Cars are pretty similar when it comes down to function and design. A lot of vehicles have the same features, and they can look practically identical! This is even more true when comparing the same make and model. Have you ever tried to get into a car that wasn’t yours but looked exactly like your car? We have! While the situation is confusing and frustrating at the moment, it’s often a funny story to tell your friends afterwards.
But what if there was a way to uniquely tell each vehicle a part. That would be great right?! Well, there is. Enter vehicle identification numbers, or VINs – the unique serial number which is only found on your car and no others! Let’s talk about these numbers and what you need to know about them.
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What is a VIN?
A VIN is an acronym that stands for vehicle identification number. Think of it like the car’s unique serial number. All modern passenger vehicles like cars, trucks, and SUVs have these numbers. They are assigned a VIN number when they are made on the auto manufacturer’s production line. A VIN has a unique sequence of 17 characters which can be letters or numbers. Only one vehicle can have a specific VIN. These numbers are useful for many things and found on various original parts on the vehicle.
About VINs and vehicles
The vehicle’s VIN number is required to be permanently affixed to the vehicle. This mandate is set by many states when you register a vehicle with the Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, to drive on public roads. Insurance companies also require VIN numbers before providing insurance coverage for the vehicle. Your car’s VIN number will be listed on your auto insurance policy and/or insurance ID cards.
Vehicle Identification Number Uses
A VIN helps determine what a vehicle is and that it is roadworthy. Each VIN is tied to the vehicle’s history. This allows a vehicle history report to be run against the number to check for things like reported accidents, insurance records, maintenance records, and other involved vehicular events.
When a vehicle is involved in a collision or accident, the local law enforcement or traffic police will record the vehicle information like license plate and VIN number. Many auto insurance companies need the police report to process the insurance claim. These reported accidents will show up on the vehicle's history statement by date. Keep in mind, if an accident is not reported and the owner repairs the damage themselves, this event would not show up on the vehicle history report.
Major repairs to a vehicle are reported by VIN. The damage is usually caused by a collision with another car or animal, natural events like hail or stormy weather, or vandalism. The VIN report will show the date of repair, damaged area, and the listed repairs.
Auto insurance companies will check the vehicle’s VIN number to make sure they can insure it properly. They will check the history to make sure the vehicle was not claimed as a total loss, is roadworthy, and is properly equipped with safety equipment and features from the manufacturer like airbags, anti-skid brake ABS systems, and daytime running lights.
Maintenance performed at certified repair shops and dealerships is also listed to the vehicle and tracked through the VIN number. These will appear as maintenance events on the vehicle history report and will include things like oil changes and standard scheduled maintenance checks. Keep in mind maintenance performed by hobby mechanics and at home in personal garages is not normally tracked by VIN unless they specifically track it.
Used Vehicle Buying
VINs come in handy when buying used vehicles. If you are shopping for a new car, check the VIN and run a vehicle history report. Check to make sure the report is complete, includes all of the information, and accurately matches the vehicle you plan on buying. Then carefully check the vehicle over and inspect the undercarriage for any problems or concerns not addressed on the report.
Where to find the VIN Number
The VIN number is located in several places on any given passenger vehicle. The most common location is located at the bottom of the driver’s side windshield. The VIN number will be stamped into a metal placard located on the dashboard. You will be able to see it through a small viewable area in the windshield. All factory produced vehicles since 1969 are manufactured with this VIN location.
The vehicle identification number is also located on several other areas of the vehicle as well as major components. Here are some common areas where you can find your VIN. If you cannot locate the number, look for a vehicle-specific guide for additional help. These include the following areas.
The VIN should be listed on your vehicle’s title, auto insurance paperwork, and insurance vehicle ID cards.
Driver’s Side Door Frame
The VIN will normally be stamped on a metal placard in the door jamb of the driver’s side car door.
The VIN will normally be stamped on the engine block of the stock engine near the front or top area.
Inside Engine Bay on Car Frame
The VIN may be stamped around the right-hand side of the engine bay on the car frame near the windshield washer fluid tank or carburetor.
Inside Rear Wheel Wells on Car Frame
The VIN may be stamped inside the back wheel wells on the car frame.
The VIN may be stamped on the car’s axles and major drivetrain parts and components.
Bottom of Trunk
The VIN may be located at the bottom of the trunk on the metal car frame (sometimes covered by an anti-vibration mat).
Reading the VIN Number
There are 17 characters in a modern vehicle VIN number. The characters can be letters or numbers. The specific sequence is related to the vehicle and each element means a specific thing including where the car was made, who made it, vehicle make, model, trim line, series, body type, safety systems, engine code, year, and other details. You can read your VIN number from left to right using the following guide.
