Similar to your own social security number (SSN), your car’s vehicle identification number, or VIN, is a unique sequence of letters and numbers that belongs specifically to your car. This 17-digit number — often called a VIN number rather than just VIN – identifies your car to your insurance company, the department of motor vehicles, the police and other entities. Understanding where to find your VIN, how to decode it and when you might need it can help make it easier when filling out paperwork or if you need to uniquely identify your car beyond the year, make, model and color.

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Vehicle identification numbers explained

Each VIN is exactly 17 digits long; no more, no less. If your VIN is shorter than 17 digits, it could be incomplete, and you should look elsewhere to find the full VIN. The only potential exception is if your vehicle is older than 1981, which is the year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) standardized the VIN to a 17-digit identifier.

There’s important information contained in the VIN, such as vehicle specifications and where it was made. This information is coded, with every few digits representing a different code. Each code has a set position within the larger string of digits. For example, the first character always tells you what country manufactured the car. Although each VIN is unique to a specific vehicle, the positions of the codes stay the same across all VINs. Because every VIN is different, it can be used to quickly identify a specific vehicle.

How to find a VIN

Cars have VINs written on them to make VIN lookups easy. Usually the VIN is listed on the driver’s side of the dashboard, right where it connects to the windshield. If you can’t find the VIN listed there, there’s a few other places to look.

The VIN could also be located on the interior of the driver’s side door jamb, or under the front-end of the car’s frame. Some models may also include the VIN under the hood of the car where the latch locks, or imprinted on the firewall, which is located between the passenger compartment and engine compartment. Higher-end luxury vehicles can also have the VIN imprinted on all fenders, inside the bumpers and on the trunk lid.

If you’re having trouble finding the VIN on the car, it may be purposely concealed. However, your VIN will also be listed in your car insurance policy documents, as well as in your car’s title and registration.

How to decode a VIN

Every VIN is 17 digits, which can be broken down into 3 sections: World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI), vehicle descriptor and vehicle identifier. Let’s take a quick look at each section.

World manufacturer identifier (WMI) section:

The first section includes 3 digits. This section tells you the most basic information on the car, such as what country it’s from.

  • Digit 1 tells what country made the car.
  • Digit 2 indicates the car’s manufacturer.
  • Digit 3 gives information on the car type, when combined with the first two digits.

Vehicle descriptor section:

The second section includes more specific information on the car, including technical information about the car type.

  • Digits 4 to 8 provide further specifics on the car, such as the car’s model, restraint system, body and type of transmission and engine.
  • Digit 9 is the check digit, which is assigned by the manufacturer to ensure VIN accuracy.

Vehicle identifier section:

The third section further identifies the individual vehicle. This section can include the car’s serial number, and other manufacturer-specific identifying information.

  • Digit 10 indicates the car’s model year.
  • Digit 11 shows which plant assembled the vehicle.
  • Digits 12 to 17 generally indicate the individual car’s production serial number.

The letters I, O, Q, U and Z do not appear in any VIN along the 17-digit sequence.

Why you might need your VIN

Your car’s VIN has many uses. Car insurance providers, used car buyers and law enforcement agencies all rely on VIN searches for various purposes. And you’ll need access to your VIN in different situations, as well. Here’s a few times when your VIN will come in handy.

  • Purchasing car insurance: Whenever you sign up for a new car insurance policy, you’ll need your VIN at some point in the process to verify details about the vehicle. These days many car insurers will allow you to input your car’s specs yourself to get an insurance quote. But to finalize the policy, you’ll need to give the provider your VIN to verify the car’s specifications. The insurer may request a copy of the vehicle title or registration to verify the VIN.
  • Find any previous owners of a motor vehicle: A car’s past ownership is linked to the car’s VIN. If you’re interested in finding out more about a car’s previous ownership, you can search using the VIN. This can be done using a number of different VIN lookup websites, such as the VIN check tool at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Learn about accidents and repair history: You can get a vehicle history report through services like Carfax that will tell you about some major accidents and repairs the car has experienced. If the car has a title brand, like a rebuilt or salvage title, it should come up in the report.
  • Check for a manufacturer’s recall: If you look up your car’s VIN with a VIN lookup tool, you will be able to find any manufacturer recalls associated with the car. If you’re planning to buy a used car, check to see if any safety recalls have been issued. You can do this on the vehicle manufacturer website.
  • Identify a stolen car: A VIN check from the National Insurance Crime Bureau will tell you if the car has been reported stolen in the past. If you’re in the market for a used car, this is best practice to ensure you’re not purchasing stolen property.

How a car insurance company uses your VIN

When issuing a new policy, car insurance companies check VIN numbers to ensure they have the correct vehicle details on file. Online quoting tools make getting quotes fast and easy, and you can sometimes get an online quote without providing a VIN.

But before the car company actually issues the policy, they’ll want to see the VIN. That way the provider can verify the information you gave to get the quote. The VIN also ensures the provider knows about the car’s history, including whether it’s a stolen vehicle or has a title that’s been branded with something like flood damage or salvage. The VIN will also identify any prior accidents or repairs completed on the car.

Although you usually don’t need your VIN to get a car insurance quote, it can be a good idea to provide it during the quoting process to ensure you get the most accurate quote possible.

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