Woman Standing with Car Door OpenA Vehicle Identification Number or VIN is a unique code that is given to every vehicle produced and sold in the United States and throughout many parts of the world. The VIN is used by the automotive industry to identify individual units and to give specific information about them. Other industries such as auto insurance companies may use VINs to find out information about a particular vehicle or to verify such characteristics as year manufactured or even place of manufacture. VINs are also used in automobile recalls to identify large groups of vehicles.

Today, VINs are issued for cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters and mopeds.

The History of The VIN

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, vehicles did not always have identification numbers. In fact, until 1954 VINs did not exist, and from 1954 till 1981, there was no standard for formatting VINs; each manufacturer used its own method of creating these numbers, leading to confusion among those who had to examine various VINs on different makes and models of vehicles.

After 1981, the NHTSA standardized the VIN format and required all manufacturers to follow the same format. Today, the format used for VINs is a 17-character combination of letters and numbers that do not include capital or lowercase I, O or Q, as these letters can be confused with the number 0.

The United States and Canada use the FMVSS system of classifying VINs, while Europe uses the ISO standard and Australia uses the ADR system.

What Do The Numbers and Letters in a VIN Mean?

The numbers and letters in a VIN all have significance. The letters and numbers are arranged in groups, each of which has an important meaning in the overall composition of the VIN.

  • The first three characters of the VIN are the manufacturer identification code, also called the World Manufacturer Identifier or WMI code. The first character indicates the country of manufacture, and the other characters can indicate regional or other information. For example, a manufacturer that builds fewer than 500 vehicles each year uses a 9 as the third digit of the WMI.
  • The fourth through the eighth characters of the VIN are the Vehicle Descriptor Section or VDS. These characters identify the vehicle type, the make and model and the style of the car’s body. The eighth digit is usually used to indicate the engine type.
  • The ninth position is the check digit for the VIN. This is a digit that can be removed for calculation purposes when converting a VIN from one format to another. Vehicles manufactured in North America are required to have a check digit and many manufacturers in other countries opt to use them as well.
  • The tenth to 17th characters make up the Vehicle Identifier Section or VIS.
  • These characters identify the individual vehicle. The information in the VIS may include options available on the vehicle, transmission style and other details. In North America, the last five characters of the VIS must be numeric. The tenth digit is always the model year of the vehicle. The year may not be represented by an I, O, or Q but there is a code for translating the model year based on the letter used.

How Are VINs Used in Other Industries?

A VIN is required to prove the “identity” of a vehicle by several different industries, including:

  • The auto insurance industry. The auto insurance industry routinely uses VIN numbers to identify vehicles and to learn more information about a particular car or truck. When setting prices for auto insurance policies, companies often require proof in the form of a VIN number to insure that they are giving the right rates to customers.
  • The car sales business. Car lots use VINs to ensure that they are pricing their cars correctly as well as identifying and matching various vehicles to their legal titles.
  • Government agencies. When a person buys a car, new or used, the car’s title must be transferred to the individual who is now the owner. The car’s title includes the VIN to be sure that anyone loaning money on the car or buying the vehicle is getting the right unit.
  • Banks and lending agencies. Banks often check the VIN to be sure that the car on which they are loaning money is worth a certain amount. Using the VIN, the bank can check the car’s make, model, year and accessories against a standardized valuation system such as the Kelley Blue Book to determine how much the vehicle is actually worth.

The VIN is usually located on the dashboard of a car near the driver’s side corner in the front. Standing outside the vehicle, a person should be able to look through the windshield and see the numbers on a small metal strip connected to the dashboard. If the VIN is not located there it is usually on the post of the driver’s side door.