How to Decode Your VIN for Free

Learn how to decode a VIN so you can understand the history of your car or find out important information about a vehicle you want to purchase.


Every time a car is manufactured, it is given a unique identifying code called a VIN (vehicle identification number). These numbers are specific to each vehicle and cannot be changed after the final manufacturing date. Contrary to what many people believe, each of the VIN sequence characters represent a key piece of information pertinent to the vehicle’s history, including the year, make, model, engine size, and manufacturer.

So, with a little bit of know-how and access to the relevant information, you can figure out some interesting bits of history about your car (or the one you’re thinking about purchasing).

How to Decode Your VIN

VINs have existed since 1954, but back then, they weren’t standardized, and each manufacturer had its own series of sequences for the cars they produced. As you might expect, this made things pretty complicated when it came to deciphering what each digit stood for. 

Fortunately, in 1981 the ISO 3779-1983 and ISO 3780 standards came into effect, which required all manufacturers to follow a specific set of criteria when allocating VINs to their vehicles. As a result, all vehicles manufactured after 1981 are given VINs made up of 17 alphanumeric digits. 

Furthermore, each VIN can be broken down into three sections, these are:

  • World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI)
  • Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS)
  • Vehicle Identifier Section (VIS)

World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI)

The first three digits of the VIN make up the World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI). The first digit represents the country in which the vehicle was built. Here is a list of some examples of what each number signifies:

  • 1, 4, 5: United States
  • 2: Canada
  • 3: Mexico
  • 6: Australia
  • 7: New Zealand
  • 8: Argentina, Chile, Venezuela
  • 9: Brazil
  • SN-ST, W: West Germany
  • SA-S10: Great Britain

The subsequent two digits in the list indicate the manufacturer’s name (F stands for Ford) and the region where the vehicle was produced. With all three digits, you can decipher the vehicle type.

Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS)

The VDS accounts for the digits 4 through 9. The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth digit describes the vehicle’s exact model, transmission type, and engine code.

 The ninth digit is the vehicle security code, also referred to as the “check.” This number is in place to help detect fraudulent VIN codes.

Vehicle Identifier Section (VIS)

The final seven digits (10 through 17) make up the VIS. Digit 10 represents the year in which the car was made (this only applies to vehicles manufactured after 1980). 

The system starts with the letter A representing the year 1980, with the letter B standing for 1981, and so on. The numbers 1-9 signifies the years 2001-2009. Finally, the process starts again, with the year 2010 being represented by the letter A. 

It’s important to note that VINs do not include the letters I (i), O (o), Q (q), U (u) or Z (z), or the number 0. This is so they will not be confused with similar-looking numbers/letters. 

The 11th digit in the VIN indicates which manufacturing plant assembled the vehicle. The remaining five numbers (12-17) is the unique serial number of the car. 

What Else Can You Learn From Your VIN?

While it can be interesting to discover your vehicle’s history by decoding its VIN, these handy codes prove most valuable when buying a used vehicle. As anyone who has purchased a second-hand car will attest, the used car market is difficult to navigate, and there are many pitfalls to watch out for. 

For starters, there are dodgy sales people out there who go out of their way to fudge the car’s metrics in an attempt to fool you into paying over the odds. The classic trick is rolling back the clock on the odometer to make the car appear as if it’s done fewer miles than it actually has.

Secondly, and somewhat more sinisterly, a few people purposely hide information regarding major repairs and damage to the vehicle, sometimes even hiding the fact that a car has been salvaged and suffered severe structural damage.

As luck would have it, there are excellent free services out there, such as, that let you check official databases of any car in the world! All you need is the VIN and you’re good to go. Once you enter the details, you will gain access to a comprehensive report that displays the complete history of the vehicle, including:

  • Full car specifications
  • Recalls and complaints
  • Mileage
  • History of auctions and incidents
  • Classified records

Final Word

Decoding your VIN is an awesome way to learn more about a vehicle that you own or are interested in buying. When buying a used car, running the VIN through a checker equips you with a comprehensive history of the vehicle, which allows you to go into the car buying process with your eyes wide open. This drastically reduces the chance of being scammed or deceived by a shady seller, which is never a bad thing.

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