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What is a vehicle identification number (VIN)?

Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com

If you’ve ever wanted to compare car insurance quotes, you were probably asked for a VIN number, leaving you asking yourself, “what is a VIN number?” It’s important to know what it is and how to find it, as comes in handy at the DMV, when you’re insuring your vehicle or for knowing if your car is included in a safety recall. 

VIN number meaning

VIN stands for Vehicle Identification Number. Each car has its own identifying VIN number, much like a fingerprint or serial number that traces back to the specific vehicle. And like a fingerprint or serial number, no two car VINs are alike. 

The United States Department of Transportation created the system — all cars made on or after 1981 have a VIN. You’ll find that the VIN may be found on other parts of a vehicle on many cars manufactured after 1987 as well. One function the VIN number serves is that law enforcement can more easily find stolen cars and trace parts.

How to read a VIN number

A VIN is a combination of 17 digits and characters — and the numbers aren’t random. You can get a lot of information if you know how to read a VIN number. The VIN number can be interpreted the following way:

  • The first number: this represented the country in which the vehicle was built. The U.S. may be number one, four or five, Canada is two and Mexico is three. Other countries get a letter — Germany is W, Japan is J, England is S and South Korea is K, for example.
  • The second character: This represents the manufacturer. The Society for Automotive Engineers issues manufacturer codes although some are easier to figure out, such as A for Audi or G for GMC.
  • The third through eight positions of digits: The vehicle’s model, engine, transmission, body type and restraint system. 
  • The ninth position: A number generated by the U.S. Department of Transportation that is assigned to the specific vehicle to detect fake or invalid VINs. 
  • Tenth position: A number or letter to represent the model year. The year 2000 uses a K. Models between 2001 and 2009 use the number for the year, such as 1 for 2001. Starting in 2010, the character changed to a letter and continued on each year to K for 2019 and L for 2020.
  • Eleventh position: A number symbolizing the plant at which the vehicle was manufactured.
  • The last six digits: The unique ID assigned at the factory for the specific vehicle.

VIN example

Take a look at this VIN code and see what you can recognize. It’s a VIN for a Toyota:


  • J stands for Japan
  • T is for Toyota
  • 4B stands for a 4-door truck
  • 2EE describes the truck’s model, restraint system and engine
  • N is the model, which for Toyota is Tacoma
  • 1 is the control number assigned by the U.S. Department of Transportation
  • K is the model year of 2019
  • 0 is the code for the Japanese plant where it was built
  • The remaining six digits are unique to this Toyota Tacoma and in this case, means the truck was number 102,237 in the production line that year.

Where to find your VIN number

The most common place to find the VIN number is on the driver side windshield by near the dashboard. It’s easiest to see it from the outside of the vehicle. You may also find it on the door post near the locking door latch on your passenger or driver side. 

If you’re not near your vehicle, you may also be able to find the VIN in your paperwork. The VIN is listed on your vehicle registration, the car’s title, the bill of sale from the car dealer or on your insurance card or declaration page. 

The VIN number on certain vehicles that are considered more prone to theft may be stamped or etched in certain concealed areas. You may be able to find the VIN on your hood, engine, the radiator support bracket, in the trunk or in older cars, the front end of the car frame if you open the door and look. 

Can I find my VIN number online?

You may be able to decode your VIN number to get more information about the vehicle or use the VIN to run a history on the car, but finding the VIN online isn’t possible, unless you are able to view your proof of insurance card on your insurance account. If you can’t access the vehicle to find the VIN number it can be found in your insurance or registration documents. 

When do you need your VIN

It’s a good idea to keep your VIN number somewhere handy. You won’t need it often, but you will have to provide it on certain occasions. You’ll need your VIN for the following circumstances:

To register your vehicle or replace your title

The vehicle identification number is unique to your car and is needed to identify it when you register it. It will be the principal identifying factor that confirms you own the car. If you ever lose your title document, the VIN is required to order a replacement.

For car insurance

Insurers can see a lot of information about your car with the VIN. Repairs, accidents and other incidents are often reported using the number. If you’d like a detailed car quote, you’ll typically need to provide the number. You may forget the body style of the engine of your car when you’re getting a quote, but if you provide the VIN, all the specs will be accessible to the provider. In addition, once you’re ready to purchase car insurance, the VIN will be required to verify what vehicle the policy is assigned to.

To check for safety recalls

There are times your car may have to go back to the manufacturer or dealer to have a part replaced due to a defect or safety-related finding. It’s the responsibility of the manufacturer to notify customers but on older models, finding who to notify can be more difficult. When in doubt, you can always stay on top of your vehicle’s safety recalls by entering your VIN number in the government’s recall look-up page

To sell your vehicle

When you sell your car, both you and the purchaser will need the VIN number to transfer the title. It’s the most important part of the transfer, so make sure the VIN is correct.

The takeaway

  • The VIN is like the serial number or fingerprint for your vehicle — it uniquely identifies your car.
  • A vehicle ID number is typically 17 characters long, although classic or older cars may have less.
  • There is a lot of information revealed in the VIN if you know how to read it, including make, model, manufacturer, year, equipment and order it was produced in the factory.
  • The VIN is necessary to buy car insurance, register the vehicle and transfer the title.

The VIN is a critical identifier for your vehicle so it’s important to understand what it means and where it’s located. You’ll be asked for the number on several occasions to accurately identify your vehicle. The series of identifying codes reveal many details about the car the VIN is assigned to, and comes in handy for several key aspects of car ownership.

Cynthia Paez Bowman


Cynthia splits her time between Los Angeles, CA and San Sebastian, Spain. She travels to Africa and the Middle East regularly to consult with women’s NGOs about small business development.

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