How to Check the History of a Car With a License Plate Number

by Jennifer Williams

You can check the history of a car in two ways: using its license plate or using the vehicle identification number, or VIN. The VIN is the most thorough way to check a car's history, as a car has the same VIN throughout its life, while license plates change with ownership. However, if the VIN is damaged and has become partially or wholly unreadable, the license plate number gives you an alternative way to check a car's history for previous accidents, flood damage, salvage and lemon titles and any other mechanical defect that might influence your decision to buy the car.

Select a reputable car-history-reporting company. Two possibilities discussed by Edmunds.com are Carfax, which was one the first companies to provide car history reports to consumers, and Autocheck, an Experian company. The websites for these companies give you a way to check a car history using either the license plate number or the VIN.

The information you receive, however, may differ with these two methods. The VIN stays with the car, and all information returned is associated with that number, which makes a VIN search a more direct way to get the information you want. If you use the license plate number, you'll get the history of the car it's attached to, but you'll also get information on any other vehicles the plate has been attached to in the past.

Tip

  • There is no guarantee a car-history report generated using a license plate number will include the entire history of the car. Unless the company uses the license plate to find the VIN numbers of all cars previously associated with that plate, then gives you all history data associated with each VIN, the report may only include data going back to when the plate was attached to the car you might be thinking about buying. If there was a problem with the car before that date, you may miss it. For example, the California Bureau of Automotive Repair allows use of the license plate to search vehicle test history but specifically recommends using the VIN to ensure complete information. Ask the company you're using to clarify exactly what information you'll get and how complete it will be when searching with a license plate number.

Log on to the car-history-reporting company's website and enter the license plate number of the car you're researching. The site may provide the number of entries on the history report generated for that license plate but will not give you the report itself without payment.

Enter your payment information, pay the required fee and receive your report.

Tip

  • According to Autocheck, conducting a car history search using a license plate number on the Autocheck site yields information on all the automobiles ever associated with the entered plate but will not include personal information on previous owners, as this information is protected by the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act.

About the Author

An attorney for more than 18 years, Jennifer Williams has served the Florida Judiciary as supervising attorney for research and drafting, and as appointed special master. Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Jacksonville University, law degree from NSU's Shepard-Broad Law Center and certificates in environmental law and Native American rights from Tulsa University Law.