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What Is the VIN Number on a Car?

What Is the VIN Number on a Car?
Austin Kilham

Austin Kilham

Updated January 20, 2022
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Editor’s note: Lantern by SoFi seeks to provide content that is objective, independent and accurate. Writers are separate from our business operation and do not receive direct compensation from advertisers or partners. Read more about our Editorial Guidelines and How We Make Money.
A car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, is a code consisting of numbers and letters that’s given to a car by the manufacturer. The VIN is analogous to a fingerprint. It is a unique tag that serves to identify a specific vehicle — no two automobiles have the same VIN.Here’s a closer look at what a VIN is, where to find it, and why it’s a useful piece of information to have. 

What Does VIN Stand for?

VIN stands for Vehicle Identification Number. It typically comprises 17 characters printed in a single line. Vehicles built before 1981, when the VIN was standardized, may have fewer than 17 characters. A car’s VIN is not generated randomly. Instead, it’s broken down into sets of characters that provide useful information about the vehicle. 

VIN Decoded 

The first three digits of a VIN comprise the World Manufacturer Identifier, which tells you where a car was made.
  • The first character tells you what country the car is from, specifically where the automobile was finished.
  • The second character represents the region where the car was produced and the manufacturer.  
  • Together with the first and second characters, the third character tells you either the manufacturing division or type of vehicle. 
Characters four through nine give you vehicle description information. 
  • The fourth through eighth characters can tell you the vehicle model, body type, engine type, transmission type and restraint system. 
  • The ninth character serves as a fraud check. It’s assigned to the vehicle by the U.S. Department of Transportation to help detect fake or invalid VINs. 
The rest of the characters in the VIN make up a portion known as the Vehicle Identifier Section. 
  • The tenth character lets you know the vehicle’s model year. This does not necessarily indicate the year it was manufactured. It is common for manufacturers to start building a model year in the second half of the previous year. This system only applies to cars made after 1981. Before then this VIN format had not yet been standardized. 
  • The eleventh characters tell you the factory at which a car was manufactured. 
  • The final characters are the unique serial code assigned to a car at the factory. 
It’s interesting to know what each set of characters stands for, but practically speaking, you can put a VIN in an online VIN decoder to help you understand the information it contains. VIN decoders typically only work for cars made after 1981. 

Where Is the VIN on a Car?

Now that you know what a VIN is, it’s important to know where to find it. There are a few places on a vehicle where a VIN might be located. Barring those, you may be able to look it up in a vehicle's registration or insurance documents. 

Dashboard 

The first place to check for a VIN is on the driver’s-side dashboard of the vehicle, specifically where the dashboard meets the windshield. It can be tricky to get a good look from inside the vehicle. So if you’re having trouble, step outside the car. It should be visible as you look through the windshield. 

Driver’s Side Door 

Another place to check is on the door jamb of the driver's side door. A sticker with the VIN is often located on the post where the door latches when it is closed. The sticker often has a barcode on it with the VIN right underneath. The barcode carries the same information as the VIN. 

Engine’s Firewall 

You may be able to find the VIN on a car engine firewall, which separates the engine compartment from the passenger compartment. It could also be on other parts of the car, such as the transmission. Manufacturers often include VINs in multiple locations as a security practice, because cars that are stolen may be broken up for parts. In some cases in used cars, the VIN on certain parts won’t match the VINs located on the rest of the vehicle. If this is the case, it doesn’t always mean there’s something screwy going on. The parts could have been replaced legitimately, and it could be something that’s documented. In any case, it’s certainly something worth looking into. 

Other Ways to Find a Vehicle’s VIN 

For whatever reason, if you’re having trouble finding the VIN on the body of a vehicle, there are paper sources to which you can turn to aid in your search.

Insurance Card/Insurance Policy 

VINs are a required piece of information when insuring a vehicle. So if a car is insured, the number should appear on paperwork for the insurance policy as well as on the insurance card for the vehicle. 

Vehicle Title and Registration 

A VIN is also required for the title and registration of the vehicle. In fact, it’s a crucial piece of information as this is how the Department of Motor Vehicles can identify and register specific cars. If you can’t find a VIN on the car or in an insurance policy, check out these documents. 

Why Is Your Vehicle VIN Important? 

You’ll need a VIN during the registering and insurance process. But the number can also be useful to know in a variety of other scenarios.

Auto Loan Refinancing 

If you decide to refinance your auto loan, you’ll typically be asked for a slew of information, ranging from a copy of your driver’s license and your vehicle registration to proof of income. Among these car loan requirements, you’ll also be asked for your VIN. This allows the insurance company to look up make and model, and other information about your car that can help them determine its value. A car’s value can play a big part in whether an insurance provider will offer a refinance loan. For example, if the car is worth less than what you still owe on your previous loan, a lender may be wary of offering a new loan, or they may offer a loan with higher interest rates. 

Stolen Car 

When a car is stolen, a person will provide the local police department with information that includes the car’s make and model, license plate number, color and VIN. If you’re in the market for a used vehicle, you can run a check online on the VIN of cars you’re considering to see if that vehicle has been stolen. If the car has been stolen, find an excuse to remove yourself from the transaction and notify the police.  

Buy or Sell a Used Car 

If you’re buying or selling a used car, it’s important to have the VIN handy as it provides critical information about the make and model of a vehicle, when it was made, and what features it carries. 

Recalls on a Car 

A car’s VIN can also be used to look up recalls by the manufacturer if a part has been deemed unsafe and needs to be replaced at a dealership. 

The Takeaway 

A car’s VIN is not only a handy way to learn information about a vehicle’s make and model but also a critical point of information to provide in circumstances like refinancing your auto loan.Considering the risks and rewards of refinancing your auto loan? There can be lots of things to think about, such as will your credit score take a hitIf you’re curious about refinancing your auto loan, visit Lantern by SoFi, where you can compare auto refinancing rates from lenders.
Photo credit: iStock/gremlin
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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the VIN?
Where is the VIN on a car?
How long is a car VIN?

About the Author

Austin Kilham

Austin Kilham

Austin Kilham is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles. He focuses on personal finance, retirement, business, and health care with an eye toward helping others understand complex topics.
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