What Is a VIN and Why You Need to Know About It


Mar 20th, 2020

What Is a VIN and Why You Need to Know About It

Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, is to cars as a fingerprint is to humans. The Personal Property Security Register (PPSR.gov.au) defines the VIN as a unique code containing 17 alphanumeric characters, used for identifying a motor vehicle. Vehicles built before 1981 may have VINs of 11 to 17 characters and may be difficult for VIN decoders to trace.

What information does the VIN provide?

The 17 characters of the VIN provide specific information depending on their position in the series. It is a combination of three sets of codes – the WMI, VDS, and VIS – which identifies the manufacturer, describes the vehicle, and identifies the vehicle, respectively.

World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI) – Characters 1, 2, 3

The WMI identifies the vehicle manufacturer and origin. 

1st character – the country of origin or country of final assembly (the USA is assigned 1, 4, or 5; Canada – 2; Australia – 6; Germany – W; Japan – J) 

2nd character – manufacturer (Audi is assigned A; BMW – B; Chevrolet – 1; General Motors – G; Mercedes-Benz – D)

3rd character – vehicle type or manufacturing division (please refer to the example below)  

A Chevrolet passenger car built in the US, for example, has a WMI of 1G1. The first character ‘1’ indicates where the vehicle was built, which in this case is in the USA. A similar Chevy model but built in Canada would start as 2G1. A quick note here: Not all American cars are made in the USA nor are all Japanese vehicles made in Japan. Just because your car is a Toyota does not mean that its VIN should start with a J.

The second character ‘G’ in the example, refers to the manufacturer of the Chevrolet brand, General Motors. The third character ‘1’ indicates the vehicle type, which is a passenger car. 

In comparison, GM’s Pontiac passenger cars’ VINs start with 1G2, while Chevrolet trucks will have 1GC. A quick and important note here, manufacturers have different ways of assigning that third character. So a ‘C’ in the third place will not necessarily refer to a truck if you’re looking at a vehicle built by Toyota or other manufacturers.  

Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS) – Characters 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The 4th through 8th characters describe a vehicle’s model, body style, engine type, brake system, dimensions, and others. The coding also varies across manufacturers, who devise their own coding methods. VIN decoders can make it easier for you to decipher these character descriptions.

The 9th character is an accuracy check digit, which helps inspectors and regulators in verifying the accuracy of the previous alphanumerics. 

Vehicle identifier section (VIS) – Characters 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17

10th character – model year (not to be confused with the year it was manufactured); alphanumeric characters are used for this placeholder, except I, O, Q, U, Z, and 0 (zero). Note: Ford and AMC used 0 for 1980 models, but eventually followed the worldwide coding in 1981 when the 17-digit VIN became mandatory.

Here are some of the codes used for the 10th character and the model years they represent.

A – 1980, 2010, 2040

B – 1981, 2011, 2041

C – 1982, 2012, 2042

Y – 2000, 2030, 2060

1 – 2001, 2031, 2061

2 – 2002, 2032, 2062

3 – 2003, 2033, 2063

9 – 2009, 2039, 2069

11th character – assembly plant; this is a manufacturer-assigned code to identify which plant produced a particular vehicle

12th through 17th – production number; a unique code assigned a vehicle at the assembly line, representing its production serial number

While cars of the same model/make, generation/year, and points of origin/assembly may have identical VINs up to the 11th character, their respective final 6-digit sequence distinguishes them from any other car. 

Where will I find the VIN of my car?

You may have seen it many times before but didn’t give it enough importance. You can find the VIN on the body of your car – under the bonnet, at the corner of the dashboard, the bottom of the windscreen, on the driver's side door, near the engine, or on door jambs – but its location varies between cars.

You will also find it written in your car’s registration documents, insurance policy, and registration stickers. 

Why do I need to know what my car’s VIN is?

Before buying a car, whether new or used, it is wise to check on its VIN. You will know its history and status in the national registry. Doing so will safeguard you from buying a car that has been written off, stolen, repainted and rebirthed, or subject to a debt.

You will also need it when getting your car serviced, insured, or claiming for recalled parts and services

A fraudulent VIN is a red flag that should alert you immediately when buying a car. 

Important Tips: Here are some quick and dirty tips on how to spot a fake VIN.

1. Check out for these letters – I, O, Q. They have no place in a VIN! There's a reason behind why they're not used in a VIN. It’s quite easy to confuse I with 1, O with 0, and lowercase Q (q) with 9.

2. Locate the 10th character – see that it’s not any of the letters I, O, Q and also not any of the characters U, Z, and 0 (zero).

3. Refer to an online VIN decoder or the government’s PPSR’s QuickVINsearch. 

Checking the 9th character (accuracy-check digit) also helps but entails code conversions and calculating. 

So look for your car's VIN if you haven’t yet, write it down legibly on a piece of paper and keep it inside your wallet, inside the glove box, or wherever it’s accessible. You will need it when searching for hard-to-find auto replacement parts, filling out insurance forms, or dealing with a repair shop.