5 Steps to Decode a Vehicle Identification Number

By Jess Penner

Whether you are thinking about buying or selling a used car, it’s important to know its history so you can make the right decision. An easy way to learn about the history of a vehicle is to find and decode its vehicle identification number (VIN).

A VIN can tell you when and where a vehicle was made, as well as many other useful pieces of information. Here is how you can find and decode a vehicle identification number.

1. Search for the VIN in the documentation of the vehicle

If the car is yours, and you have kept all the documentation that came with it, you should be able to easily find a vehicle identification number in either your vehicle title, registration card, owner’s manual or insurance documents.

If you are interested in a used car that belongs to someone else, ask if they still have this documentation, or if they have a vehicle history report. If they don’t, you will have to take a good look at the car to search for the VIN.

2. Search for the VIN on the vehicle

A vehicle identification number is a long serial number that usually has 17 digits. Depending on the vehicle, it can be found in different locations. It might be located on a small plaque at the base of the windshield, on the driver’s side. It could also be found on the driver’s door, under the hood at the front of the engine block, or even underneath the spare tire.

Take a close look at the vehicle until you have found the VIN, and take a picture of it or write it down on a piece of paper so you can try to decode it.

3. Find out where the vehicle was made

The first two characters in the vehicle identification number will tell you where the car was made. The first character will indicate the continent where it was manufactured. For example, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 indicate a vehicle was manufactured in North America, while J, K, L, M, N, P, or R mean it was manufactured in Asia.

The second character in the VIN will indicate the country where the car was made. To help you decode the first two characters, search for a chart that will show you the characters associated with each continent  and country.

4. Find out when it was made

Finding out when a car was made will be a little more complicated. For most vehicles, the tenth character of the VIN, which will either be a letter or a number, will indicate the model year of the vehicle. If the seventh character of the VIN is a number, it means the model year is earlier than 2010.

To find out the model year of a car, and to get additional information, such as the model of engine the car initially came with, it will be more simple to use an online VIN decoder.

5. Use an online VIN decoder

Even if you want to try decoding the whole VIN on your own, it will not tell you if the car was ever damaged in an accident or in a fire. This kind of information will be revealed to you if you enter the vehicle identification number you have found in an online VIN decoder.

Many free online services will give you a sneak peek into the history of the vehicle you are investigating, but you will probably have to pay if you are interested in a VIN check that will provide you with its complete history.