A VIN or vehicle identification number is like a social security number, serial number or UPC code for a vehicle. It is given to a car by its manufacturer and no two VINs are the same A VIN is a unique string of 17 characters that identifies the various characteristics of a vehicle, including:
- Where the car was made
- Brand, engine size, trim and type
- A vehicle safety code (i.e. the vehicle has been verified by the manufacturer)
- Assembly plant where cars were kept together
- Vehicle serial number
VINs can tell you what kind of airbags are in the car, what kind of restraint it has (think seatbelts) and things like the year of the car. Basically, VIN offers a quick way to decode the details of a vehicle.
These numbers have been required for vehicles since 1954, but were standardized since 1981 when the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) began requiring all vehicles to have a VIN following the specific 17-character pattern we see today.
What does VIN mean?
The VIN has a set pattern that tells you a lot about the car you are looking at.
The first three digits produce what is called the World Manufacturer Identifier or WMI.
- The first number or letter indicates the country of origin. For example, cars made in the United States get the number 1, while cars made in Germany get the letter W. You can find a list of codes in Wikipedia
- The second number or letter is part of the code that identifies the creator. Sometimes it’s the first letter of the company name, but not always. The third letter will help the compressor to compress.
- The third slot helps to identify the vehicle type or production department. While reading VIN you will consider this third place to narrow down the car details.
The next number six helps to further identify the car:
- The numbers four to eight tell you about the car model, body type, transmission, engine and restraint system.
- The number 9 is called a “check number,” a number that is generated by a specific formula created by the U.S. Department of Transportation. This number helps to determine if a VIN is authentic
The last seven is the serial number of the car.
- The letter or number in the tenth place will tell you the model year by the letter B which indicates the year 1981 to 2000. However, they do not use the letters I, O, Q, U or Z. Numbers one to nine were used from 2001 to 2009 and the alphabet was introduced in 2010. So from 2022 a car will get the letter N in the tenth place to mark that year.
- The letter or number in the 11th place is for the code related to the factory that made the car.
- The six numbers below are the unique serial numbers that the car receives from the manufacturer when it goes to the line.
This unique VIN is then linked to a database of information about the history of vehicle ownership, accidents and headlines and can tell you a lot about what kind of incident the car went through.
Where is the VIN of your car?
VINs are usually found in different places around the car. These include:
- Stamped on a metal plate mounted on the dashboard near the windshield
- Doorjambe stamp affixed to driver’s side
- The firewall is stamped inside the engine bay
- The engine itself
- Just below the driver’s side door
- In the car chassis
You can find a VINO in any proprietary document, such as title, registration and insurance papers.
Read more: What is a car title or pink slip?
How to decode a VIN
In today’s modern world decoding a VIN is relatively easy. Quickly search for a VIN decoder online and you will find various options. Plug in the VIN you want to know more about, and you’ll find information on everything from the location of the airbag to the type of fuel it is designed to run.
It is best to use VIN decoders as a jumping-off point for car ownership and accident history. VIN decoders and vehicle history reports should be combined with inspections from a certified mechanic to ensure you are getting a well-used car. Never rely on vehicle history reports alone to determine if you should buy a particular used car. There may be errors and omissions that may cause problems. Read below to know more.
Using VIN to pull a vehicle history report
Before buying a used car you should consider drawing a report on the history of your car. Typically, these range in price and range from $ 40 for one report to $ 100 for multiple. The most well-known reports come from CarFax but they are the most expensive. Other companies like AutoCheck (owned by Experian) also offer vehicle history reports based on the vehicle’s VIN.
Read more: 7 questions you should ask before buying a car
You should also consider running your VIN through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. This system is administered by the Federal Department of Justice. All Salvage Yards, Insurance Providers, Junk Yards and Auto Recyclers are required by law to report regularly to this company. For 10 you can get a basic report that shows if the car has a branded title (garbage, rescue, flood, etc.). A branded headline is issued when a car is involved in a major accident or any other major damage.
Read more: Red flags should be avoided when buying a used car
It is important to understand what a VIN does and what it can tell you so that you can make an informed decision when buying a car. It may seem best to start with the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System and work from there to find out as much as possible about the car before depositing your hard-earned cash.