How to read a VIN

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 How to read a VIN
How to read a VIN

How to read a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)

Despite what many people think, the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) is not just a row of randomly picked numbers and letters. It is actually quite the opposite. If you know how to decode the string usually containing 17 characters or what tools can help you with that, you can find out a lot about the vehicle in your possession.



Why do you need to know the VIN of a car?

Aside from a narrow group of car enthusiasts that made an entertaining hobby out of deciphering VINs, regular car owners can also learn something useful about their car, which might as well turn out to be helpful in a number of situations.

General information

If you know how to break down the identification number of your vehicle to separate numbers, letters, and their combinations, you can easily obtain information about the country of origin, model year, and trim level and even go as far as figuring out the airbag type and the size of the engine.

Safety recalls

Sometimes a car manufacturer or NHTSA decide that due to a mistake occurred in the process of production, your vehicle has a defect that not only affects its performance, but puts you in danger. The companies are usually nice enough to send you a letter clarifying the issue, but you can also check if your car is on the recall list using the VIN number. The identification number lets you track the history of all the safety recalls of your auto.

The history of pre-owned vehicles

Every third American orders a report on the vehicle’s history when buying a used car. The report is based on the car’s VIN and reveals the unlisted damages. It spares the trouble of dealing with the consequences in the future.


Where do you find the VIN?

Now that we explained why it’s important to know the VIN of your car, the next step is to actually find out the identification number of your vehicle. There’s more than one way to go about it as listed beneath:

On or inside your car

There are typical locations where car manufacturers usually place the VIN. Those include the driver side interior dash, the front of the engine (accessible from under the hood), and between the front carb and windshield washer unit.

In the documents

If the VIN number is nowhere to be found on or inside your vehicle, you might as well want to look through the papers you were given when buying the auto. Typical papers that can help you identify the VIN are the vehicle title, insurance identification card, registration card, and owner’s manual. If your car is pre-owned or otherwise has some history to it, you can look up the VIN in auto repair papers, police reports, and vehicle history reports.

On the website of the manufacturer

If all other ways led to nothing, you can as well try to look up the official website of the manufacturer on the Internet. Not every company offers this service on their page, but there’s no harm in trying your luck.

Where can you decode the VIN?

You can find various decoding services online if you google ‘vin decoder’ and click on the links at the top of the search results page. Some of them give you reports on the identification number you put in, although they are likely to include only very basic information. Paid reports, however, will give you extensive information on your vehicle.

We must say though that there are ways to squeeze out the maximum information out of your set of letters and numbers without using any tools, leave alone paid services.

Can you figure it out on your own?

A standard VIN looks like a solid string of symbols. However, in order to decipher its meaning, you need to break it down.

The first symbol denotes where the car was made. The location may differ from the location of the manufacturer.

  • A – H stands for Africa
  • J – R (except O and Q) stands for Asia
  • S – Z stands for Europe
  • 1 – 5 stands for North America
  • 6 or 7 stands for New Zealand or Australia
  • 8 or 9 stands for South America

The second and the third symbols denote the manufacturer and its exact division. Popular denotations include:

  • 1 for Chevrolet
  • 4 for Buick
  • 6 for Cadillac
  • C for Chrysler
  • J for Jeep
  • T for Toyota.

This is, obviously, not the full list of symbols. To further discover how the manufacturers are coded, you can look up World Manufacturer Identifier in Wikibooks.

The symbols fourth through eighth describe the features of the specific model, be it engine type, trim level, driveline options etc. Every car manufacturer has their own system of VIN Codes that can also vary by year. The codes are usually accessible on the official sites.

The ninth symbol shows that the vehicle was authorized by the manufacturer. The number is calculated through a complex formula that takes into consideration other symbols and is a guarantee that the VIN is not fake.

The tenth character stands for the model year of the vehicle. Keep in mind that the model year is not the same as the year the car was sold or delivered. The codes for the model year differ from country to country. However, there’s more or less general agreement on the format. If a car was made past the year 2000, the model year will be denoted in digits. If the model year is to be found anywhere between 1980 and 2000, the symbol will be a letter from A to Y.

The eleventh character lets you figure out the assembly plant. There’s no standard format on how to indicate the plant where the car was built. So if you need this information, the best decision would be to look up the list issued by the manufacturer itself. You can usually find the lists on Wikipedia.

The last six symbols are the serial number of the vehicle, or the sequence in which it left the assembly line. Usually, people don’t consider the last numbers as interesting or important. However, they mean a lot for those who buy special edition models or seek after the first or the last auto to be built.