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Before buying

All you need to know about VIN Number (Vehicle Identification Number)

What is VIN?

You can think of the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) as a unique identification reference, in other words, it's like a vehicle’s distinctive fingerprint. Formally speaking, according to ISO 3779 “A vehicle identification number (VIN) is a unique code, including a serial number, used by the automotive industry to identify individual motor vehicles, towed vehicles, motorcycles, scooters, and mopeds”. However, due to its unique nature, the VIN is used for many other purposes in the automotive industry. Matter of fact, the VIN number can tell you a lot about a particular vehicle. The VIN is so important that another standard, the ISO 4030, specifies the locations where you can find the VIN number. Understanding VIN relevance it’s easy. Motor vehicles changed the world for good in the early 20th century, specifically in 1908, when Ford’s Model T became widely accessible to the masses. Assigning a distinctive serial number to each car was a priority since then, proof of it was the introduction of the VIN number in 1954 by the United States government. However, there was no standardization of VIN format until 1981 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the United States required all vehicles sold in the country to comply with a 17-character vehicle identification number. Since then, many other countries adopted the VIN format, in some cases introducing its own variations to comply with local laws. Nowadays, you can benefit from these standards by using a VIN decoder to gather information from a particular vehicle. Due to its flexibility, and the amount of information you can obtain from it, checking VIN number before buying a pre-used vehicle is definitely a good idea.

Where you can find VIN number?

The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is an amazing source of information that can tell you a lot about a vehicle, ranging from vehicle general information to more specific data. Due to its huge relevance car manufacturers agreed to make VIN number easily accessible not only to car owners but also to government agencies and police forces alike. Generally speaking, from 1981 on all vehicles should comply with the ISO 4030 “Vehicle identification number (VIN) -- Location and attachment” standard. According to this standard, there are two common locations where you can find the VIN number:
  • At the dashboard, on the driver’s side, close to the windshield. This is the standard location for the VIN number plate unless a design aspect restricts that spot. The standard location may seem awkward since it’s almost unnoticeable from inside the cabin, and that’s true, this location was chosen because is easily accessible from the outside. As said before, the VIN number is widely used by government agencies and police forces, this location allows a quick visual VIN check or even a bar code VIN check.
  • At the driver’s door pillar, where the door latches when it’s closed. You will find a small aluminum plate or vinyl sticker including the VIN number. In many cases, the bar code is also present in this location. It’s usually a good idea to check the VIN number before buying a pre-used vehicle in both locations to verify it matches.
  • In most countries, you can also check the VIN number in legal documents such as:
    • Insurance policy.
    • Original vehicle title.
    • Vehicle registration. As you can see, finding the VIN number is quite easy once you know where to look at it.

How does a VIN decoder works?

First and foremost, it’s crucial to understand that exist a noticeable difference between a VIN Decoder, a VIN Check Tool, and Vehicle History Reports (VHR). Below is a brief summary of such differences:
  1. VIN Decoder, VIN Check tool and VHR offers basic vehicle information extracted directly from VIN 17-digit code in compliance with international standards 
  2. VIN Check tool and VHR offers additional vehicle information that uses VIN decoder data to validate relevant information extracted from external database services
  3. Only VHR offers detailed vehicle information that extends VIN check tool data providing in-depth detail regarding pre-used vehicle history
VIN decoder software uses the appropriate VIN standard (NHTSA standard for the United States and Canada, and ISO 3779 for Europe and the rest of the world) to “translate” the 17-digit Vehicle Information Number (VIN) into usable data. Make no mistake, what a VIN number can tell you depends on the tool you use, however, it all starts with the VIN decoder data. The VIN Check Tool, for instance, uses a VIN decoder to validate the information obtained from external sources such as manufacturer databases, NMVTIS, DVM, police records, fire department records, insurance companies, and businesses that service or repair vehicles. Vehicle History Reports, in turn, add even more detail to the information gathered from the VIN Check Tool. As you may expect, VIN checks and VHRs are paid services since they use privileged information sources while VIN decoder data can be obtained free of charge online. Due to the wide array of freely available VIN decoder options, there is no excuse to skip checking the VIN number information before buying a pre-used vehicle.

