What is a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)?

September 26, 2023

The acronym VIN stands for vehicle identification number, a unique 17-digit alpha and numeric string of characters for each and every vehicle manufactured or imported since the 1981 model year. The U.S. Department of Transportation mandates that every automaker stamp a VIN on every car off the assembly line or imported into the U.S. to track vehicle registrations, recalls, warranty claims, thefts and insurance coverage.

A VIN acts like a car’s unique social security number, but it’s used for most other vehicles that fall under the purview of government oversight and classified as a motor vehicle, such as passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, trailers, low-speed vehicles, restomods, one-offs, modified vehicles, motorcycles, and more. The NHTSA’s definition of a motor vehicle is “a vehicle that is driven or drawn by mechanical power and manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways.” But side-by-sides, ATVs, UTVs, and other off-road fun vehicles have VINs as well. 

Each character in the VIN has a specific purpose.

VIN decoder via the NHTSA

What do the characters in the VIN mean?

1st character – identifies the country of manufacture. For example, U.S. (1 or 4), Canada (2), Mexico (3), Japan (J), Korea (K), England (S), Germany (W), Italy (Z)

2nd – identifies the manufacturer. For example, Audi (A), BMW (B), General Motors (G), Ford (F), Honda (H), Mercedes-Benz (D), Nissan (N), Toyota (T), Volkswagen (V)

3rd – identifies the vehicle type or manufacturing division

4th through 8th – identifies vehicle attributes, such as body style and engine type

9th – called the “check digit,” the ninth character uniquely identifies the vehicle, ensuring that no two cars within a 30-year period have the same VIN

10th – identifies the model year

11th – identifies the assembly plant

12th through 17th – identifies the sequence of the vehicle off the assembly line, with the last four characters always numeric

Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), courtesy of Getty Images

Where can I find the VIN?

The VIN appears in several places, both on the vehicle itself and in official documentation when registering vehicle ownership. Like a social security number, it’s important to protect the VIN to prevent fraud or make it easier to steal the car. 

Where is the VIN located in the car?

Auto manufacturers stamp the VIN in several different places on a vehicle.

  • The most visible one is near the driver’s side cowl, inside on the dash by the front windshield, located on the driver side interior dash by the windshield. It’s usually on a stamped plate or label, but some new car sellers offer to etch it into the dash itself for greater security. 
  • Another location is on the driver’s side door jamb on the Federal Safety Certification Lable. 
  • A VIN may be stamped on the front or top of the engine block, the engine frame, and many other hidden parts of the vehicle.
  • Consumers can also opt to have their VIN permanently etched into various parts of the car, a practice encouraged by insurance companies to help discourage theft and selling of car parts.

Where is the VIN located in the paperwork?

The VIN typically appears in four places related to ownership, registration, and insurance of the car.

  • It’s always on the vehicle title, typically near the top of the title, but it can vary based on the state. 
  • It also appears on your vehicle registration card, which is typically kept in the glovebox with the insurance card and owner’s manual.  
  • The VIN also comes in the printed owner’s manual.
  • The insurance card also shows the VIN. 

Vehicle registration and identification number, courtesy of Getty Images

What can I do with my VIN?

The VIN lets you check the vehicle history, to seek out safety recalls, to register the car with the state and to insure it, to report or check for stolen cars, as well as other information.  

VIN decoder by NHTSA

Tracking a VIN online lets you search the vehicle’s country of origin and other historical data as provided by the decoder mentioned above. The NHTSA’s VIN decoder portal provides the information supplied by the manufacturer to the government. 

For insurance purposes

To track recalls

To obtain Carfax and other vehicle data sets

For title transfer

What about imports?




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