What Does VIN Stand For? Where To Find Your VIN And How To Read It

What Does VIN Stand For? Where To Find Your VIN And How To Read It

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Chances are if you've ever changed your wiper blades yourself, you've noticed a lengthy stretch of what seems to be random letters and numbers etched into the dashboard just below the lower corner of the driver side of the windshield.

That's your vehicle's VIN or “vehicle identification number.” It's essentially your car, truck or SUV's unique code – a sort of specific serial number – that is used to identify where and when a vehicle was made as well as who made it. Actually, the vehicle’s specific serial number is located at the end of the VIN. We’ll elaborate more on that in a bit.

And not just autos have VINs. Motorcycles, scooters and mopeds also bear VINS, as do trailers, hitches and other towed vehicles.

If your vehicle were to have a social security number, it would be its VIN.

The acronym is simply “VIN.” There's no need to say “VIN number,” as the “N” stands for “number.”

VINs are also sometimes known as frame numbers or chassis numbers, too.

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Why do VINs exist?

VINs originated in the United States in 1954, when the federal government tasked automakers and the American Manufacturers Association to develop a system to categorize and classify all motor vehicles in a standardized manner.

Before 1954, state transportation bureaus used engine numbers – another code that's altogether separate from the VIN – to register specific vehicles. But that system eventually proved to be problematic when a car or truck would receive a new or different engine.

For nearly three decades after VINs were introduced, each automaker had its own classification system, which caused just as much confusion as understanding a Ford's VIN versus a Volvo’s was essentially on par with understanding the difference between English and Swedish.

That all finally changed in 1981, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the United States officially standardized the VIN format, creating a 17-character mix of numbers and letters that omits O, I and Q, so as not to be confused with or mistaken for 0, 1 and 9, respectively.

Where is my VIN located?

You'll also find it on the vehicle's title, its registration and stamped on other inconspicuous – or sometimes hidden altogether – parts of the body of the vehicle, too, such as under the car's hood next to the latch, on the front end of the frame and on the driver's side door pillar. 

Having it in so many different places helps to identify vehicles in the event of severe accidents or in the case of theft when they're often stripped, dismantled and sold off in pieces.

Thankfully, there's no need to worry about major accidents or theft with any used car, truck or SUV you find among Shift's inventory. Each vehicle has a detailed history report that allows you to rest assured that it has a clean past. Also, Shift's licensed mechanics give each car a thorough 150-point examination and provide detailed vehicle history reports, so you can be sure that your used car is as good as new.

How do I read my VIN?

It may look like a haphazard mess of numerical alphabet soup, but there's actually rhyme and reason to that string of letters and numbers. Here's how to dissect your vehicle's VIN:

The first three letters of the VIN denote the manufacturer of the vehicle – such as Toyota, Jeep or BMW for example – using what is known as the “world manufacturer identifier,” or WMI for short. That denotes where in the world it was made – or better said, where it was assembled, as these days vehicles consist of parts that hail from all over the globe – and by whom.

The first character – be it a letter or number – tells us the region of the world where the automaker's headquarters are located. Letters A-H are used for countries located in Africa, letters J-R for countries located in Asia, letters S-Z for European nations, numbers 1-5 for North American as well as Central American and some Caribbean countries, numbers 6-7 for Oceanic nations (Australia and New Zealand, specifically) and numbers 8 and 9 for South American countries.

The second and third characters of the VIN specifically stand for the automaker. Sometimes they're easy to interpret. For example, “VW” identifies the vehicle as a Volkswagen. And sometimes they're a bit more cryptic. “G1” translates to Chevrolet car, while “GC” means it's a Chevrolet truck.

A VIN's fourth through ninth characters describe the vehicle's type. Is it a passenger car? A freight truck? A horse trailer? Characters 4-9 will let you know. Also known as the “vehicle descriptor section” or VDS for short, it can include details on the specific platform, the model and the body style. Every manufacturer uses its own specific system for categorizing its vehicles with the VDS. Usually the eighth or ninth character denotes the specific engine type when there's more than one option available for a single car, such as the difference between a V6 and a V8.

The last string of digits in the VIN – characters 10-17 – are known as the “vehicle identifier section” or VIS for short. These eight characters pertain specifically to the individual vehicle or vessel that bears them. These are usually but not always numbers; in Canada, the United States and Mexico the final five characters must be numbers. The VIS tells you, among other detailed info, the model year of the vehicle by way of a letter or number.

The system starts by pairing letters in alphabetical order, starting with A for 1980, B for 1981, C for 1982 and so on. Remember, the system skips O, I and Q altogether, so as to not have them mistaken for zero, 1 or 9. Also omitted from model year codes are U, Z and zero. The alphabet switches over to numbers after the year 2000, with 1 corresponding to 2001 models, 2 to 2002 models, etc. Once the single digits are exhausted, the system starts over again, with A denoting models manufactured in 2010.

So yes, the same letters and numbers represent different years. But thankfully it's fairly simple to tell the difference between a car made in 1984 and 2004, both of which are denoted with the letter “E.”

As is, the VIS system is set to last up until 2039, after which it will most likely repeat itself for another cycle, returning to “A” for 2040 model year vehicles.

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Summing it all up

Let's do a quick review of all that's going on in your VIN.

First, it tells us where in the world it was made. Then it shows which company made it. Then it specifies more on what type of vehicle it is: a car, truck, motorcycle, etc. Next comes a quick little security code, usually just one digit. Then we move onto when it was made, what year specifically. Next up we have which specific factory from which it comes. And the last string of six or seven characters, usually numbers, is the vehicle's specific serial number.

Remember, it’s not necessarily for you to memorize your vehicle’s VIN. But it is important to know what it is and where to find it both on and off the car. And also, knowing a bit about all the ins and outs of vehicle identification numbers can help you greatly when you're shopping for a used car, registering a new car at the DMV, comparing insurance rates and, in worse case scenarios, if your vehicle is involved in an accident or happens to be stolen, too.

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Shift Editorial Team