Skip to main content

Understanding vehicle identification numbers (VIN)

minute read

    Your car may have come off a factory line, but its vehicle identification number (VIN) ensures that it’s as unique as you are. Perhaps you’ve heard someone mention having to look up a car’s VIN, or you’ve had to look one up yourself when buying a used car. But what exactly is a VIN? Let’s learn a little more about this special code.

    What is the VIN number on a car?

    A vehicle identification number is a unique, alphanumeric code printed on several areas of the car’s body. It's typically 17 characters long, but older cars may have fewer characters. This is because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn’t standardize the 17-character length until 1981.

    VINs were designed to enhance public safety and deter vehicle theft. They've also helped to improve the accuracy of car recall campaigns and provide an instant report on the car’s manufacturer, brand, make, model, assembly plant, engine size and more.

    How to locate the VIN

    Your car will have its VIN listed in a few places on its body, depending on the manufacturer. Four common locations are:

    • On the interior, driver’s-side dashboard, just underneath the windshield
    • The driver’s side door pillar
    • Underneath the hood, typically toward the front of the engine block
    • The front end of the vehicle frame (on older cars)

    If you can’t find the VIN on the car’s body, it’s also listed on the title documents, the state registration documents and the owner’s manual. New cars still on the lot usually have the VIN information on a window sticker.

    How to decode the VIN

    When looking at a modern 17-character VIN, the placement of the characters can tell you several pieces of information about the car. You can look up those specific character groupings to decode the following:

    • Country and manufacturer information: The first three characters in a VIN provide information about the manufacturer. The first character typically indicates the manufacturer’s country of origin, which may be where the car was assembled. The second and third characters give more information on the manufacturer and the region where the vehicle was produced.
    • Vehicle descriptors: The next five characters (fourth place through eighth) are vehicle descriptors. They help identify the car’s brand, make, model, body style, engine type and transmission. Mechanics often use these descriptors to identify manufacturer-specific details about your car, which lets them know if there are distinct procedures to follow when servicing it.
    • Check digit: The ninth character is a security feature known as the “check digit.” It detects invalid VINs using a mathematical formula created by the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT).
    • Model year: The tenth character indicates the car’s model year. The code system for this character cycles through the alphabet (minus a few letters) and then numbers 1 through 9 every 30 years. For example, a car that was made in 1980 and 2010 would have the same character: A. Any potential ambiguity is clarified, however, when viewing this character in context along with the rest of your car’s VIN.
    • Assembly plant: The 11th character of your car’s vehicle identification number indicates the manufacturing plant where it was assembled. Every manufacturer has unique plant codes, which can be looked up online.
    • Serial number: Finally, characters 12 through 17 are the car’s production or serial number. There’s no fixed standard for how this number is used, and each manufacturer has their own method. In some cases, it may indicate the sequence in which that car came off the assembly line.

    How to look up a car’s VIN information

    There are many reasons someone may need to look up a car’s VIN information. Maybe you’re curious to learn more about the car you drive every day or perhaps you’re considering buying a car and wish to know more about it.

    Your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) can help you with finding a vehicle’s VIN, and NHTSA provides a public database where you can search for a car by its VIN. Additionally, there are several private websites where you can look up a VIN, though there may be a fee.

    In summary

    A vehicle identification number is a unique 17-character code that provides several key details about your car. VIN information is used by mechanics to identify manufacturer-specific procedures for your car and is helpful in many other situations. Understanding how to identify and decode your car’s VIN can help you learn more about your own car.

    What to read next