VIN number

What is a car’s VIN number?

Last updated February 16th, 2024

A Vehicle Identification Number (or VIN) is an identifying code for a car. Essentially, a VIN is like a fingerprint; each one is unique and can be used to identify a specific car.

Each VIN contains key information about a vehicle, including its make, model, year, engine size (and type) and where it was built. All vehicles built after 1981 have a 17-digit VIN, although some manufactured prior to this will have fewer digits.

Please note: VINs are often referred to as ‘VIN numbers’ (much like how PINs are known as ‘PIN numbers’). However, this is technically incorrect as the ‘N’ denotes the word ‘number’.

In this guide, we will cover how to decode your VIN, where you can expect to find it on your vehicle and the distinction between VIN and engine numbers. We’ll also explore the history of VINs and explain the format differences between regions.

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How to decode a Vehicle Identification Number

VIN graphic breaking down a VIN number into categories

Where is the VIN number located?

Usually, you can find the VIN on the chassis of your car (either stamped into the engine bay or beneath the plastic trim around the driver or passenger door opening). Car manufacturers often repeat the VIN in other areas of the car, too. Most UK manufacturers also print the VIN near the bottom of the windscreen.

The VIN is stamped to the chassis of your car so that it cannot be removed or altered. (It is intended to remain intact for as long as the vehicle lasts.) This allows the police to run identity checks on cars they believe may have been stolen.

When should you check a car’s VIN number?

You should always check the VIN before purchasing a car. Make sure that the VIN number referenced in the V5C logbook matches the number stamped onto the car’s chassis (and repeated elsewhere on the vehicle).

VINs, chassis numbers, and engine numbers

The terms ‘VIN’ and ‘chassis number’ refer to the same thing. (The ‘chassis’ is one of the places where the VIN is stamped.) However, the engine number is a completely different number that can be found on the engine.

There is a VIN/chassis number (which can never be removed or changed) and an engine number for every car. The engine number denotes the size and power output the engine produces and may change if a new engine is fitted.

Having a separate engine number means that if the engine needs to be replaced, it can be done so without the car needing to be scrapped. Instead, when a new engine is fitted, the vehicle is assigned a new engine number, alongside the existing VIN/chassis number.

The purpose of VIN numbers

So, what are VINs for? They have a surprising number of real-world applications:

  • Vehicle registration and titling - When registering a vehicle or transferring ownership, the VIN is a crucial identifier used by government authorities. It provides accurate documentation of the vehicle's history and ownership. DVLA staff can also identify a car’s registration number from its VIN.

  • Maintenance and recall information - Automotive manufacturers use VINs to track vehicle production and issue car recalls. When a vehicle is brought in for maintenance or a recall service, the VIN is used to identify the specific model and apply any necessary updates or repairs.

  • Used vehicle history reports - Potential buyers of used vehicles often request a vehicle history report, which is generated using the VIN. This report includes information on previous accidents, title status, odometer readings, and other important details to help buyers make informed decisions.

  • Law enforcement and recovery - Law enforcement agencies use VINs to track and recover stolen vehicles. When a vehicle is reported stolen, the VIN is added to databases that can be checked by law enforcement officers during routine traffic stops or investigations.

Example: $85k SUV sent to the scrapyard after VIN fraud… 20 years later

In 2021, a woman from Maryland, USA was left dumbfounded when the SUV she’d driven for 20 years was seized by the police after it was found to have been registered using a fake VIN. The woman, who purchased the SUV for $85,000 way back in the year 2000 was renewing her registration when she was told that the car was registered almost a thousand miles away in Florida.

The Department of Transportation immediately opened an investigation into the vehicle, which led to the discovery that the car had been stolen. The VIN had been replaced with a fake number before the car was sold to the unsuspecting woman.

Unfortunately, this meant the car then had to be scrapped (something which could have been avoided if the proper checks had been carried out all those years ago). This highlights exactly why it’s so important to check the VIN of any second-hand vehicle you’re looking to buy.

Can the VIN be changed?

There are some scenarios in which a new VIN number may be required, such as if you have:

  • Rebuilt a car.
  • Built a kit car.
  • Significantly altered a vehicle so that it no longer matches the specification of the original VIN.

If any of the above apply, the DVLA will typically need to assess your altered vehicle - and can potentially change the VIN for you.

You will sometimes be able to keep the original registration number, but if this isn’t possible, you will have to re-register your car. If your VIN number does change, make sure it matches the one inside your V5C logbook.

What should you do if the VIN number is different from the logbook?

There should be no doubts over a car’s VIN, so double-check it - and walk away from the sale if something doesn’t seem right.

If the number on the car doesn’t match the one referenced in the V5C logbook, you should not buy the car, as it may have been stolen.

Criminals will often transfer the VIN number from a legally registered car to a stolen one. This process is often referred to as ‘VIN cloning’.

Criminals may even fabricate documentation to conceal the car’s identity, so check carefully.

History of VIN numbers

VIN numbers were first introduced by the U.S. Department of Transportation in the early 1960s (when it was decided that all vehicles must be given a 17-character VIN comprising letters and numbers).

It wasn’t long before other countries saw the advantages of this system and adopted it for themselves.

By 1981, the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) established a standardised VIN structure to be used worldwide.

VINs issued using this first standardised structure included a World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI) for each manufacturer, though VINs have since evolved to include the Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS), check digit, model year and Vehicle Identifier Section (VIS).

Differences in VIN formats

Sometimes, a VIN’s format may differ from the standard 17-character configuration.

For example, cars produced before 1981 will display a VIN with a different format or sometimes (depending on the car’s origin and manufacturer), no VIN at all. There are also regional standards for VIN numbers that vary from ISO 3779 (the ISO’s standardised VIN format, used by some manufacturers).

These variations are explained in the table below:


VIN format

ISO 3779


European Union (more than 500 vehicles per year)

WMI, indication of vehicle characteristics, identification of specific vehicle

European Union

(less than 500 vehicles per year)

WMI, 9, indication of vehicle characteristics, identification of specific vehicle

North America

(more than 2000 vehicles per year)

WMI, vehicle attributes, check digit, model year, plant code, sequential number

North America

(less than 2000 vehicles per year)

WMI, 9, vehicle attributes, check digit, model year, plant code, sequential number