Buying a pre-used vehicle might save you a good amount of money. On the other hand, you could also be cheated and end up wasting money instead of saving it. Wouldn't be great if there was a way to decrease the risk associated with buying a second-hand vehicle? Well, the truth is that such a solution does exist

What you are looking for is a VIN decoder. You may be asking yourself, VIN? What is a VIN? The Vehicle Identification Number, also known as VIN, is a unique 17-digit code assigned to vehicles at the production line. What does VIN number tell you, as well as where you can find VIN number are aspects regulated by national and international standards.

By using the VIN number you can obtain invaluable information gathered from several sources like manufacturer’s internal databases, law enforcement agencies, regional Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), insurance companies, business that service and/or repair vehicles, and more. The information that you may expect from these sources include but is not limited to:

Vehicle registration history, indicating the number of previous owners, sales conditions like financing terms, etc.

Vehicle title information, useful to know if the vehicle was involved in accidents or suffered serious damage from flood or hail that resulted in a salvaged title. Title information should also indicate if the vehicle was branded as a “lemon” due to substantial defects when manufactured. Vehicles branded as salvage, junk or flood are not necessarily a bad deal. Purchasing a damaged vehicle without knowing its real condition is one thing, but once you are aware of brand history you can negotiate a fair price.

Insurance information, that may give you insights about vehicle usage, a risk factor associated with the vehicle, expected the cost of the insurance, and more.

Odometer registries, usually vehicle historic records include odometer readings. This information comes handy to detect odometer frauds. Once again, legal aspects aside, you can negotiate a better price for the vehicle when you know its real odometer reading.

Accidents history, indicating if the vehicle suffered substantial structural or frame damage, deployed airbags, or has been declared as a total loss. Even accidents considered as “non-total-loss collisions” may have an impact on vehicle performance or bring hidden damages in the future. The most important aspect of knowing if the vehicle is considered a total loss or salvage is safety. You should avoid purchasing a potentially unsafe vehicle.

Service records, which are invaluable to determine if the vehicle was properly maintained and thus gives you a good idea of possible repairs in the foreseeable future. Depending on planned vehicle usage, service records may be a decisive purchasing factor. A vehicle intended for a mission-critical job should have perfect maintenance.

Thefts history, aside from the obvious, checking if the vehicle is clean, knowing if the vehicle was stolen (and recovered) may be crucial for negotiating a better price.

Manufacturer recalls this information combined with service records gives you a clear idea of potential security risks. Not every owner attend to vehicle recalls, meaning that you may be buying a “problem” without knowing it.

Please take into account that such detailed information will most likely require you to subscribe to a VIN Check Tool or pay for a Vehicle History Report (VHR) service. Costs aside, checking the VIN number is always a good idea, even if the car owner offers you a free vehicle history report.

In any the case, it’s strongly suggested that at the very least, you perform an independent verification process consisting of:

Checking the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) website ( to find out if the vehicle has been reported as stolen. As you may guess, buying a stolen vehicle is not a good deal. As a plus, you may also find if the vehicle has been reported as salvage by cooperating NICB member insurance companies. The NICB report is offered as a public service, free of charge.

Checking the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) This platform was designed to protect you, the consumer, from fraud and unsafe vehicles as well as keeping stolen vehicles from being resold. This paid report provides information about five key vehicle aspects: current state of title and last title date, brand history, odometer readings, total loss history, and salvage history.

The information obtained this way may not provide the same level of detail as professional VIN lookup services or private vehicle history reports. You won’t get vehicle repair history, recall information, insurance reports, or vehicle registration history (to name a few) but at least, you can rest assured that you are negotiating a “clean” vehicle that won’t become a legal nightmare in the future.

As you can see, the vehicle identification number (VIN) can be your greatest ally in preventing you from becoming a victim of fraud, illegal purchases, inaccurate information, unfair price, and most importantly saving you and your family from potential safety risks when buying a pre-used vehicle in bad condition.