safety recalls by checking here.

It should go without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that you should never purchase a car without a VIN, for any reason, even if the seller has a really good story.

  • Chris Bouchard

    Great post! VIN decoding is super valuable for insurance providers. Especially a VIN decoding solution that can not only decode the VIN, but also “explode” the VIN for more valuable information not directly encoded (ie. vehicle features, optional equipment, color)