What is a VIN

Posted on: October 7, 2014
Tags: Insurance matters

Did you know your car has a birth certificate? That’s one way to describe its vehicle identification number (VIN). Like a fingerprint, no two vehicles (cars, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, RVs and trailers) built after 1980 have the same VIN, which consists of a series of 17 numbers and letters. They’re as important to your vehicle as your Social Security number is to you.

Here’s a look at your 17-character vehicle ID number and why it’s important to your safety.

History of VINs

According to Auto Insurance Tips, pre-1950 vehicles carried serial numbers that typically identified the make, model and model year. There were no federal guidelines or requirements as to what these numbers represented.

Over the next 30 years (1950-80) the use of vehicle identifiers came of age including serial number stamping on various car components. The VIN code grew to include certain numbers and letters representing body type, build date, paint, transmission and trim to name a few.

Starting with 1981 model-year vehicles, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required all over-the-road-vehicles sold to contain a 17-character VIN. This rule established the fixed VIN format that we know today.

Why VINs?

Your vehicle’s ID number tells you just about everything you need to know about your car: Where it was built, the manufacturer, body style, model, description and its features, the year it was built, and more. It can tell you the engine size, safety features and even the size of the fuel tank!

The VIN ensures that you are buying a new or used car with all of the features and equipment that you expected and paid for.

It also has a number of other valuable purposes. The VIN is used to:

  • Track safety recalls
  • Establish your auto insurance
  • Obtain vehicle title and registration
  • Request a vehicle’s service record or damage history report
  • Purchase vehicle replacement parts
  • Trace a lost or stolen vehicle or certain parts

Decoding your VIN

There are a number of sites that explain the 17-character code. The following graphic from provides the basics of a VIN.

Source: Experian Automotive, AutoCheck Services from the Society of Automotive Engineers, Code of Federal Regulations

Source: Experian Automotive, AutoCheck Services from the Society of Automotive Engineers, Code of Federal Regulations

Additional handy references for understanding your VIN include:

Locating a VIN

The universal location for your car’s VIN is on a nameplate on the driver side of the vehicle’s dashboard. You can view it by looking into the front windshield on the driver’s side. Many vehicle manufacturers also post the VIN inside the driver’s side door jam. Certain vehicle components may also be stamped with the same VIN identifier, such as the engine and radiator.

Also, your VIN is included on your auto title/registration papers and is located on the declarations page of your auto insurance policy.

Helpful VIN look-up sites

There are a number of online sites that provide helpful information on your VIN by entering the 17 characters online. And they’re free! Here’s our favorite four:

1. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has a search tool allowing you to enter a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to learn if a specific vehicle has not been repaired as part of a safety recall in the last 15 years. The VIN safety recall search is handled through the site at:

2. VIN history check through the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) for a title search.

3. The National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB) VINCheck is a database of vehicles that have either been reported as stolen or have questionable titles, as reported by NICB members. For example, the database will assist in determining whether or not a particular vehicle was reported as a salvage loss due to flooding or other natural disaster.

4. is a decoder site that provides the specifics on your car by entering its VIN. It’s a service of CarFax.

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