What Is a VIN?

Learn more about what is a vehicle identification number (VIN), why should we decode it, and how to do it for free.

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Written by

Sarah SharkeyFreelance Content Writer

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Reviewed by

Miranda YanEditorial Director & Co-Founder

Updated on:  Apr 20, 2023

    A VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number, offers a lot of information about the vehicle’s history. We will explore what a VIN is, how to conduct a VIN lookup, and when knowing your car’s VIN will come in handy.

    What Is a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)?

    A Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, is a unique code that a car receives during the manufacturing process. All vehicles, regardless of the manufacturer, have a VIN. The unique VIN will not change over the life of the vehicle.

    Modern vehicles have a 17-character code. But vehicles manufactured before 1981 might have a different amount of characters. When you first look at the jumble of characters, it might not seem very helpful. But the string of letters and numbers can lead you to a treasure trove of information about the car’s history.

    What's The Difference Between Your License Plate and VIN?

    For most drivers, the characters on your license plate offer a more obvious way to identify your vehicle. While your license plate offers another way to identify your vehicle, it’s a more easily changed identifier. The VIN is stamped onto a vehicle as a part of the manufacturing process. With that, drivers don’t have an opportunity to change the VIN of their cars.

    In contrast, drivers receive their license plate number after registering the vehicle. Typically, the license plate number will change when the vehicle changes ownership. But drivers may have the option to change their license plate number when renewing the vehicle’s registration.

    Where Can You Find the VIN Number on a Car?

    The exact location of your VIN depends on the vehicle you are driving.

    The first place to check is the dashboard in front of the driver. Usually, it’s easier to spot the VIN in this location if you step out of your vehicle and look at the dashboard on the driver’s side.

    If you don’t spot the number on the dashboard, check the driver’s side door jam. Sometimes the VIN is stamped near the door latch location. Other locations to check include the inside of the hood or on top of the engine.

    For drivers that don’t have their vehicle handy, you might be able to find the VIN on car-related documents. For example, the car’s title, insurance policy, or service records might include the VIN.

    See also: How to Find the VIN? [1]

    How to Decode a VIN?

    Once you have the VIN in hand, it’s time to decode it. Here’s a breakdown of VIN number meaning:

    • World Manufacturer Identifier: The first three digits represent the vehicle’s manufacturer and its country of origin.






      AA-AH = South Africa



      >J = Japan

      KL-KR = South Korea

      L = China

      MA-ME = India

      MF-MK = Indonesia

      ML-MR = Thailand

      MS = Myanmar

      PA-PE = Philippines

      PL-PR = Malaysia

      RF-RG = Taiwan



      SA-SM = United Kingdom

      SN-ST, W = Germany

      SU-SZ = Poland

      TA-TH = Switzerland

      TJ-TP = Czech Republic

      TR-TV = Hungary

      TW = Portugal

      VA-VE = Austria

      VF-VR = France

      VS-VW = Spain

      VX-V2 = Yugoslavia

      XL-XM = The Netherlands

      XS-XW = USSR

      X3-X0 = Russia

      YA-YE = Belgium

      YF-YK = Finland

      YS-YW = Sweden

      ZA-ZR = Italy


      North America

      1, 4, 5 = United States

      2 = Canada

      3 = Mexico



      6A-6W = Australia

      7A-7E = New Zealand


      South America

      8A-8E = Argentina

      8F-8J = Chile

      8X-82 = Venezuela

      9A-9E, 93-99 = Brazil

      9F-9J = Colombia

      • Vehicle Description: The fourth through eighth digits represent details about the car, including its model, transmission, engine, fraud detector, and restraint system.
      • Check digit: The ninth digit acts as a check digit, which is generated by the U.S. Department of Transportation to detect fake VINs.
      • Vehicle model year: The tenth character indicates when the vehicle was manufactured.
      • Vehicle Identifier: The last several digits represent information about the car’s manufacturing plant. The last three of these digits are random to make the VIN unique to the individual vehicle.

      Learn More:Breakdown of Vehicle Identification Number[2]

      How to Tell If You Have an Incorrect VIN Number?

      When determining the validity of a VIN, the first check is to count the number of characters. If the vehicle was produced after 1981, it should have a 17-character VIN.

      After confirming the correct number of characters, check the characters in the string. VINs can contain any letter in the Latin alphabet except for I, O, and Q. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration excludes these three letters from VINs because they easily confuse them with numbers.[3] If a VIN includes one of these three letters, that’s a sign of an incorrect VIN.

      When shopping for vehicles, another point to watch for is that the vehicle’s VIN matches the VIN on the title. If the numbers don’t match, that’s a big red flag.

