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You may see a sticker or decal with a series of random letters and numbers on a car’s windshield or door. This sequence of characters is called a VIN, or a vehicle identification number. A car’s VIN can contain important information about the car, which can be especially useful when purchasing a new or used vehicle.

What is a vehicle identification number?

Manufacturers assign every car a unique VIN. Like a Social Security number, a VIN can provide you with specific information about a car, including its make and model, previous title holders, and accident history.

If you have a vehicle manufactured before 1981, your VIN is probably 11 characters long. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standardized the 17-character VIN for vehicles assembled after 1981, so most cars have 17-character VINs.[1]

Where you can find your car’s VIN

You can find your car’s VIN in several places. You’ll typically see a barcode above the number sequence.

One common area where you may find your VIN is on the driver’s-side dashboard. If you’re outside facing your vehicle, the VIN sticker sits on the windshield nearest the driver’s seat. Another area you can locate the VIN is on the driver’s door jamb or where the door latches when it’s closed.

Your VIN may also appear on your car registration, vehicle title, and insurance cards.

Learn More: Vehicle Registration Rates by State

How VIN decoders work

While a VIN looks like a randomly generated string of letters and numbers, each character provides specific information about the vehicle. VIN decoders scan the sequence to reveal details beyond your vehicle’s make and model.

  • World manufacturer identifier: The first three VIN characters correspond to your car’s country of origin and manufacturer.

  • Vehicle description: The next five characters correlate to your car’s model, body type, restraint system, transmission type, and engine. The ninth character in the sequence is a fraud detector code to determine if the VIN is valid or invalid.

  • Vehicle identifier: The next two characters tell you the vehicle year and the manufacturing plant’s location.

  • Production numbers: The last six digits show a unique sequence of numbers the manufacturer assigns to the vehicle on the assembly line.[1]

Why is a VIN so important?

VINs track a car’s history. Knowing a vehicle’s history is essential when buying a used car, especially from a private seller. Looking up a prospective vehicle’s VIN can give you details on any prior accidents, flood damage, safety issues, faulty airbags, and odometer rollbacks.

You can also look up a VIN to determine if the car is a stolen vehicle. You can use the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s VIN decoder to run free VIN checks.

Finally, a VIN can disclose if a particular car has any safety recalls. You can use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s VIN decoder to find out about any open recalls on your vehicle.

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How is a VIN used?

Various groups in the automotive industry need your VIN for identification and record keeping purposes.

If you take your car to a body shop, the mechanic uses the VIN to order the correct parts, if needed. The VIN not only tells the mechanic your vehicle’s make, model, and year, but it also reveals specifics like your vehicle’s engine, transmission type, and trim level.

Insurance companies also require your VIN to gather information about your vehicle, like its features, accident history, and if it’s a stolen car.

Manufacturers assign your vehicle a VIN for record keeping purposes. A VIN is essential when the manufacturer places an open recall on a vehicle and must notify the owner.

If you’re involved in an accident or the police pull you over, you often need to give them your VIN, which they find on your registration and insurance card. A VIN helps police determine whether you stole your vehicle or if it was involved in another crime.

Finally, states’ motor vehicle departments use VINs to keep track of registered vehicles.

Do you need a VIN to get insurance?

Insurance companies need all your car’s information to determine your rates. However, most insurers can give you a policy estimate without your VIN if you’re shopping around and comparing quotes.

If you don’t know your vehicle’s VIN, it’s worth looking over your car to see if the number is hidden elsewhere besides the door or windshield. You can also call your vehicle’s manufacturer to see if it knows where to locate your VIN.

Vehicle identification number FAQs

Here are answers to some commonly asked questions about vehicle identification numbers.

  • A VIN can identify stolen and recalled vehicles. It can also tell you if the car has insurance, has been registered, and has accident and claim histories.

  • The sequence of numbers and letters in a VIN reveals your vehicle’s origins, like its manufacturer, the manufacturing plant, and the country it was assembled in. A VIN also includes a comprehensive description of its features, from the make and model to the transmission and engine type. The last six digits of the VIN are a unique sequence of numbers specific to your vehicle.

  • Yes, it’s generally safe to share your VIN with other people.

  • If you bought a used or new car from the dealership and realized your car’s VIN doesn’t match the title, contact your dealership immediately to resolve the issue. If you purchased the vehicle from a private seller, contact the seller right away to see if they can fix the problem. If they’re uncooperative, visit your local DMV or work with law enforcement to determine if you purchased a stolen vehicle.

  • Yes, whether you purchase a vehicle from a private seller or the dealership, you should ensure the VIN is the same on your title and vehicle.

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  1. Code of Federal Regulations. "Part 565 - Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) Requirements." Accessed February 14, 2023
Alani Asis
Alani Asis

Alani Asis is an SEO-savvy, personal finance freelance writer with nearly three years of experience in content creation. She has landed bylines with leading publications and brands like Insider, Fortune, LendingTree, and more. Alani aims to make personal finance approachable through fun, relatable, and digestible content.