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The VIN: Explained and Decoded

1 July 2019 AutoMarket, Tips & Advice

Every vehicle has its own unique fingerprint and identity which can be verified through Vehicle Identification Number or its acronym – VIN.

Here’s an example of what a VIN number looks like and its label:

VIN Decoding | CARFAX
Photo credit to CARFAX

What exactly is a VIN?

The VIN is unique in every car so no two vehicles have the same Vehicle Identification Number under any circumstances. It is composed of 17 characters consisting of digits and uppercase letters that serves as an identification of a specific vehicle. Just a mixture of numbers and letters and you’ll also be able to identify the vehicle’s manufacturer, specifications, and unique features. VIN plays a very important role on tracking recalls, registrations, insurance coverage, warranty claims, and deter thefts.

What does each character in a VIN specify?

VIN’s 17 serial number are broken up into sections:

            1st Section

First three digits: Vehicle Manufacturer

  1. The VIN’s first digit identifies the vehicle’s nation of origin or country. If the parts of the cars were produced from different countries, the default nation the VIN will reflect is where the car was assembled. If the nation is large, it will be split into regions with corresponding digits. Like if a car is made in Japan, the 1st digit will be J unlike in bigger countries like America, it is split into regions 1, 4, or 5. Canada uses 2 while Mexico uses 3.
  2. Second digit identifies the manufacturer. N for Nissan, G for General Motors, B for BMW, A for Audi and so forth. In some cases, same letter may represent plenty of manufacturers but the other series of code in the VIN will help filter which is which.
  3. Third digit identifies the car type or the manufacturing division.

Next five digits: Vehicle Description
Some manufacturer has their own usage of the digits on how to describe the vehicle but here’s the common elements:

  1. Fourth digit may contain the car’s weight or horsepower; or both.
  2. Fifth digit commonly identifies the car platform if it is a van, sedan, trailer, pickup truck, et cetera.
  3. Sixth digit may identify the vehicle’s specific model or can be designated as a special manufacturer code.
  4. Seventh digit represents the car’s body type if it’s convertible, two-door, hatchback, et cetera.
  5. Eight digit is all about the vehicle’s engine. Can be the number of engine cylinders.

Next three digits

  1. Ninth digit is a check digit. A series of calculations were made to obtain a check digit – a correct one. This is how a computer analyses if an error was made in the VIN which usually occurs in a human error in VIN transcribing or encoding process.
  2. Tenth digit identifies the car’s year model. Each year has a code character like 2001 is 1, 2004 is 4 and so on.

Last six digits

The last six digits are the manufacturer’s production sequence numbers or for small manufacturers that make fewer cars, they use some of the last digits as additional manufacturer identification codes. This last sequence is the vehicle’s serial number itself.

Why is VIN important?

Vehicle Identification Number is essential because of its unique identifying code, it can protect you from buying the wrong vehicle. The VIN helps you identify whether the car has a checkered history. It comes in handy when checking possible vehicle issues such as recalls, registrations, warranty claims, theft, and insurances.

Also the fact that there are billions of cars roaming Earth, how are we going to track them all? VIN. VIN is the holy grail of car trackers and the key to your car’s history.

For used car buyers, VIN can protect you from getting scammed. VIN will give you access on reliable information about your prospect car’s history. You can have a better view on how the car was maintained, what it goes through and more.

Here’s some important situation where VIN can help:

  • When buying a used car
  • Reviewing if a car has recalls
  • If your car has been stolen

Decoding the VIN

The letters and numbers included in the Vehicle Identification Number are not just random characters. Each of those represents a meaning or symbol that tells something about the vehicle. 

A Vehicle Identification Number will never contain the letters 'I', 'O' and 'Q' because these letters can easily be confused as other characters. An 'O' can be read as zero while 'I' can be mistakenly be interpreted as one. As a general rule, the VIN’s format is fairly standard in all cars.

Vehicles manufactured before 1989 may either have an 11-digit or 17-digit VIN. This will depend on the country of origin and the car manufacturer. However, information on these vehicles is limited that’s why their VINs will be difficult to verify.

Where can you locate the VIN?

You’ve probably come across your Vehicle Identification Number many times before but was not familiar with it. It can be found in random places inside the car and on your vehicle documents:

  • On the car registration certificate
    This is a required field so your car’s VIN must be there. It’s good to know that the VIN on the certificate matches the VIN on your car.
  • On the car insurance policy documentation
  • At the door post or front door hinges, where it latches when it’s closed
  • On the lower part of the windscreen on the driver side
  • On the bottom part of the pillar
  • Next to the front passenger seat
  • At the engine bay
  • At the old registration stickers found on the windscreen

There are also search tools you can use to locate your VIN numbers such as the Identicar and iRego Vin Decoder and Lookup.

VIN History and Types

There are two known international standards for VIN – the ISO and the U.S. Standard FMVSS 115. The ISO covers all areas to ensure quality standards across the globe. With regards to the automobile industry, the ISO standard is set to help minimise and prevent crimes involving vehicles, with theft being the number one. ISO supplies the CRIN (Car Radio Identification Numbers) to prevent theft and to advocate standardisation of areas involving vehicle safety.

The US Standard comes in different formats from the ISO. It is covered by a wider bill on safety which includes driver safety, crash safety and road-worthiness.

Here in Australia, we follow the ISO 3779 VIN. This is relatively more complex than other ISO Standard 3780 because of the countries and manufacturers involved. For this reason, our government strongly advise checking for VINs with NEVDIS to verify if the number is valid and authorised.

Final Thoughts

Having a knowledge of what the VIN can do is an important asset that can safeguard you from being sold a stolen or re-birthed car. Whether you’re a first-time buyer or an experienced motorist, this valuable information will come in handy during the time of unexpected need.

For safe and easy car buying experience, head on over to and find your perfect match!