For this example, we will use the sample VIN of: 1 G 1 F P 2 2 P X S 2 1 0 0 0 0 1
Decoding the Characters
If we read and decode the characters from left to right, we can reference the following values related to the vehicle:
- 1 = Production Country (1 USA, 2 CAN)
- G = Motor Company (General Motors)
- 1 = Make (Chevrolet)
- F = Car Line Platform Code (F-Body)
- P = Car Line Series (Camaro)
- 2 = Body Type (2 Door-Coupe Hatchback)
- 2 = Restraint System (Manual belts with driver and passenger inflatable front airbags)
- P = Engine Code (5.7L V8 (LT1) passenger car from 1993-present)
- X = Check Digit (most likely "X")
- S = Model Year (1995)
- 2 = Assembly Plant (Saint Therese, Quebec)
- 100001 = Production Sequence
Reading a VIN Outloud
When reading a VIN, the letters and numbers are normally read out loud in sequences of three. In the example above it would be, “1 G 1”, “F P 2”, “2 P X”, “S 2 1”, “0 0 0”, “0 1”. This is most commonly used by auto body mechanics on the phone or radio and traffic police when calling in a reported VIN to dispatch over the radio. The series of three sequences makes sure whoever is hearing it has time to understand and properly record the characters correctly.
Additional things to keep in mind are the fact that VINs do not use the letters “I” or “O”. This is so as not to confuse them with the numbers “1” or “0”. When seen in a VIN number, these characters are always numbers.
VIN Number Formatting Exceptions
There are exceptions to the 17 character/number example above where a vehicle may have a VIN which differs in formatting. These situations are mainly related to vehicles manufactured before 1981 which have shorter character counts and custom or home built cars like kit vehicles where owners can create their own custom VIN.
VIN Inspections and Verifications
About Inspecting and Verifying VINs
The purpose of the inspection is to make sure the VIN properly reflects the vehicle it is attached to and there are no problems with the vehicle history. Special entities like the State Patrol or State Troopers can perform VIN inspections along with other people and/or agents appointed by the local County Clerk and Recorder.
When a VIN Inspection Is Needed
The VIN numbers need to be inspected and verified at certain points in a vehicle’s life. These times include when a vehicle is created, moved between states that require an inspection, and re-titled.
When a vehicle is created or built, the VIN needs to be inspected to make sure it is properly and clearly placed on the vehicle. Normally this inspection is completed at the manufacturing facility, but there are times when the VIN must be inspected outside of the production environment. This includes when a kit-car is built at home and the builder creates a custom VIN and welds it to or stamps it on the car’s frame. The inspection verifies the builder-created VIN.
Transporting a vehicle across state lines may also require a VIN inspection. This type of inspection is necessary to verify that the vehicle being imported into the state matches the vehicle on record. When the vehicle is inspected in the new state, the vehicle’s record is checked for things including accuracy and theft.
Re-titling a vehicle also normally requires a VIN inspection. This is because the vehicle ownership documents need to be issued. Cars can require re-titling if the original title has errors listed on it or it is damaged or destroyed. In this case, verifying the VIN matches the car with the title information so a new one can accurately be created.
Vehicle Identification Number FAQs
Have questions about your car's VIN number? Get answers, and find information.
A VIN is an acronym that stands for vehicle identification number. Each number is unique to the vehicle and contains information about the car as well as where it was made and by which automotive manufacturer.
You can usually find your car's VIN number attached to several places. The main location to look at is on the placard at the bottom of the windshield on the driver's side. There will be a little slot where the windshield meets the hood with the VIN stamped onto the metal placard.
The VIN is also listed on the car's paper title document, on a placard inside the driver's side door, stamped on the engine, stamped on the main drivetrain components, on the bottom of the rear trunk, or on the car frame.
There are 17 characters in a VIN number. They can be either letters or numbers except for the letters "I" and "O" which can easily be confused with the numbers "1" and "0".
Yes, a VIN can only be assigned one vehicle. It is unique to that vehicle.
It is not common but not impossible. If a car was significantly repaired using parts from other vehicles, there may be multiple VINs found on the replacement parts. The primary VIN for the vehicle will be seen on the placard attached to the lower driver's side of the windshield.
VIN inspections are used to validate a vehicle's history and the number attached to the vehicle. A positive VIN inspection will come back clear or no record and listed to the correct make, model, and color of the vehicle the number is seen on.
VIN inspections are normally done by agents of the County Clerk and Recorder or law enforcement officers like State Police or State Troopers.
You will need to have a new title made with the correct VIN number listed. You should be able to have a VIN inspection done at your local DMV, and they can validate the number and reissue the title. Titles with incorrect VINs are not common.
You should tell someone a VIN number three characters at a time. This method will give you a sequence of five sets of three characters and one set of the final two characters. Saying a VIN in this manner is important and helps to avoid mistakes if you are telling someone the VIN over the phone or someone else is writing it down.