The VIN, or vehicle identification number, offers an abundance of information for drivers, car insurers, and anyone else wanting to learn about a vehicle's history. Find out what a VIN is, how it helps law enforcement prevent theft and fraud, and how you can use it to avoid buying a lemon.
General VIN questions
What's a VIN?
The vehicle identification number (VIN) is a 17-digit alphanumeric serial number located on vehicles. Like thumbprints and snowflakes, each number is unique. The VIN allows individuals, car manufacturers, repair facilities, traffic authorities, law enforcement, and others to find and share information relevant to a specific vehicle.
What's the history of the VIN?
VINs have been around in one form or another since 1957, when manufacturers began using various formats. In 1981, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standardized formatting, providing us the VIN as we know it today.
What do all those numbers and letters mean?
The numbers and letters making up a car's VIN may seem random, but they're not. To the trained eye, they describe the make and model (first 3 characters), features of the vehicle (fourth through eighth characters), where the car was built (tenth character) and the assembly plant it was built in (eleventh character), and the sequence of model production (twelfth through seventeenth characters). The ninth character confirms that the VIN is legitimate.
Locating the VIN on a vehicle
Where can I find my car's VIN?
First check the dashboard near the windshield on the driver's side. The VIN may also be displayed on the driver-side door near the door's latch.
The VIN can also be found in several documents you may have on hand, including the vehicle's title, driver registration card, and your insurance ID card.
Can I find the VIN anywhere else?
The Department of Transportation standardizes VIN locations based on theft risk. Some other places where your car's VIN may be found: steering wheel column, engine bay, front and rear bumpers, hood, and transmission.
Getting a car's history using the VIN
How is a car's history compiled through the VIN?
Many companies routinely store, share, sell, and track information using the VIN. One common source for info on the vehicle is the state motor vehicle database.
Repair shops may report anything from routine maintenance checks to accident or flood damage repairs. Also, law enforcement and fire departments may report accident and theft reports to various databases.
Insurance companies, car dealerships, CARFAX, and junk and salvage companies are among the many others who may routinely access and share data gathered on vehicles.
How accurate are car histories?
Though many companies and government institutions do the best they can to track your vehicle's history, they may not have the complete story. For instance, if the previous owner of a car you want to buy failed to report an accident, that wouldn't show in VIN-related reports. There are also repair facilities, insurance companies, and other companies that may not share vehicle information for different reasons, privacy laws among them.
How can I get a car's history?
You can buy a vehicle history report from many outside sources, including CARFAX. In some states, you can buy your car's history from the federally funded National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS).
What are some other ways the VIN can be used?
The VIN can be used to check for safety recalls. And if you buy a car history report (using the VIN as identifier), you can get a vehicle's previous odometer readings and other maintenance info, and find out whether the car has ever been salvaged or written off by insurers. You may even learn whether the vehicle's air bags have been deployed and whether it was ever leased or rented.
Using VINs to prevent fraud and buy the right used car
What is the NMVTIS and how does it help fight fraud?
The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System is a national database of vehicle history information under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. The NMVTIS offers you access to a vehicle's title data, odometer readings, total loss history, and salvage history. It's the only system in the U.S. that legally requires car recyclers, junkyards, and salvage yards to report a vehicle's condition.
The database, a result of the Anti Car Theft Act of 1992, is intended to help prevent the sale or resale of stolen cars, prevent fraud, and protect consumers from unsafe vehicles.
You can buy a report through the NMVTIS website for a small fee.
How can a car's VIN help me buy a used car?
In the past, drivers had little recourse if they wanted to track the history of a car they were considering for purchase. Though a history report may not tell everything that's ever happened to a vehicle — such as the number of donuts performed in a parking lot — it can be a useful tool in finding out the big stuff.
Read our guide to buying a used car for more tips.
How car insurers use the VIN
Why do you ask for my VIN?
The car or truck you drive affects your car insurance rate. Your insurer likely uses your VIN to find out whether your vehicle has ever had a salvage title, which would mean it had been declared a total loss in the past. Some companies, Esurance included, won't insure cars with salvage titles because of the added risks involved.
Can I get a real quote if I don't input my VIN?
While you can get a quote from Esurance without providing your VIN, keep in mind that your quote is only an estimate calculated on the information you've given. The more info you give us during the quoting process, the more accurate your quote will be.
When you're ready to buy, you'll be required to give your car's VIN.
My car had a salvage title in its past life. Why couldn't I buy my policy after entering my car's VIN?
If your car's VIN reveals a salvage title in its past, some companies, Esurance included, won't offer coverage on it. This is because cars with salvage titles were declared total losses at some point in the past and there may be an increased risk involved.
Why is it important to have my VIN accurately entered on my policy?
Your state's motor vehicle department checks car insurance information before issuing licenses and vehicle registration tags. If the VIN listed on your car insurance documents is different from the info the DMV has, they may consider the car uninsured and won't register it.
What is VIN etching?
Having the VIN etched on your car's windows, windshield, or other components is a deterrent to thieves. That's because cars with VIN etching are easier to track and harder to resell.
What is VIN cloning?
To avoid detection by law enforcement and potential buyers, car thieves use a new tactic: VIN cloning. They replace a stolen car's original VIN with another, usually taken from a legally owned or junked vehicle. If the buyer checks the VIN, it may come up clean. The buyer may learn of their mistake only after a visit to a repair shop or, worse, from the police.
The VIN is an important tool for drivers, insurance companies, and anyone looking to learn more about a car's history. If you have a VIN (or non-VIN) question that we didn't answer here, send us an email, post it on our Facebook Wall, or call us anytime at 1-800-ESURANCE (1-800-378-7262). We'll get you an answer as soon as we can.