How to Decode a 13 Digit VIN Number

A Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is a unique code assigned to every motor vehicle produced and sold in the United States. This 13 digit alphanumeric code contains key information about the vehicle’s manufacturer, model, body style, engine type and more. Learning how to decode a VIN is useful for identifying the technical specifications and history of a vehicle.

What is a VIN Number?

A VIN is a standardized method for uniquely identifying individual motor vehicles. The VIN system was created in 1981 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards.

Prior to 1981, there was no unified VIN system. Different vehicle manufacturers used their own proprietary codes which made it difficult to trace the history of a vehicle. The 13 digit VIN introduced a universal way to track specifications, registrations, warranties and recalls associated with individual vehicles.

Here are some key facts about VIN numbers:

  • VINs are composed of 13 alphanumeric characters (letters A-Z and numbers 1-0).
  • They do not include the letters I, O or Q to avoid confusion with numerals 1 and 0.
  • VINs are based on standards set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
  • All vehicles manufactured after 1981 for sale in the U.S. must have a VIN that complies with ISO 3779.
  • The VIN is stamped or etched onto a metal plate affixed to the dashboard and engine block. It is also printed on the vehicle title, registration card and insurance documents.

How to Locate the VIN

The VIN can be found in several locations on the vehicle:

  • On top of the dashboard, visible through the windshield on a metal plate
  • On the driver’s side door jamb and firewall
  • On the engine block and transmission
  • On the vehicle title, registration card and insurance documents

The most accessible place to find the VIN is on the dashboard behind the windshield on the driver’s side. To view it, stand outside the car and look at the corner where the dashboard meets the windshield. You should see the VIN printed on a silver or white rectangular metal plate.

How to Decode a 13 Digit VIN

Decoding a VIN involves analyzing each of the 13 characters independently to determine what information it conveys about the vehicle.

Here is an overview of what each of the 13 digits or letters in a VIN represents:

Positions 1-3: World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI)

The first three digits of the VIN constitute the WMI code. This identifies the manufacturer, country of origin, and vehicle type.

For example, the WMI code ‘1FT’ indicates a truck manufactured by Ford Motor Company in the United States. ‘JH4’ indicates an Acura car manufactured by Honda in Japan.

Position 4: Restraint System

The fourth digit indicates the type of restraint system the vehicle has, such as airbags or seatbelts. The most common codes are:

  • 1: Active manual seatbelts
  • 2: Active manual belts with driver airbag
  • 3: Active manual seatbelts and airbags

Positions 5-7: Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS)

The three VDS digits provide details about the vehicle type such as body style, engine type, model and series.

For example, ‘F15’ might indicate a 4-door sedan, ‘F25’ a 2-door coupe. The middle digit often denotes engine size or type.

Positions 8: Check Digit

This is a mathematical value used to verify the accuracy of the preceding VIN digits. The check digit is generated by a complex formula and confirms whether the VIN is legitimate.

Positions 9: Model Year

This digit indicates the model year of the vehicle. For example, ‘5’ stands for 2005 and ‘0’ is 2010.

Position 10: Assembly Plant

The tenth character identifies the manufacturing plant where the vehicle was assembled. Each auto manufacturer uses their own codes.

Positions 11-13: Production Sequence Numbers

The last three digits denote the sequential production number of the vehicle at its assembly plant. This begins at 100,000 each model year so ‘532’ indicates the 32,532nd vehicle built at that plant for that year.

How to Use Online VIN Decoders

The easiest way to decode a VIN is to use an online VIN decoder tool. These tools have databases of VIN codes that allow you to instantly lookup the specifics of your vehicle.

Popular free online VIN decoders include:

To use an online VIN decoder:

  1. Locate your vehicle’s 13 digit VIN.
  2. Go to one of the VIN decoder websites listed above.
  3. Enter the full VIN into the search bar and click ‘Decode’.
  4. The tool will then display a detailed report about your vehicle including:
    • Manufacturer, make and model
    • Engine size and type
    • Year produced
    • Body style and class
    • Assembly plant
    • Country of origin
  5. Review the specifications to verify them against your vehicle.

