• Buying Guides

Where to Find the VIN Number?

By Zac Estrada | February 7, 2022

Where is the VIN?

A car's VIN is most typically printed on a strip of metal positioned inside the vehicle at the base of the windshield and the driver's side dashboard. In most cars, the VIN is also located on the pillar of the driver's side door jamb, visible with the door opened by looking where the door latches to the vehicle body. In addition, stickers with the identification number are usually placed on other parts of the car, such as in other door jambs, under the trunk lid or tailgate, and on various metal parts under seats and carpet.

Check the front end of the car frame when you open the door on older cars. Open the hood on a vehicle equipped with an internal combustion engine and look for the number stamped on the front of the engine block. Check the steering neck under the bike's handlebars, the frame near the motor, or the motor itself for motorcycles. To locate the VIN on a semitrailer, look at the front left, the vehicle's driver-side.

What is the VIN?

A car's VIN is its Vehicle Identification Number, an identifier for each motor vehicle certified to be sold in the US. A VIN is necessary for various purposes, such as applying for car insurance policies and registering vehicles. When you know where to find VINs, doing business concerning cars gets easier.

While a vehicle identification number isn't the first set of letters and numbers to commit to memory, it tells a relatively detailed story. That includes information about nearly everything: the vehicle type, who made the car, where it was made, engine size, and even narrow down when it left the factory.

That's why the identification number, or VIN, is placed on multiple parts of every new motor vehicle sold in the US, on the department of motor vehicle registration and insurance documents, and even on service records. This code might as well be a vehicle's social security number because of how much it's used to track history and decipher if there's anything suspicious about its provenance.

VIN Paper Trail

VINs appear on insurance cards, insurance policies, vehicle title documents, loan or lease agreements, and vehicle registration paperwork. The identification number is often in the owner's manual for the specific vehicle. It's on the dealer invoice and bill of sale from a dealer and should be on the bill of sale and receipt from a private seller.

Even maintenance records list the VIN, whether from the dealership's service department, an independent mechanic, or even after buying tires. While license plate numbers can change between owners and states, the VIN isn't supposed to unless there's a coverup about the vehicle's history. That's why it's a crucial tool for knowing a car's story.

History of the VIN System

Forms of vehicle identification had been in use since the 1950s, but each manufacturer had its own system, and it was of little help to most consumers and regulators.

The federal government implemented the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 115 in 1969 to provide uniformity in how auto manufacturers identified the chassis number and other vehicle information from the factory. This standard required carmakers to sink or emboss a VIN on every passenger car. In addition, a car's VIN had to be visible to a person standing at the pillar of the left windshield.

After the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association and Volkswagen of America petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency considered expanding the system. So the NHTSA created a new standard effective with the 1981 model year.

All road vehicles sold must contain a 17-character VIN following a strict format. It's a distinctive code consisting of 17 numbers and capital letters. In addition, VINs of any two vehicles built within 30 years cannot be the same.

NHTSA eliminated FMVSS No. 115 and placed all VIN requirements into 49 CFR Part 565 in 1996. Now, manufacturers must assign a VIN to each passenger car, multipurpose passenger vehicle, bus, truck, and motorcycle. Trailers, trailer kits, and incomplete vehicles must have identification numbers, too.

Why VINs are important

Automakers and the federal government use VINs to process vehicle recalls and correct safety defects. These checks enable tracking of compliance with federal regulations for imported vehicles. In addition, the codes simplify collecting data on motor vehicle collisions and monitoring insurance coverage.

Companies that create vehicle history reports, including Carfax, use data from the vehicle identification numbers to show owner history, service records, liens or repossessions, and recall notices.

Law enforcement agencies, state DMVs, motor vehicle researchers, and dealerships use VINs to organize information and locate particular vehicles.

What the VIN's characters mean

There are ways to crack the code to get the most information from that 17-character identification number.

The first character is the country of origin, or world manufacturer identifier (WMI). If the first character is a number, the vehicle's manufacturer is usually from North America or was primarily assembled in the region.

There are exceptions, however, and these are some common first characters:

For example, a 9 means Brazil, and a V means France or Spain. Other common codes are L for China, W for Germany, Y for Sweden, and Z for Italy. A J indicates Japan and an S for the United Kingdom.

The second character identifies the vehicle brand. A includes Audi, Alfa Romeo, or Jaguar Land Rover. B means Dodge, C typically stands for Chrysler. D is for Mercedes-Benz, and F includes Ford. N encompasses Nissan and its Infiniti subsidiary, T is for Toyota and Lexus, V is for Volkswagen and Volvo.

The third through eighth characters are reserved for manufacturers to use. These characters describe the braking system, restraint system, and body style. All domestic automakers use the eighth character for the engine.

The ninth character is a Check Digit that the Department of Transportation (DOT) developed based on Einstein's Theory of the Check Digit. The 10th character is the vehicle's year of manufacture, starting with B and progressing to Y for 2000. In 2001, numbers began to be used for this space but reverted to letters starting with A for 2010.

The 11th character indicates the assembly plant for the vehicle, while the remaining numbers comprise a six-digit chassis serial number that can also determine when the vehicle was built. The last part can be crucial when figuring out whether the motor vehicle is subject to a recall or other update.

How to decode a VIN

Once you have the 17-character VIN, use it to run a free VIN check online with the VIN decoder at websites, including the NHTSA's site. Automakers supply the information to the US Department of Transportation and traffic safety agency.

The federal government website provides recall lookups by VINs. This search tool can bring up safety recalls conducted over the past 15 calendar years, safety recalls that motorcycle and major light auto manufacturers have issued, as well as safety recalls that have not been completed on that specific vehicle. At the NHTSA's website, type in VINs for access to safety information and recalls regarding vehicles, car seats, tires, and airbags.

Pre-1981 vehicles typically have 11-character codes and reveal less information. While these can be useful to determine the sequence of when the car was made and if it would've been equipped with a particular engine or other options, these usually will not provide a complete history of the vehicle.

Other places to check

VIN lookups from companies such as Consumer Reports and Experian offer VIN background checks and a vehicle's previous owners. These reports help identify problems, including damage from major accidents, fires or floods, rolled-back or malfunctioning odometers, rebuilt or salvaged vehicles, and stolen cars.