The vehicle identification number is a 17-digit combination of numbers and letters used to identify a specific car.

Say you’re buying or selling a used car. At a certain point in the transaction, asking for the car’s VIN is inevitable. Why is this series of seemingly random numbers so important in the car selling process?

Simply put, the VIN reveals to you, the owner (or the prospective buyer) of the vehicle, a whole load of information about the car that will help both buyer and seller ascertain its value. On this post, we will let you know how to unlock all this information and more just by examining the 17 digits in the VIN. But first, we ask:

What is a VIN?

The VIN or Vehicle Identification Number is a combination of numbers and letters commonly 17 digits long, specific to each individual vehicle that it helps identify. Generally, it uses code and lettering systems to help specify things as detailed as the paint that was used on the vehicle.  Some might even call it a fingerprint for simpler terms, and you can think of the VIN number as your car’s identity code. 

Because a present-day 17-digit VIN combines both numbers and letters, the VIN is there to help you and others working on your car to identify certain characteristics. The ECU (your car’s computer), for example, is designed especially for your VIN. Parts like the ECU won’t function unless programmed specifically for the VIN of the vehicle. 

Another thing you should know is that when reading a VIN, it is a hard combination of numbers and letters, and therefore easy to mess up. Here’s a tip: when reading the digits of the VIN, remember that the letters ‘O,’ ‘I,’ or ‘Q’ rarely (if ever) exist, because of their tendency to be mistaken with the numbers one and zero. 

Where do I find my VIN?

The VIN or Vehicle Identification Number can be placed in a number of different places on the car. The most common and easiest to identify without having to open or unlock the car is on the outside. It’s usually on the lower part of the windshield where the glass meets the dash. You may also find the VIN printed inside the driver’s side door or under the hood. Of course, you will most likely find it on your car’s title, registration, and insurance documents. And you will need your VIN in situations like purchasing a new car key or key fob. 

When will I need my VIN?

You’ll need your VIN for various situations ranging from finding out a part you need or ordering a new key to tasks like knowing what trim the car has or for other options your car is equipped with, specifically engine and transmission specifications.

What do the numbers and letters mean in a VIN?

Since 1981, the US standardized the format for the VIN number to enable the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to further identify cars according to consumer and government standards. Before 1981, most cars still had an identifying number. However, it wasn’t a standardized system allowing the user to easily decode and identify the car. 

It’s a pretty simple concept turned into a confusing number that you may have not known how to decode until now. The VIN provides a ridiculous amount of information about a car in just one sequenced code. When entering a VIN you will find out anything from the body style, chassis, driveline, trim specifications, warranty info, where the car was manufactured, and more. 

First 3 digits: World Manufacturer Identifier

The First 3 Digits of the VIN are known as the World Manufacturer Identifier or WMI. This tells you where your car was made or its country of origin. For example, if the first digit of your VIN is a 1, 4, or 5, this indicates that your car was American made. And yes, you will find foreign makes like Toyota that are manufactured in the United States and numbered accordingly. A VIN starting with a 2 represents cars assembled in Canada, and 3 represents cars assembled in Mexico. If your VIN starts with a letter, it was manufactured in countries either in Europe, or Asia (although Japan uses a chassis number instead of a VIN). There are many other countries where cars are manufactured, and you can search for the first 3 digits online to find out where. 

The second digit is known as the manufacturer code, for example, if the car has an ‘N’ for the second digit, it is a Nissan. Each manufacturer has their own specific second number or letter.

Digits 4 to 8: Vehicle Descriptor Section

The Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS) digits give you more specific information about your vehicle. This includes things like what engine the car has, the body style, and other specific options that may be included like seating arrangements and airbag types.

Digit 9: Check Digit

The check digit is there to help computers easily validate the VIN number. Computers can use the ninth digit in an algorithm that changes the letters to numbers, adds them up, and divides by 11 in order to find a correct remainder 10. 

Digit 10: Model Year

The 10th digit indicates what year the car was manufactured. For example, if the car has an ‘A’ for the 10th character, it was manufactured in 1980 or 2010. Letter ‘B’ could mean the car was manufactured in 1981 or 2011. A decoded chart can be easily found online when using a search engine. Remember that the letters ‘I’ and ‘O’ are omitted from the chart, so this could throw off your chances of guessing what year the car is based on the letter.

Digit 11: Plant Number

This digit signifies the plant code and identifies the assembly plant where the vehicle was made. This number is specific to each manufacturer and will be numbered accordingly. 

Digit 12-17: Unique Serial Number

In North America, the last 5 digits will be composed of strictly numbers. These are the production numbers for the vehicle and will indicate options that the vehicle is equipped with that further distinguishes it from vehicles that are similar.

What does invalid VIN mean? Why is my VIN not recognized?

Your VIN could be not recognized for a number of reasons. The first being that the car was manufactured before 1981, making it unrecognizable in the standard system. If you have a newer car, it’s likely you have entered the information about the car incorrectly. As stated earlier in this article, the letters I, O, and Q are rarely if ever used in the VIN, because they are easily confused with the numbers 1 and 0, which are commonly used. Make sure to enter the correct values when inputting your VIN into a VIN checker.  

Another reason why your VIN is not recognized is that you are searching in the wrong database. For example, if you have a foreign type car that was never meant to be shipped to the US or Canada, you may not find that car in a database like the National Highway Transport Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Note: A stolen car could have a tampered VIN that is not legitimate. It is wise to know the vehicle's history completely when buying.

Is it safe to give out the VIN? (i.e. on Craigslist, etc)

Yes. Although the VIN is specific to each vehicle, there is no harm in giving your VIN out, especially to someone buying the car (such as on Craigslist) as they will be able to find out more information about the vehicle.

Does a VIN tell you who the owner is?

When searched in the correct database, like the law enforcement and government databases, the VIN can certainly reveal who is the present owner of the vehicle. In third world countries, where registration laws are less enforced, the owner of the car may not be known based on the VIN.

How do I get a free VIN check?

There are a number of ways to check your VIN when looking to find out more information about your car. The best way to find out any information is to use a search engine to find out more about vin decoding. Once you do, you will find links to the National Highway Transport Safety Administration (NHTSA) that will assist you in finding out information like recall campaigns and vehicle history reports. As there are many different sites like VINCheckPro, you may find yourself faced with making a purchase in order to find more information about your car. Don’t do it. You are entitled to your car’s info, so don’t be fooled by the credit card entry page on vin decoder sites. The smart decision is to find a website that will give you the information for free.

I did a VIN check and found out my car has a recall campaign, is it the end of the world?

The answer is no, it’s not the end of the world. However, if your car was recalled for an airbag or seatbelt you should definitely get that taken care of pronto. Make sure to contact your local dealership and let them know you are coming in advance in order to make sure they have the right part for your car when you arrive. Keep in mind that a lot of recalls for cars are for more insignificant details, like a software update for your transmission (Mercedes GLE), or a piece of heat resistant tape on the seat belt pre-tensioner to reduce fire risk in case of an accident (Ford F-150). 

Where can I find other specific information about my car?

Aside from the Vehicle Identification Number, you can find a separate ID tag inside the driver side door that will give you even more information about your car including the paint code, wheelbase specs, overall dimensions of your vehicle for shipping purposes, and tire inflation recommendations.

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