Online VIN decoders provide quick and convenient access to vehicle specifications without having to manually analyze each digit. They draw on expansive databases to match the VIN code to its correct vehicle profile.

Sample VIN Breakdown

Let’s examine a sample VIN number to see the decoding process in action:


  • 5XX: GEO, made by General Motors in the USA
  • G: General Motors
  • N: Car/SUV
  • 4: Airbags
  • A70: GEO Prizm sedan
  • C: 1998 model
  • G: Built at NUMMI plant, Fremont CA
  • 023862: 23,862nd vehicle at NUMMI in 1998

So in summary, this is a 1998 GEO Prizm 4-door sedan with airbags, manufactured at the NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA.

Why Decode VIN Numbers?

There are many benefits to decoding the VIN on your own vehicle:

  • Confirm technical features – Decode the VIN to verify engine size, body style, restraint systems and other specs on a used vehicle.
  • Check model year – Decode the 10th digit to identify the exact model year of your vehicle. This is useful for registration and insurance purposes.
  • Trace origins – Decode the WMI to determine where the vehicle was manufactured and verify it matches the stated country of origin.
  • Lookup recalls – Manufacturers use VIN numbers to identify which specific cars are affected by recalls. Decoding your VIN can determine if your vehicle is subject to any outstanding recalls.
  • Research history – Private VIN decoders can use the number to lookup service records, accident history, registrations, warranty claims and other events associated with your vehicle.

In summary, decoding a VIN provides critical details about your vehicle’s technical specifications and history which can be invaluable for buyers, owners, mechanics and insurers.

Other Ways to Decode a VIN

Beyond online tools, there are a few other ways to research and decode the VIN on a vehicle:

Reference Charts

Printable VIN decoding charts are available online which explain the meaning of each digit for major auto manufacturers. These charts allow you to manually decode the VIN one character at a time. However, this is time consuming compared to automated online decoders.

Contact the Manufacturer

New car owners can call the manufacturer’s customer service line and provide the VIN to learn about their vehicle’s specifications. However, this may not work for older used vehicles if records are unavailable.

Insurance Documents

Your vehicle insurance documents may also contain basic VIN decoding information such as model, year, engine size etc. But insurance details will not cover the full technical specifications.

Vehicle History Reports

Paid services like Carfax and AutoCheck provide full vehicle history reports if you enter the VIN. However these can cost $20-$40 for a single report.

Free online VIN decoders offer the most cost-effective and efficient option for most owners to learn how to decode a VIN number.

Common Questions About VIN Decoding

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about decoding VIN numbers:

How many digits is a VIN number?

All vehicles manufactured after 1981 have a standardized 13 digit VIN number. Prior to 1981, VIN lengths varied between 11-17 digits.

Where is the VIN located on the car?

The VIN can be found in several places including the dashboard, driver’s door jamb, engine block, and vehicle title and registration documents.

Can I decode a VIN for free?

Yes, there are many free online VIN decoder tools that allow you to lookup the specifications for any vehicle by entering its VIN.

What if a VIN has letters O or I?

VINs do not use the letters I (Infiniti), O (Ottumwa), or Q (Qatif) to avoid confusion with numerals 1 and 0. If these letters appear it is invalid.

What if one VIN digit is unclear?

If a VIN character is obscured or damaged, you may need to reference multiple locations on the vehicle to determine the full correct number.

How do I find my car’s VIN number?

The easiest place to view your VIN is on the metal plate located at the base of the windshield on the driver’s side dashboard. You can see it by looking through the windshield.

Can a VIN be used to steal a car?

While it is possible to make duplicate keys if you have the VIN, most criminals will not go through this trouble. As long as you protect your keys, the VIN itself poses little risk.


Learning how to decode a VIN number is a useful skill for any auto owner or enthusiast. The unique 13 digit sequence contains a wealth of information about your vehicle if you know how to break it down digit-by-digit. Free online VIN decoders and reference charts make it fast and simple to discover the origins and technical specifications of any vehicle. Decoding your own VIN provides details that can help with maintenance, registration, insurance coverage and identifying recalls.

Citations: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

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