Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) Explained

Unique identifiers have been around in different formats for as long as standardized alphabets and number systems have existed. Even looking back to the ancient world, artists and traders would mark their creations to signify who it was made by, and when. However, as we're moved to a more complex world with thousands upon thousands of moving parts, standardized identification systems have become the norm. The vehicle identification number is an example of this.


What Is a VIN?

Put simply, the vehicle identification number is a unique 17 digital alphanumeric identifier that is given to every car on the planet, although not all countries use the same standard. The VIN is unique to that particular car, like a fingerprint, and cannot be changed. VINs provide a wealth of information about your car such as it's model year, serial number, country of origin, where it was assembled, and more.

A Short History of Vehicle Identification Numbers and Why We Have Them

VINs have been around for a long time, but not always in the same format. Vehicle identification numbers have been used as far back as the early 1950s in some form. Many American automobile manufacturers during this time would stamp numbers on vehicles or individual parts of the vehicle to share certain important information. VINs during this period varied in length with manufacturers using VINs of 11 to 17 digits in length. By the 1980s it was decided that this system was no longer fit for purpose and manufacturers would have to adopt the same standard.

In 1981, the National Highway Safety Administration (U.S Department of Transport) decided that the system needed to be standardized so people could glean the information they needed from the VIN without unnecessary hassle and confusion. The agency required that all on-road vehicles contain a 17 character unique identifier. To further avoid any confusion, the standard doesn't include the letters 'O(o)', 'I(i)', and 'Q(q)' because it was felt these letters may be confused with the numbers 0,1, and 9.

The system is designed so that no two cars built within a 30 year period will share the same VIN. This gives longevity to the system because it means the format won't need to be revised at a later date but also ensures that two cars existing with the same VIN would be unlikely. At least, that's the idea.

Major German car manufacturer, Audi, was in trouble in 2017 for duplicating VINs. It was discovered that Audi had exported thousands of cars to China, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere, all sharing the same VIN. The situation baffled investigators, Audi, and the press. A mistake of this magnitude is rare and confusing. After all, what purpose would there be to duplicate that many VINs? The scale of the situation led to speculation that it couldn't simply by a spreadsheet error. But equally, what benefit would there be to doing this intentionally? It seems highly unlikely that a company with Audi's prestige would do such a thing to intentionally confuse product recalls, as was one suggestion.

The information housed within the VIN can be used in several ways. For example, automobile manufacturers will use VINs when conducting product recalls. You should also check the VIN when you're buying a used car. Scammers may try to use a fake VIN or the VIN for a different vehicle to try and trick a buyer into believing the car is fit for sale even if it isn't. The reality is, the car could be dangerous or stolen, but you can avoid this by making sure the VIN on the vehicle matches the VIN provided by the seller.

Where Is My VIN?

You can find your VIN by looking at the driver's side of the dashboard. It's also common for the VIN to be located on the inside of the driver's side door on the doorpost. Here are some other places you can also find the VIN:

  • On the frame under the door hood.
  • On your state vehicle registration certificate.
  • On the vehicle title and registration
  • On your insurance card or insurance policy
  • In your car manual.
  • On a label in the luggage or spare tire area.

What Does a VIN Tell you?

There's a lot of information packed into these 17 characters. Let's take a look:

Characters 1 to 3

The first digit of the VIN is the country of origin for the vehicle or the final manufacturing plant the vehicle was located. In the US system, numbers 1 through 5 represent North America. For example, numbers 1, 4, and 5 are the United States. Number 2 represents Canada, and 3 represents Mexico. Numbers 6 to 7 represent Oceania, with Australia at number 6 and New Zealand at number 7. Numbers 8 through 9 represent South America. European, Asian, and African countries are represented by alphabet letter combinations.

The second character signifies the manufacturer, for example, General Motors. Each manufacturer will be given a unique letter or number, so in the case of General Motors, they have been assigned 'G'. The third character identifies the type of vehicle, for example, a car, truck, or SUV.

Characters 4 to 8

Digits 4 to 8 function as a vehicle descriptor, telling you the model of the car, body type, engine type, transmission, and restraint types.

Digit 9

Digit 9 is a security check feature rather than additional information. This number is randomly generated by the manufacturer to allow the number as a whole to be verified at a later date if necessary.

Characters 10 to 17

These characters house detailed vehicle identification information. For example, the 10th digit will tell you the model year, and the 11th will tell you the manufacturer's plant code. 12 to 17 represent the unique number the vehicle was given due to its place in the production line (the serial number).

Decoding the VIN can also tell you whether a vehicle with this VIN has been involved in any accidents, insurance claims, or theft.

Decoding Your VIN

Even knowing how the system works, it makes more sense to use an online decoder to make sense of your VIN. There are plenty of online decoders that will instantly tell you information about your car without you having to look up each individual element.