      The size of the mismatch matters. A minor mismatch would include a single-character mix-up. After all, it’s entirely possible to make a mistake with a string of characters this long. In some states, a trip to the DMV can help you clear up this issue by fixing the incorrect VIN on the title.

      If the VINs on a vehicle and the title have several characters that don’t match up, you have a bigger issue. For prospective car buyers, a major mismatch of VINs might mean the seller is trying to sell you a stolen vehicle.

      When the VIN is incorrect in a major way, it’s worth contacting the NHTSA for assistance. The agency can help you get to the bottom of the VIN issue.

      Why Do VINs Matter?

      A string of characters on your vehicle might not seem very important. But the reality is that VINs are an important piece of the car ownership puzzle.

      Here’s a closer look at the reasons why VINs matter:

      • Car buyers can confirm a vehicle’s history: Looking into a vehicle’s VIN gives potential buyers more information about the vehicle’s past. Buyers can use this information to avoid buying a vehicle with reported damage or accidentally purchasing a stolen vehicle.
      • Car owners use the VIN when registering the vehicle: The unique identification number makes it easy for car owners to register their vehicles or replace the title. VINs eliminate unnecessary confusion about similar vehicles.
      • Car owners use the VIN to check for safety recalls: When a manufacturer recalls a safety feature, you might not get notified. But the next time you take your vehicle to the dealership, they will use the VIN to determine if any recall repairs are required. Owners also have the option to use the VIN to look up recalls through the NHTSA.
      • Car owners want to sell their vehicles: When selling your vehicle, you’ll need the VIN to transfer the title to the new owner. It’s critical to get the VIN correct when making the transfer.
      • Insurance companies: Many insurance companies use the VIN to verify the details of a vehicle’s features. Plus, insurance companies can track accidents and other incidents through the VIN.
      • Law enforcement: If a vehicle is stolen, law enforcement uses the VIN when tracking it down. For example, checking the VIN at a simple traffic stop could lead to the recovery of a stolen vehicle.

      What Is a VIN Lookup? Is It Legal?

      A VIN lookup gives you access to useful information about a vehicle’s past, whether it's a car, motorcycle, RV; BMW, or Ford. It’s a legal way for prospective buyers to do their homework before paying for a used vehicle.

      Some details that a VIN check tool can give you access to include safety recalls from the manufacturer, accident records, odometer readings, title history, and potential criminal activity.

      It’s completely legal to look up a VIN. In fact, it’s a smart thing for potential car buyers to do before handing over any cash.

      How Do I Look up a VIN for Free?

      Although you can pay to look up a VIN, free options are available.

      Here are a few of the top ways to complete a VIN lookup for free:

      While these are not the only free resources you can utilize to conduct a comprehensive VIN check, there are other completely free-of-charge VIN check services on offer. Explore other free VIN services in this guide.

      When you look up a VIN, you can start to piece together the history of a vehicle. If you don’t find any issues tied to the VIN, then you might feel more comfortable moving forward with the purchase. If you find red flags, it might be worth investigating the issues before moving forward.

      What to Look for in a VIN Report?

      When shopping for a used car, the information on the VIN report can give you useful insight into the vehicle’s past. Here’s what to look for in a VIN report:

      • Past ownership: It can show how many people have owned the vehicle in question. A long string of owners might indicate an issue. But not all people can make this inquiry.[5]
      • Prior accidents: After an accident, it’s possible that a vehicle will have hidden damage. If you can determine the number of crashes, this could impact your purchasing decision.
      • Salvage history: If the vehicle was ever declared a total loss or salvaged by an insurance company, it’s important to take a closer look at the integrity of the engine and structure.
      • Liens: You don’t want to purchase a vehicle that has a lien on the title because the seller doesn’t completely own the car. A lien on the title comes with lots of issues, which are best to avoid.
      • Maintenance history: The service history of a vehicle gives you an indication of how well it has been maintained. If you spot any upcoming maintenance costs, consider using that as a part of your negotiations.
      • Recalls: Take a close look at any safety recalls tied to the vehicle. Check that the previous owner resolved the recall issue.
      • Odometer reading: The vehicle history should give you a clue on whether or not someone tampered with the odometer.[6] If the mileage doesn’t match up, it’s worth taking a closer look.
      • Stolen vehicle activity: You don’t want to get stuck buying a stolen car. If the car has been reported stolen, this should appear on the report.

      Is It Possible to Tell Who Owns the Vehicle with a VIN?

      Yes, it is possible to determine who owns the car with a VIN. However, an ordinary VIN lookup won’t give you any information about the current owner of the vehicle.

