How to decode the vehicle identification number on your car

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The VIN number as displayed on the driver's side dash of a Tesla car.

A common location for the VIN in newer vehicles. (Photo Credit: CC BY/Spencer Thomas/Flickr)

Do you know what that 17-digit number you can see in a variety of places on your vehicle means? That’s your car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), and it is packed full of useful data. When you register your vehicle, buy insurance, take the car in for repairs or try to help police find your ride if it’s stolen, the VIN is incredibly useful.

The VIN’s three-part code

Whether it’s on the upper left side of your car’s dashboard, under the hood or in the driver’s doorjamb, the Vehicle Identification Number breaks down into three parts: the World Manufacturer Identifier, the Vehicle Descriptor Section and the Vehicle Identifier Section.

World Manufacturer Identifier

The World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI) is the first five characters of the VIN. The first character on the WMI represents the nation of origin, where the car was assembled. U.S.-assembled vehicles start with a 1, 4 or 5. Canadian-made cars start with a 2, Mexican-made with a 3, Japanese with a J, Korea with a K, England with an S and Germany with a W.

The second of the three WMI parts represents the vehicle manufacturer. Typically, it’s the first letter of the automaker’s name, such as A for Audi, B for BMW, etc.

Finally, position three of the WMI refers to the vehicle type or manufacturing division. It is typically a three-digit number, such as 1GC for Chevrolet trucks, 1G2 for Pontiac passenger cars, and so on.

Vehicle Descriptor Section

The second portion of the VIN is the Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS). The first five positions refer to model, body type, restraint system, transmission and engine. The final part of the VDS is the “check” digit, which is used by the Department of Transportation to detect invalid VINs.

Vehicle Identifier Section

The third and final segment of the VIN is the Vehicle Identifier Section (VIS). The first VIS digit is the model year, where letters from B-X correspond to model years, beginning with 1981 (B) and going up to X for 2000. Model years beyond 2000 receive numbers, beginning with 1 for 2001. Curiously, I, O, Q, U and Z aren’t used in this position. Here’s an up-to-date list:

B=81, C=82, D=83, E=84, F=85, G=86, H=87, J=88, K=89, L=90, M=91, N=92, P=93, R=94, S=95, T=96, V=97, W=98, X=99, Y=00, 1=01, 2=02, 3=03, 4=04, 5=05, 6=06, 7=07, 8=08, 9=09, A=2010.

Next comes the manufacturing plant digit. Each automaker has its own set of plant codes, notes Edmunds. Then after that, the last six numbers in the VIN represent production sequence, which is the number given to a car on the assembly line.

How to find your VIN


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