How to Translate a VIN Number

by Jeri StudtUpdated June 29, 2023

The VIN, or vehicle identification number, is an important key to a vehicle's history. With the car’s VIN, you can research if a car or truck you are thinking of buying has been stolen or totaled, or sustained flood or fire damage. The VIN itself can reveal a good deal about a vehicle, even if the vehicle's appearance has changed. The combination of letters and numerals that is the VIN is like a vehicle's fingerprint: No two vehicles have the exact same one. Translating it takes only a little know-how and will allow you to know everything about the car from the body type to the production number to the engine block in that type of vehicle.

Find the VIN

While seated on the driver's side door jamb of the vehicle, open the door and look at the inside door jam. You will see a sticker with information, including a combination of 17 letters and numerals. This is the vehicle identification number. Or, look on the upper side of the dashboard on the driver's side. In this case, the VIN is seen more easily from outside the vehicle. Write down this number for research.


These are the World Manufacturer Identifier. The first character, which can be a letter or a number, tells the vehicle's country of origin. A "1," "4" or a "5" means the vehicle was built in the United States; a "2" means it was built in Canada; "3" means Mexico. Japan is "J" and Germany is "W." Italy is "Z." The second character tells you the vehicle's manufacturer. "A" is Audi, "B" is BMW, "C" is Chrysler, "F" is Ford, “H” is Honda, “T” is Toyota. The third character or third digit tells you the make of the vehicle or vehicle type.


This is the Vehicle Descriptor Section. Five characters identify vehicle features such as engine size, engine type, and body style. The sixth is a "check digit,'' designed to identify if the VIN itself is fraudulent – this is like the security code. It is based on a complicated mathematical formula developed by the Department of Transportation. The 9th character serves as a VIN accuracy check, as it verifies the previous VIN numbers.


This is the Vehicle Identifier Section for the motor vehicle. The 10th character identifies the model year. The years 1981 through 2000 are represented by letters B through Y, omitting I, O, Q and U. The year 1981 is B; 2000 is Y. The years 2001 through 2009 are numbers 1 through 9. The year 2010 starts with the alphabet again with A. The 11th character identifies the assembly plant where the vehicle was manufactured. Characters 12 through 17 make up the number assigned to the vehicle as it came off the plant's assembly line.


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 or VIN Check

To get a complete interpretation of your vehicle's VIN, order a report from an online service or from your local dealership. Using a VIN decoder to do a VIN lookup can be especially helpful if you’re buying a used car and want to do an autocheck to ensure the vehicle title, general motor function, or transmission type.


Any vehicle made after 1981 will have the 17-character VIN. Before that year, the VIN ranged from 11 to 17 characters.

Write down the VIN of your vehicle and store it someplace outside the vehicle. The VIN will identify your vehicle in case it is stolen.

More Articles

article divider