What Is a VIN?

The vehicle identification number (VIN) is a unique combination of 17 letters and numbers that is assigned to a vehicle when it is built and stays with it throughout its life. You can do a VIN check on every car or truck produced since the 1981 model year.

You can determine the year, make and model by deciphering the placement of the letters and numbers in the VIN. You also can do a VIN check to find out about recalls: Just enter the VIN in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Safety Issues and Recalls page.

Your VIN has a story to tell, if you can understand the language it speaks.

Your VIN has a story to tell, if you can understand the language it speaks.

A VIN check also can track the vehicle as it changes hands and as it is repaired and serviced. If the vehicle is severely damaged and receives a salvage title, this information should appear when the VIN is used to generate a vehicle history report, such as those offered by AutoCheck, Carfax and the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

You'll find the VIN in multiple places throughout the vehicle. The primary location is a plaque on the driver-side dashboard. Depending on the exact vehicle, a VIN sticker may also be on the trunklid, on the fenders, in the door jamb of the driver door and, in some cases, affixed to each door.

How Do You Decipher a VIN?

VIN information is organized in groups. The first group, made up of three digits, is what's called the world manufacturer identifier (WMI).

  • In this group, the first digit or letter identifies the country of origin. For example, cars made in the U.S. start with 1, 4 or 5. Canada is 2, and Mexico is 3. Japan is J, South Korea is K, England is S, Germany is W, and Sweden or Finland is Y.
  • The second digit in this group tells you about the manufacturer. In some cases, it's the letter that begins the manufacturer's name. For example, A is for Audi, B is for BMW, G is for General Motors, L is for Lincoln and N is for Nissan. But that "A" can also stand for Jaguar or Mitsubishi, and an "R" can also mean Audi. It may sound confusing, but the next digit ties it all together.
  • The third digit, when combined with the first two digits, indicates the vehicle's type or manufacturing division. This Wikipedia page has a list of WMI codes.

The next six digits (positions 4-9) make up the vehicle descriptor section.

  • Digits 4 through 8 describe the car with such information as the model, body type, restraint system, transmission type and engine code.
  • Digit 9, the "check" digit, is used to detect invalid VINs, based on a mathematical formula that was developed by the Department of Transportation.

The following group of eight digits (10-17) is the vehicle identifier section.

  • In the 10th position, you won't find a number. Instead, you'll see a letter, indicating the model year. The letters from B to Y correspond to the model years 1981 to 2000. There is no I, O, Q, U or Z. From 2001 to 2009, the numbers 1 through 9 were used in place of letters. The alphabet started over from A in 2010 and will continue until 2030.

Is it confusing? Yes. Here's a list of the model years since 2000: Y=2000, 1='01, 2='02, 3='03, 4='04, 5='05, 6='06, 7='07, 8='08, 9='09, A='10, B='11, C='12, D='13, E='14, F='15, G='16, H='17, J='18, K='19, L='20.

  • The letter or number in position 11 indicates the manufacturing plant where the vehicle was assembled. Each automaker has its own set of plant codes.
  • The last six digits (positions 12 through 17) are the production sequence numbers. This is the number each car receives on the assembly line.

Does a VIN Include All Car Info?

A VIN check tells a lot, but not all, unfortunately. Some vehicle attributes, such as color, standard features or options (and in many cases even the style or trim of the vehicle), cannot be decoded from the VIN alone. Obtaining that level of detail requires access to the vehicle's "build record," and build records are generally available only to the vehicle's manufacturer and its dealers. If you need such details from a VIN, try contacting the manufacturer or dealer directly to see if it will provide them.