      If you want to determine who owns the vehicle through a VIN, you’ll need to take a few extra steps. You may need to pay for a service to track down the owner of the vehicle. Depending on the situation, you might obtain the name, address, or phone number of the owner.

      In some locations, you can work with the local authorities to track down the owner of the vehicle through the VIN. But typically, this option is only available if a crime was committed.

      Is It Safe to Give Out Your Auto VIN?

      Unlike a Social Security Number, your Auto VIN is safe to give out. In fact, someone could track down your VIN by looking at your vehicle’s dashboard.

      If you are selling a vehicle, it’s common practice to provide the VIN to the buyer. This level of transparency gives buyers more peace of mind when purchasing a used vehicle. Other parties that might want your VIN to include your insurance company, the DMV, and law enforcement.

      How to Detect VIN Fraud?

      VIN fraud can be a lucrative crime. While many criminals pursue VIN fraud, you can take steps to detect it before buying a vehicle.

      One type of VIN fraud is ‘cloning.’[7] Essentially, a criminal will copy a VIN from a legally owned vehicle. The legitimate VIN is copied to create counterfeit VIN tags, which are to sell stolen vehicles in other states.

      VIN tampering is another type of fraud used car shoppers might run into.[8] In this case, criminals alter one or more characters in the VIN. With a few of the characters altered, it’s almost impossible for law enforcement to verify the vehicle.

      Some criminals remove the VIN altogether. If the VIN is missing from the vehicle, law enforcement can’t trace the vehicle back to its original owner. If you buy a car without a VIN, you won’t be able to register it.

      How to Protect Yourself From VIN Fraud?

      No one wants to accidentally buy a stolen vehicle. When shopping for a used car, it’s important to be vigilant in protecting yourself against VIN fraud.

      Below are some tips to protect yourself:

      • Ask for the VIN before looking at the vehicle: If you ask, a reasonable seller will likely provide you with the VIN ahead of time.
      • Look for a VIN: If the vehicle is missing a VIN altogether, that’s a big red flag.
      • Look up the VIN: You can use a free service, like VinPit, to look up the details tied to the VIN. After entering the VIN, the tool will inform you whether or not the car has ever been reported as stolen or reported as a salvage vehicle.
      • Run a title check: Confirm that the person selling the vehicle actually owns the vehicle without any liens.
      • Inspect the vehicle: If possible, have a trustworthy mechanic inspect the vehicle before purchasing it.
      • Examine all documents closely: Confirm that the VIN on the car matches the paperwork before signing on the dotted line.
      • Contact the authorities if you spot a red flag: If you suspect VIN fraud, report it to the NICB. This organization can help you get to the bottom of any potential fraud issues.

      What If My Classic Car Doesn't Have a VIN?

      Modern VINs weren’t introduced in the United States until 1954. But the standardized VIN format wasn’t issued until 1981.[9] If you have a classic car, then it’s possible that it doesn’t have a VIN.

      Each state has different rules for assigning VINs to classic cars. Sometimes, an official will need to confirm that there is no VIN. But in any state, visiting your local DMV should help you find the steps you need to take to get a VIN for your classic car in your state.

      How the VIN Can Help If You Lost Your Car?

      If a vehicle is stolen, this information is reported to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The theft report is tied to the vehicle’s VIN.

      If a potential buyer runs the VIN, it will pop up as stolen. Plus, police officers can check the database when they suspect they’ve found a stolen vehicle. In either case, the VIN can help the finder trace the trail back to the owner.

      Learn More About: 10 Effective Ways to Find Your Stolen Car[10]

      Do You Need a VIN for Car Insurance?

      Yes, insurance companies require a car VIN number to finalize your coverage. However, you can often obtain an insurance quote without providing a VIN.

      Insurance companies use the vehicle’s VIN during the underwriting process to confirm that it is not stolen or has a significant history of damage.

      The Bottom Line

      A VIN is a unique identifier for a vehicle. If you want to know more information about a car’s past, looking up the VIN is a good place to start. Luckily, it’s free to look up a VIN through several sources. If you are ready to look up a VIN, get started today.


      1. How to Find the VIN - the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles

      2. Breakdown of Vehicle Identification Number - Wikipedia

      3. Vehicle Identification Number Requirements - The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

      4. Protect Consumers from Fraud and Unsafe Vehicles - VehicleHistory

      5. Find a Vehicle Owner by VIN Number Free - AP News

      6. Odometer Fraud | NHTS - The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

      7. Steering Clear of Car Cloning - The Federal Bureau of Investigation

      8. Altering Or Removing Motor Vehicle Identification Numbers - Department of Justice

      9. Final Rule Vehicle Identification Number - NHTSA

      10. 10 Effective Ways to Find Your Stolen Car - Reolink