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What is a Vehicle Identification Number? Car VIN explained

A car’s VIN is what makes it unique – but what does this jumble of letters and numbers actually mean, and why is it important?

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Every car is different. Sure, if you have a black BMW 3 Series or grey Audi Q5, there may be many thousands of cars that look identical – but they’re not your car. 

The way specific vehicles can be identified is via its vehicle identification number, or VIN – sometimes also called the chassis number, because it’s stamped on to the chassis of the car – which is a 17-character identifier. 

Why is the VIN important?

The VIN is unique to an individual car, so it can be used when buying and selling a car, to ensure it is genuine: not stolen, not a clone, not been written off in a crash or not a cut-and-shut (one made by welding the back of one crashed car to the front of another one) that could be dangerous. 

That’s why the VIN is always included in the car’s log book (V5C), and its identity can be matched to the government’s official vehicle database, simply by inputting the number into a manufacturer or the DVLA database.

What all those numbers and letters mean

The VIN might look like a randomly assembled collection of letters and numbers, like one of those randomly generated strong internet passwords, but there is actually some method in the apparent madness.

You can break down the 17 characters like this:

  • Characters 1-3: This is the country or region where the car was made, by which manufacturer and the manufacturer’s division.

  • Characters 4-8: These five numbers are used by manufacturers to detail the likes of weight, horsepower, platform, model, trim specs, and/or engine size.

  • Character 9: This is a check digit, a number calculated using the other digits to ensure the validity of the VIN.

  • Character 10: Model year.

  • Character 11: The factory where the car was made.

  • Characters 12-17: This is the serial number assigned by the manufacturer.

Where you can find a car’s VIN

The VIN is stamped into the chassis of a vehicle, usually in the engine bay or beneath the plastic trim around the opening of the driver or front passenger door.

Most cars sold in the UK also have what’s known as a ‘visible VIN’, which is displayed near the bottom of the windscreen.

This allows the authorities to quickly run identity checks (for example, to check if the car tax is fully paid up). 

Checking your VIN online

There are lots of websites – many of them specific to a manufacturer – that will help you to enter your VIN and discover all the details and specifications of your car.

There are also a number of services, such as HPI checks, that will help you check a VIN when buying a car, to help you discover if there are any nasty surprises hidden away in its history.

The DVLA doesn’t offer a VIN checking service, but it does enable you to check up its tax and MOT status, when the car was first registered, its SORN status and details about the car (colour, engine size, CO2 emissions, etc).

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