VIN plates: what they mean, why they’re vital for all car owners


Rather like humans have finger prints, cars have VIN plates. These Vehicle Identification Numbers should be unique to every car. The first thing to know about this number is that it’s actually not a number at all. It’s a seemingly random collection of digits and capital letters. But as we’ll see, these characters aren’t random at all. And the VIN is actually the most important means we have of registering the true identity of a car. Here’s everything you need to know about your car’s finger print.

Where do you find the VIN plate?

You should be able to see the VIN on the dashboard at the bottom of the windscreen. Most cars have a window cut in the obscured area of the windscreen so you can see the plate. The VIN plate is normally found on the passenger side. If it’s not there, it should be on a metal plate inside the driver’s door.


The VIN plate is in the bottom corner of the windscreen (Picture © Skoda)

Why is the VIN plate important?

Whenever a vehicle is stolen, the VIN details are marked as such. It should enable the rightful owner to be established if the vehicle is found. It’s easy to change number plates; a lot more involved to switch VIN plates. If you’re buying a car, you should always check that the VIN matches the V5C registration document. Use a checking service to ensure the VIN matches the number plate.

What if your VIN plate isn’t 17 characters long?

If your car was made after 1981 and it doesn’t have 17 characters, there’s something fishy going on. Double check that you haven’t copied it down incorrectly. It’s not unheard of for villains to remove or obscure the VIN plates of stolen vehicles. Equally, if the VIN begins with SABTVRO, the plate has been stamped by the DVLA to indicate there might be questions over the true age or identity of the vehicle. Kit cars frequently have VIN plates starting with these letters.

How to decode your VIN plate

The first three characters are used to identify the manufacturer according to a World Manufacturer Identifier code. The first character shows where the car was built. For example, S is the UK; W Germany. It means while Volkswagens made in Germany might be WVG or WVW, those built in the US are 1VW.

The second and third characters are the manufacturer. Jaguar is SAJ; Land Rover SAL.

The fourth to eighth characters describe the vehicle. These will identify the vehicle type such as the platform it’s based on and the body style. The eighth character is the engine type.

The ninth digit is a security code. This enables the manufacturer to check that it was the issuer of the VIN and it’s not false.

Characters 10 to 17 are used by the manufacturer to identify the individual vehicle. The 10th is used to show the model year (D is 2013; F 2015, for 2001 to 2009 the numbers one to nine are used). The 11th tells which plant the vehicle was made in. The remaining six characters are unique to each vehicle.

How did the VIN plate come about?

Car makers have been giving their cars serial numbers in the form of chassis and engine numbers since the dawn of motoring. But it wasn’t until 1954 that the Vehicle Identification Number came about. Even then it wasn’t unified across the motor industry with the length of VIN numbers varying from 11 to 17 characters. Unification came in 1981 at the insistence of the America’s National Traffic Highway Safety Administration. Since then VINs have been in the 17-character format we know today.

5 comments on “VIN plates: what they mean, why they’re vital for all car owners

  1. Geoff Page 12/03/2017 6:18 PM

    Really useful information, thanks

  2. craig 04/04/2017 10:02 AM

    Just about to buy a new car. Great to know this information. Thanks!

  3. Alfredo chamusso 16/09/2019 7:26 AM

    Thank you for this excellent explanation

  4. vin from reg 14/09/2020 9:10 AM

    That’s great and exactly matches what I am looking for. This article discloses the complete information about the vehicle’s VIN. Thanks a lot for sharing.

  5. crystaldabney 21/07/2023 9:03 AM

    Thanks for the article! It reminds me of my car theft. I felt the importance of the VIN while my car was being stolen. Thank God, the police authority brought it in with the help of VIN plates. 

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