What is a car VIN number?

Last updated May 21, 2021

A vehicle identification number – also known as a VIN – is a car’s identifying code. Essentially, it’s a fingerprint for your car; each VIN is unique and can identify a specific car. They are found on every car and are used in several ways, such as to tell the car’s history and to show the car’s individual features and manufacturer.

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How to decode the Vehicle Identification Number

What does the VIN number look like?

The VIN is 17 characters long and is comprised of both digits and capital letters. If your VIN appears to be any shorter than this, it may be a model manufactured before 1981, when VINs were between 11 and 17 characters. It is entirely different from your registration number; this is displayed in full view and is considerably shorter.

The first part of the VIN number is the country and manufacturer, the second is the vehicle description and the remainder serves as a unique identifier for your car. This provides a lot more information than your registration alone – the VIN can tell you where your car was built and even whether or not your fuel tank was designed to run on flexible fuel.

The very origins of your car are stated in the VIN, including the model year, the plant that assembled it and its serial number.

Where is the VIN number located?

Usually, you can find your VIN number 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 will additionally add a visible VIN, shown near the bottom of the windscreen.

The VIN is specifically stamped to the chassis of your car so that it cannot be removed or altered; it will remain intact for as long as the vehicle lasts. The visibility here can, for example, allow the police to run identity checks on cars they believe may have been stolen.

When should you check a car’s VIN number?

When purchasing a used vehicle, you should always check the vehicle identification number beforepayment. Make sure that the printed VIN number on the V5 vehicle registration document corresponds to the number stamped onto the car’s chassis, as well as any additional plates on the vehicle.

VINs, chassis numbers, and engine numbers

The VIN number and chassis number are the same thing – the name ‘chassis number’ simply refers to the part of the car the VIN is stamped to. However, the engine number is something entirely different.

Engines are not attached to the car and can be changed, so there will be both a VIN/chassis number (which will never be removed or changed) and an engine number for every car. The engine number denotes the size and power output the engine produces.

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. The car would be assigned a new engine number to correspond with the new part, alongside the existing VIN/chassis number.

Why VIN numbers are important

As we’ve already mentioned, VIN numbers can tell us a lot of information about a car. Therefore, they are integral to helping cut down car crimes, such as theft and the buying/selling of stolen vehicles. Aside from this, manufacturers use VIN numbers to handle warranty claims and recalls.

Before you purchase a used car, you should check that the VIN number on the chassis is the same as that shown in the V5C registration document. It’s best to check for the VIN number in as many areas as possible to ensure they all match. Some car thieves may swap out the VIN from one vehicle to another. This is known as VIN cloning and it is highly illegal.

Under no circumstances should there ever be any discrepancies when it comes to the VIN number on a car. The system is supposed to be clear, so if you come across one that doesn’t match, do not purchase the car.

Can the VIN be changed?

There are some situations in which a new VIN number may be required, such as if you have a rebuilt car, built a kit car, or a significantly altered vehicle so that it no longer matches the specification of the original VIN.

In this case, the DVLA will typically need to assess your altered vehicle and can potentially change the VIN for you. You might 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 doubt about a car’s vehicle identification number, so double-check or walk away if something doesn’t seem right. If the number on the car doesn’t match the one on the vehicles registration documents, you should not buy the car.

There is a possibility that the car is stolen, and criminals will transfer the VIN number from a legally registered car onto a stolen one through VIN number cloning. They may even fabricate documentation to conceal the car’s identity.