VIN Lookup: How to Decode Your VIN

What 17 Numbers & Letters Can Tell You About Your Car


A vehicle identification number (VIN) is the 17-digit "name," made up of numbers and characters, that an automobile manufacturer assigns to an individual vehicle. Vehicle identification numbers can reveal many things about automobiles, including their airbag type, country of origin, engine size, model year, vehicle type, trim level, and plant name. The VIN (sometimes known, redundantly, as the "VIN number") is the key to safety. Just enter a VIN in the free search tool from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to see whether a vehicle is subject to a recall.

Typically, the vehicle identification number is stamped into a plate that's mounted on the dashboard near the windshield or the driver-side doorjamb. It's also stamped on the engine's firewall.

What Goes Into a VIN?

VIN information is organized in groups, and a search of your vehicle identification number can tell you a lot about your car. There's even a bit of fraud detection in the VIN, in the form of the "check digit," described below.
The first group of three numbers and letters in a VIN make up 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 element 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 letters or numbers, indicates the vehicle's type or manufacturing division. This Wikipedia page has a list of WMI codes.

The next six digits to check (positions 4-9) are the vehicle descriptor section.

  • Numbers 4 through 8 describe the car with such information as the model, body type, restraint system, transmission type and engine code.
  • Number 9 is the check digit, which is used to detect invalid VINs. The number that appears varies and is based on a mathematical formula that the U.S. Department of Transportation developed.

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

  • In the 10th position, you'll see a letter indicating the model year. The letters from B to Y correspond to the model years 1981 to 2000. The VIN does not use 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.

Yes, it's confusing. Here are 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, which each car receives on the assembly line.

Other VIN Decoder Uses

A simple VIN decode will help you learn an automotive pedigree and some key specifications, but those digits are also useful for less entertaining but more important reasons involving its title, registration and insurance. Make sure to check the VIN when purchasing replacement parts for your vehicle. Vehicle parts are often specific to certain VINs and may not fit your car if you only go by its year, make and model.