Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs)

Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs)

Every car and light truck model year 1981 or later has a unique 17-character vehicle identification number (VIN). A VIN has many important uses, including unlocking important information about a vehicle's history.

VINs also have many other important uses. For example, service shops use VINs to identify the engine, transmission and brake systems installed by manufacturers so that they can properly service vehicles. Law enforcement agencies use VINs to identify and recover stolen cars and car parts. Auto manufacturers use VINs when they resolve safety recalls.

Locating the VIN

The VIN is located in a number of places on a car, but most commonly on the dashboard (you can see it through the windshield) and the driver's side door jamb sticker. On some vehicles the VIN is also placed on the engine, hood, and other parts. The VIN may also appear on car titles, insurance policies, service records and police reports for the vehicle.

Vehicle History Information From VINs

Characters within a VIN indicate a vehicle's year, make, model, where it was manufactured, and more. VIN decoding is the process of deciphering these details.

  • Vehicle registration
  • Title information, including salvaged or junked titles
  • Odometer readings
  • Lemon history
  • Total loss accident history
  • Frame/structural damage
  • Accident indicators, such as airbag deployments
  • Service and repair information
  • Vehicle usage (taxi, rental, lease, etc.)
  • Recall information

Using VINs in the Car Buying Process

There are many things a seller may not disclose to you, such as a salvage title, flood damage or an odometer rollback. Any of these and other issues can affect the safety, performance and even value of a used car.

To make it more difficult for you to learn a vehicle's history, crooked sellers may list the wrong VIN in an online vehicle posting or may not be willing to provide the VIN at all. Scam artists may also alter the vehicle's title documents to hide potential problems.

Use these tips to protect yourself from fraud as you shop for a used car:

After you buy a car, you will need the VIN to insure the car and to register it at your local Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV).