What Is a VIN Number and What Is It Used For?

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All vehicles have a vehicle identification number — or VIN. This unique identifier helps in a number of ways, both before you purchase a car (particularly a used one) and during the time you own it. No two vehicles have the same VIN. Find out what information is included in a VIN, where to find it on your car and how your VIN can come in handy over time.

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What is a VIN number?

A VIN is a vehicle identification number, made up of 17 digits and letters that are unique to a vehicle. The code reveals information such as the car make and model, the manufacturer, year and engine size. These details can be used for a number of purposes, from sending you notifications about manufacturer recalls to identifying lost or stolen vehicles.

What information does the VIN provide?

Each number and character in your VIN symbolizes a specific piece of information. The first number represents the country in which the vehicle was manufactured. Your first VIN digit will be a one, four or five, for example, if your car was made in the U.S. If it was made in Canada, the first digit would be a two. Cars made in Mexica have VINs that start with three.

The next letter stands for the manufacturer’s name, such as G for General Motors.

The third letter usually stands for the type of vehicle, such as a truck or SUV.

The next set of five numbers gives a description of the vehicle, like the model, body, transmission, engine and type of restraints. Then you’ll find an authorization number, a digit designating the year in which the car was manufactured and a marker of the manufacturing plant.

Finally, the last six characters are a personal sequence to identify your specific vehicle.

What are VINs used for?

A VIN can be used in a number of scenarios. When shopping for used cars, research the VIN to pull the history of the vehicle. You can find out how many owners have had the car and if it’s been through any major events like being submerged underwater. In other words, researching a VIN is an important part of performing your due diligence before you commit to the purchase.

VINs are also used to deter auto theft. If someone steals a car and it’s reported to the authorities, it will be difficult to sell. Used car dealerships also search the VIN to make sure the vehicle isn’t stolen. That’s why it’s so important to file a police report if you’re ever the victim of auto theft or carjacking.

Finally, a VIN helps you identify any open recalls. Simply input your VIN into the U.S. Department of Transportations’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Safety Issues and Recall tool. It logs any repairs that have already been made to the vehicle, so you’ll only see outstanding manufacturer recalls from the last 15 years. This information is available for light automakers, motorcycles and some trucks. The information is updated regularly, so you should check back every so often.

If you do see some type of recall, it’s typically the manufacturer’s responsibility to fix the issue at no charge to you. Only safety-related issues are reported, such as broken steering components, fuel system components and air bags, among others. Things that weaken because of usual wear and tear aren’t included in VIN recalls. That’s all ongoing maintenance you need to take care of on your own.

Where on my car can I see the VIN?

You can find your VIN in a few spots. First, it should be etched on the lower-left corner of your vehicle’s windshield, which is on the driver’s side. You may see it again on the inside of the driver’s door jamb, usually printed on a sticker. It’s also on your registration card and could be on your auto insurance card as well. VIN etching on the glass is an extra feature you can get done to make it more difficult for car thieves to remove the VIN and replace it with another one.

Why do cars have VIN numbers?

A VIN number can be used in multiple scenarios that may pop up over the course of your ownership. When you’re purchasing your car, a VIN is used to help you ascertain the vehicle’s history. You may find benign information, such as how many owners the car has had, or you could discover something more serious like the car has been deemed a lemon in the past. In this instance, it may be best to walk away from the deal.

Another common reason for cars to have VIN numbers is to track recalls and repairs. According to the Consumer Federation of America, more than 70 million vehicles in the U.S. had open recalls on them in 2018. This increases the number of hazards, both for drivers and those who share the road. Deterring auto theft is a final function of car VINs.

Too long, didn’t read?

Understanding how VINs work is an important part of owning a car. If you haven’t done so recently, locate your VIN and keep it in a safe place in case the vehicle is ever stolen. Then check for any outstanding recalls to see what’s been repaired and what work needs to be done to keep you safe while driving. Schedule another check-in on your VIN at least once a year. While your manufacturer should mail you with any new recall issues, it’s still your responsibility to check and keep your vehicle updated.

A free vehicle history check using your VIN is a smart way to discover any current and potential issues in the future. Once you do, you can rest easy knowing that your car is free of any hidden safety recalls or past accidents you were unaware of. Peace of mind and confidence in your ride are two great feelings to have any time you’re behind the wheel.

We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

Lauren Ward
Lauren Ward
Contributing Writer

Lauren Ward is a personal finance writer living in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and three children. In her spare time she enjoys board games and gardening.

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