What's VIN Number and Its Primary Purpose

What is a VIN Number, and is it really so important?

Real car enthusiasts or those, somehow involved in automotive industry, will provide an immediate answer to a bit confusing question “What does VIN number mean?”. Let’s be honest: very few of us have time and desire to puzzle out the meaning of perplexing automotive terms like the mentioned. However, it doesn’t require a degree to figure out, what VIN is, and its primary purpose. We can assure you: after reading this article, you’ll get it.

VIN is an abbreviation for “Vehicle Identification Number”, so there is no need to say “number” after “VIN”. It is presented as a unique, highly structured code, which identifies a particular vehicle. A 17-character sequence contains various combinations, and seems incomprehensible at first sight. Most people perceive VIN as just a random series of digits, however, each of them bears a special meaning. Obviously, you will fail to find two vehicles with the same VIN, as each code provides essential characteristics, specifications and features of a certain vehicle.

Thanks to VIN check, law enforcement representatives are able to carry out their investigations. It’s a common practice of the police inspector to examine vehicle VIN during roadside inspection. At some point, you may also have a desire to check your VIN, purely out of interest. But when it comes to buying a second-hand vehicle, VIN check is no longer just satisfying of one’s curiosity, but much more serious matter. Hardly anyone wants be ripped off in a purchase, so revealing concrete history details by VIN is a guaranteed way to make sure you aren’t. Undoubtedly, before the purchase each vehicle should be inspected physically, but if you know the VIN, you can easily check a vehicle history distantly, at any time and in any place.

Some facts from the history of VIN appearance

VIN first appeared not so long ago: just in 1954. At that time, all road vehicles were required to have identifying numbers to show, if necessary, different important details, such as engine type, country of manufacture, etc. Between the years 1954 and 1981, no any standard of VIN existed, that’s why all numbers varied in format and length. It was 1981, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally established that any VIN should consist of 17 digits. The reason was pretty obvious: all that was aimed at preventing the cases, when one vehicle could pass off as another. Since then, any VIN is made up of 17 letters & numbers. Note: letters o, i, and q are the exception, as they can easily be confused with similar numbers - 0, 1, and 9. So, if VIN isn’t 17 characters long, it should be from a vehicle, made before 1981.

Primary purpose of VIN usage

The main purpose of VIN is to make vehicle identification. Due to it, you can look through the records, available on a particular car, and track, whatever happened to it. Actually, VIN is a great source of information, especially, if you consider buying a second-hand vehicle. Not to lose your time and money, before the purchase you’d better discover the number of vehicle owners, possible damages, the correctness of odometer reading, vehicle previous usage, recalls and other must-know details. Not always even a good mechanic can spot all of these issues. By using VIN, you can easily run a vehicle history yourself: get the essential data and discover important facts about the vehicle you plan to obtain.

Possible VIN locations

Vehicle Identification Number location

Besides a number of documents, such as registration, service records, insurance policy, sales agreement, title, VIN can be detected on a vehicle itself. The 2 common places for it are: the dashboard on driver's side (better seen from the outside) and the door jamb, also on the side of a driver. It depends on vehicle’s price and year of production, what the VIN will look like. It may be a piece of aluminum, or a plastic tag. Still, if you have problems with locating VIN, consult your vehicle manual or request your dealership (or even vehicle manufacturer) for guidance. Once you manage to know your VIN characters, you should record/remember them, as this information will be helpful in a number of situations.

Older vehicle VIN check & location

For some purposes, it’s useful to check VINs of old vehicles: whether it’s a nostalgia or a strong desire to find the vehicle you once owned, business matter or obtaining number of a special edition vehicle. No matter, how many years old the vehicle is, it’ll be always useful to learn as many history details as possible. The difficulties may arise, when you start locating VIN of old cars or trucks. Sometimes, stickers and plates with a VIN code can be missing. But there always exists another way to obtain VIN number - to look for it in these documents:

  • Loan papers (try to remember, if you’ve ever signed any. If yes, this information should be stored in a corresponding bank)
  • Registration / insurance cards
  • Insurance company records (your insurance company or the company of a previous owner)
  • Dealership repair records (or repair receipts, if any)
  • Police reports / insurance claims (if the vehicle was ever in accident, then there must be some VIN information available)

VIN decoder & vehicle history report: see the difference

Many people are unsure if there is any difference between VIN decoder and vehicle history report. Both provide valuable automotive information, but there is a difference: in core functionality of data providers and the data itself.

The function of VIN decoder is to extract the information from the 17-character VIN code. In other words, to decipher all these numbers and letters to get basic details about vehicle, such as year, make, model, engine, body, etc.

As for vehicle history reports, they include additional details of vehicle history, and let obtain the details like number of previous owners, mileage reading, damage and auto auction records, and much more.

Meaning of VIN characters, or decipher VIN on your own

The ability to read VIN characters turns out to be an invaluable life-hack. In VIN each character has its own separate meaning. Moreover, altogether they compose particular sections, giving information on a vehicle manufacturing company, a model year and a vehicle description. Revealing all the hidden information by deciphering the 17-character code is known as VIN decoding. It’s not as weird as it seems, even despite the fact that letters and numerals, included in VIN, can create almost any combination. So let's finally get this sorted out. If to view the VIN elements separately, they’re subdivided into 3 basic groups:

  • The initial three numbers/letters show the country of vehicle production and vehicle manufacturer. The section is called WMI (World Manufacturer Identifier).
  • The second part – VDS (Vehicle Descriptor Section) - is based on the following 6 characters. It provides the description of a model, giving information about body style, engine code, transmission type, etc. Mind that each company decides itself on the choice of such number codes.
  • The last 8 characters compose Vehicle Identifier Section (VIS), almost always indicating the year of production and the manufacturing plant. Note: model year should be distinguished from the year when the vehicle was sold or delivered.

Vehicle Identification Number decoding chart

Any of us can become a VIN decoding expert. To make VIN decoding process even easier and faster, you can use an online decoder. There are lots of online services, which provide basic VIN decoding. Some of them require payment, while others, like TrustVIN service, will help you decipher VIN characters for free and within seconds!