The number of used cars available to buy online can be intimidating. You can find any car you want and filter down to the right transmission, year, mileage, and color. It’s an exciting process and the pictures on the listings often look great!
But how do you know how dependable a vehicle will be or about its true history? There’s a key piece to online vehicle listings – one you might have overlooked in your original search, the VIN number. Learning how to read a VIN number will help you get the full picture of your potential new ride.
VIN stands for vehicle identification number and is a standardized 17 character code (VINs include both letters and numbers) that lets manufacturers, the government, and consumers track a vehicle. The current standard was established in 1981 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in response to the growing number of manufacturer-specific identifiers.
This standardization is good for the average consumer because it allows you to use one system to track cars as well as an outline which standardized parts to use when you need to do repairs. VINs are not unique to cars and can be found on trucks, motorcycles, and any other vehicle that needs to be registered at the DMV. The VIN is essential in used car buying because it allows you to look up a vehicle history report (VHR) and track when and where a vehicle was made, sold, and repaired.
Finding a VIN
A VIN can be found in a vehicle’s official paperwork (the title and registration) and on the vehicle itself. Each manufacturer can place it where they want on the car. The VIN can also be found in insurance documents and in the owner’s manual. If the vehicle has been repaired, it will also be found in manufacturer-associated body shop repair records. If the car was stolen and not recovered, it will be in a police report.
No access to paperwork? No problem. The VIN is always found on the car itself. Most commonly, you will find it on the bottom of the driver’s side dashboard or under the hood at the front of the engine. Other places to check would be on the driver’s side door jamb or in the wheel well. To get a few more ideas on where to find the VIN, check out the DMV online.
Interpreting a VIN
Each of the 17 characters in a VIN tells you something about the vehicle. It can be broken up into three sections – each one telling about a different part of the vehicle.
Digits 1 – 3: World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI)
This segment explains which country the car was built in, the vehicle manufacturer, and the vehicle’s type or manufacturing division, respectively.
Digits 4 – 8: Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS)
These numbers explain the model, body style, engine type, and transmission of the vehicle. This section of the VIN is particularly useful to repair shops – and to you, if you plan on fixing up a used car – because it helps identify the correct parts to use. Double-check this with VIN lookup sources, as each manufacturer has its own method for coding this section.
Digit 9: Check Number
Digit 9 is called the check number and is used to detect an invalid VIN according to a special formula. The check digit determines how to translate the other 16 digits in the VIN to establish whether it’s real without needing to contact the manufacturer or another source. For more information on how this works, check out the formula.
Looking For Auction Vehicles Near You?
We’ll shoot you an email once every two weeks with vehicles up for auction near you. Don't sweat it, you can opt-out anytime.
Digits 10 – 17: Vehicle Identifier Section (VIS)
The last several digits pertain to the vehicle itself. Digit 10 is a character that translates to the manufacturing year and digit 11 is for the manufacturing plant where it was assembled. The last 6 digits are the vehicle’s serial number. This numbering is unique to each manufacturer and relates to the order vehicles are completed at the plants.
Decoding a VIN in “Real Life”
Let’s break down a quick example of how to decode a VIN number without a decoder. Imagine you’re wanting to get a Toyota. You know they put their VIN on the top left side of the dash, so you check there and find it.
Let’s look at each piece. The WMI is 3TM; VDS is CZ5AN5; the check number is 5, and VIS is GM015742. Broken down, what does all this stuff mean?
- WMI: 3TM. This means the manufacturer was Toyota de Mexico and it was made in a US plant.
- VDS CZ5AN5. It’s a Toyota Tacoma.
- Check Number + VIS: 5GM015742. The vehicle check number is 5 and the serial number is 015742. It was made in 2016 and the approximate mileage is “new.” We can also tell from this number that the car was actually manufactured in Toyota de Mexico’s Baja, California plant.
How to Tell what Month Your Car Was Made In?
Determining the month and year your car was made will vary for each manufacturer but there are some commonalities amongst brands. Car manufacturers use both numbers and letters to represent the month and the year. For instance, Letter “A” is used for the year 2010 and “Y” stands for 2030. Likewise, the month of production starts with “A” for January and ends with “M” for December.
Knowing this information is only half the battle though as each manufacturer places these letters in different locations throughout the VIN number. Usually, a quick look on the brand’s website will give you enough information to determine where the year and month are placed.
Determining the Original Paint Color of Your Car
You will notice that the VIN does not tell you the exact paint color of your car. However, if you have the VIN number you can contact the manufacturer and they will be able to assist you. Knowing the original paint color of a vehicle is important if you ever want to do any touch-up work or minor repairs.
A great overview of basic decoding for a number of brands is provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) in their Passenger Vehicle Identification Handbook. The most recent editions cost money but earlier editions can be found online.
This is about the extent of free information. You can try calling the manufacturer and providing the VIN number and they may be able to provide more information or to verify any information that seems conflicting. If you want more information – such as mileage per the previous owner, police reports, and recall information – you might have to pay, depending on what state you live in.
For more information on your used car, have a look at the Vehicle History Report.
Online VIN Decoders
All car manufacturers have their own way of using VIN numbers to track each vehicle made at the plant. The good news is with the proper information you can quickly decode most types of vehicles. For example, you can use any of the following online VIN decoders to get information on your automobile:
- Honda Online VIN Decoder
- Jeep Online VIN Decoder
- Toyota Online VIN Decoder
- Ford Online VIN Decoder
- GMC Online VIN Decoder
- Dodge Online VIN Decoder
Conducting research on any used vehicle you want to buy is an important step in the purchasing process. It’s always a good idea to ask questions before buying a used vehicle, along with viewing the vehicle in person and giving it a test drive.