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Every so often, we encounter acronyms and jargon that we only vaguely understand, especially in the automotive world. One term drivers may not be that familiar with is VIN, which some refer to as a VIN. Here’s what a VIN is and why all car owners need to be able to find theirs.

What is a VIN?

A variety of parked cars with VINs.
Parked cars | Getty Images

VIN stands for “Vehicle Identification Number,” and its purpose is found in its name. A VIN is a distinct 17-digit alphanumeric code that identifies a vehicle. VINs aren’t restricted to cars. You can also find VINs on mopeds, motorcycles, and scooters. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), VINs were first used in the Fifties. However, when first introduced, there was no national standard for these codes. Accordingly, different manufacturers used different formats.

As you might imagine, this created a bit of confusion. After all, two manufacturers could inadvertently use the same VIN for different vehicles. Moreover, each VIN contained different identifying information per the manufacturer’s preference. If the government or law enforcement needed to identify a unique vehicle quickly, they were hampered by this lack of standardization.

By the 80s, the Department of Transportation stepped in, primarily to help law enforcement authorities in their efforts to recover stolen motor vehicle parts. In 1981, the NHTSA required the standardization of VINs across the country. And by 1987, the agency required VIN inclusion on specific parts likely to be removed from stolen vehicles for resale. This requirement was later modified as the government established a specific classification system to mark high-value parts that did not include the VIN.

Where Can You Find Your Vehicle’s Actual Serial Number?

If you’re looking for your vehicle’s serial number, you’ll find it within a section of your car’s VIN. As per AutoZone, the VIN is comprised of three sections. The first three characters include the World Manufacturer Identifier section (WMI), the following six characters are the Vehicle Description Section (VDS), and the last eight characters are called the Vehicle Identifier Section (VIS).

The vehicle’s serial number lies in the last five digits of the VIS. These digits comprise a unique number your car was provided on the production line. The remainder of the VIN provides separate, though no less critical, information. But the VIS is where you’ll find your car’s serial number.

And if you’re looking for your VIN itself, you’ll find your VIN on your dashboard, on the driver’s side, near the windshield; on the driver’s side door jamb, usually imprinted on a plate or on a sticker affixed to the door itself, and on your engine’s firewall.

If you need your VIN in a pinch and are not near your car, you can likely grab it using your smartphone. Your VIN appears on your insurance card and policy, which, if you’re a teen driver whose parents handled the insurance paperwork, you may not know. But if you log into your insurer’s mobile app, set up an account, and log in, you should be able to obtain your VIN. Further, your VIN appears on your vehicle title and registration, which should be in your dashboard console, so there’s no need to squint at the windshield decal or look at the door jamb to find it.

What do the different characters in a VIN mean?

In a VIN’s WMI, the first character tells you where your car was made, while the second indicates your vehicle’s manufacturer and region of origin. The last digit indicates the type of vehicle you have.

The first five characters of a VIN’s VDS contain a wealth of information about your vehicle, including its engine code, transmission type, restraint system, body type, and model. The final digit in this sequence is a specific digit used to verify authorized VINs. This digit is assigned according to a particular formula created by the U.S. Department of Transportation, making it difficult for criminals to falsify VINs to conceal thefts.

Of course, you’ll rarely need to know this much about your vehicle. But VIN information is essential to various governmental, automotive, and insurance entities. So it is at least noteworthy that you know how to find your VIN. And it’s good to understand what the different sections mean, especially where your car’s actual serial number is.


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