your car’s VIN: how to read it and what it reveals

For some drivers, curiosity over their cars doesn't go beyond wondering how close the gas needle can get to "E" before they really need to fill up. But truth is a little investigating goes a long way. We'll explain how decoding your vehicle identification number (VIN) can reveal useful information about your car's past … and future.

what and where is the VIN?

Your car's VIN is a mix of 17 letters and numbers displayed on the driver's side of the dash underneath the front of the windshield.

Think of the VIN, more or less, as a dog tag for your car. While it doesn't actually name your ride (despite how cute "2GMHT73A585222764" sounds), the VIN acts as a unique marker distinguishing your set of wheels from all others.

cracking the code: what does the VIN tell you?

Here's a nuts-and-bolts breakdown of what these ciphers of the assembly line convey about your car.

Characters 1–3: make and origin

The first 3 characters are called the "world manufacturer identifier." For the sake of demonstration, let's say your VIN's first 3 characters are WAU.

The first letter corresponds with a widely used world manufacturer identifier index to reveal where in the world your car was made. For instance, 1, 4, and 5 usually mean the U.S., 2 means Canada, and J means Japan. For our fictional ride, W stands for Germany.

The second and third characters reveal the company — often (but not always) by abbreviation. In our case, AU means Audi.

Characters 4–8: features of your car

While the standards vary between manufacturers and countries, these characters typically relay info about your car's safety features, engine type, transmission, and body. They're a reference for mechanics and anyone servicing your car in the future.

To crack this part of the code, you can run your VIN past your car manufacturer or punch it into an online program.

Character 9: veracity of your VIN

This number is merely a "check digit" that verifies the legitimacy of your VIN to confirm that it's not the handiwork of a fraudulent dealer or vandal.

The U.S. Department of Transportation established a complex mathematical equation that multiplies and divides the numbers and letters of your VIN to arrive at the check digit. If it doesn't match, something fishy is going on.

You can search for and find a few online tools to determine if your check digit is correct.

Character 10: the model year

Cars from 1980–2000 typically carry a letter A–Y, such as A for 1980, B for 1981, and so on. Cars built between 2001 and 2009 use the numbers 0–9, in order. In 2010, many companies simply reset the lettering system. Let's say our Audi has a Y in the tenth slot; that means it's a 2000 model.

Character 11: the manufacturing plant

This info, again, is typically unique to each company, so you'll want to conduct manufacturer-specific searches when decoding your own. Pretending we have an A in our fictional VIN's eleventh slot, we learn that our Audi hails from the factory located in Ingolstadt, Germany. Wunderbar!

Characters 12–17: production number

This lets you know, essentially, when your car came off the assembly. If you have a classic or limited-edition car, you can use this info to verify that your car indeed came off a special (and we assume smaller) assembly line.

using the VIN to buy a used car

One of the best times to look into VINs is while researching used cars. Say a dealer tells you that a prospective ride has a passenger-side air bag, but upon decoding the 4-8 VIN slots for yourself, you find it has a driver-side bag only. Now you know either the dealer's wrong or the extra bag was added outside the factory.

You can also cross-check the VIN with companies like CARFAX to learn more about a car's individual history. These reports may not include everything, but they can give you an idea of how safe the car is and how it's been treated by previous owners.

gibberish never sounded so sweet: VINs and car insurance

True, a jumble of characters like WAUAH68D4YA224853 might seem like gibberish. But a little decoding can turn it into so much more, giving you an accurate picture of your car's origins and features.

Discovering whether your ride has great safety features or, on the flip side, insurance red flags like a salvage title can help you pick a vehicle that your car insurer will love as much as you do.

The feds and VIN errors (PDF)
How serious is the federal government about VINs and what happens if there's an error? Find out in this informational piece from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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