How to Decode Vin Numbers

by Lane Madison

A Vehicle Identification Number or "VIN" is a 17-character alphanumeric identifier that is assigned to a new vehicle by its manufacturer. The VIN is similar to a fingerprint in that each vehicle has a unique VIN. Each of the VIN's 17 characters has a significant meaning, which, when decoded, can help you learn more about your car's history.

Understand your car's VIN. The VIN can be crucial to tracking recalls, title history, accident reports, thefts, insurance coverage and warranty claims. When decoded, the VIN tells the country and year of manufacture, make, model, serial number; assembly plant and other specifications.

Find your car's VIN. Most owners can easily find their car's VIN on the title, insurance policy and service records. If you don't have this documentation for your vehicle, you'll need to look for the VIN. The VIN is usually located on the driver's side of the dashboard, where it is visible through the windshield. It may also be on the driver's side door jamb sticker. In some vehicles, the VIN is displayed on the original engine and hood.

Find the meaning of each character in the VIN. Your car's VIN is divided into four parts; the world manufacturer's information, vehicle description, VIN accuracy check and vehicle identification. In the world manufacturer's information section, Character 1 tells you in which country the car was built. Countries can be identified by either numbers or letters. The United States is indicated by either 1 or 4, Canada is 2 and Mexico is 3. Germany is indicated by a "W," Italy is "Z" and Japan is "J." Character 2 identifies the manufacturer with either a number or letter. For example, Jaguar is "A," Dodge is "B," Chrysler is "C," and Jeep is "J." Buick is 4, Cadillac is 6 and Saturn is 8. The third digit is identifies the vehicle type. The 5 characters in the vehicle description section (characters 4-8) convey information from the body style, engine type and braking system to model, series, restraint system and other features. The 9th character serves as a VIN accuracy check, as it verifies the previous VIN numbers. This character is determined using a Department of Transportation mathematical computation. The vehicle identification section includes characters 10 and 11, which indicate the model year and assembly plant, respectively. These characters may be numbers or letters. The 12th to 17th characters are the vehicle's unique serial number, which is assigned by the manufacturer. This number is valuable to collectors, as it indicates whether this car may be the first or last in its production run.

Order a vehicle history report. To get a complete interpretation of your vehicle's VIN, order a report from an online service or from your local dealership.

Tip

  • check When purchasing a vehicle, always order a vehicle history report to ensure that the information in the VIN matches that particular vehicle.

Warning

  • close The current VIN system was instituted in 1981. Vehicles manufactured before 1981 may not have Vehicle Identification Numbers, or may have VINs of fewer than 17 characters.

About the Author

Lane Madison is a freelance writer and editor with over eight years experience as a corporate paralegal. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication and English and a paralegal certificate. Her writing has been published on various websites.