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If you’re about to buy a new or used car, it’s essential to do a lot of research, not just so you end up with the vehicle you want, but so you know where it came from and how well it will perform down the road. Before you commit to the purchase, one of the most important things to do is check the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

What Is A Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)?

Just as it sounds, a car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is used to identify it and the elements that set it apart from all other vehicles. The VIN is 17-digits in length and when checked, it provides essential information about the vehicle, including its:

  • Manufacturer
  • Assembly Point 
  • Make
  • Year
  • Model
  • Body Style
  • Engine Type
  • Serial Number
  • Security Code
  • Collision & Theft History

Every car has a unique VIN and companies like CARFAX use these numbers to gather details about cars and their owners. Automakers have been creating VIN numbers since the early 1900s when companies like Ford began mass-producing cars with interchangeable parts and imprinting serial numbers on their engine blocks.

Breaking Down The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

As mentioned, a Vehicle Identification Number is a combination of 17 characters (numbers and letters), which display a car’s make, model, year and manufacturer:

1  2  3 4  5  6  7  89101112  13  14  15  16  17
Manufacturer IdentifiersVehicle DescriptorCheck DigitModel YearPlant CodeProduction Sequence Numbers
  • Manufacturer Identifier = Which country and automaker produced the vehicle
  • Vehicle Descriptor = The vehicle’s model, engine type, appearance, etc.
  • Check Digit = A manufacturer security code that confirms the VIN’s accuracy
  • Model Year = The year a particular model was assembled
  • Plant Code = Which plant or factory produced the vehicle
  • Production Sequence Numbers = A car’s serial number (mainly used by high-volume manufacturers)

The Importance Of Checking The VIN Before Buying The Car

There are plenty of different reasons to check the accuracy of a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) before you put money toward a car you’re not totally sure of, such as: 

  • Learning a Car’s History – Confirming the VIN is particularly important when buying a used vehicle, as some sources won’t offer a full history report with it. While this shouldn’t be a problem with a new car and reputable dealerships will  likely have these reports anyway, it may not be the same with a private seller. 
  • Identifying Accidents, Safety Risks & Recalls – On the history report, you can also see any rebuilds, damages, repairs or recalls that make the car unsafe to drive, including safety recalls issued by the manufacturer. If you have the VIN, you can find these details on websites like AutoCheck and CARFAX.
  • Applying For Insurance – Having the VIN is necessary when buying auto insurance, because it helps the provider identify your vehicle and, in doing so, determine the type and amount of coverage you’ll qualify for. The insurance company will also request the VIN to confirm your identity when you file a claim.
  • Discovering Liens/Debts – When buying a used car, further problems can occur if the seller doesn’t tell you about a loan or lease that’s secured against it. Sadly, the car could still be collateralized and if the lender or dealership retains partial ownership, you may have to cover the remaining payments or face repossession.
  • Locating Parts For Repairs or Replacements – If your car needs a new part, you, a mechanic or auto-body shop can find it by sending the VIN to the right retailer. Since the VIN identifies the make, model, engine and drivetrain, this lessens the risk of ending up with a part that’s incompatible with your car. 
  • Registering Your Vehicle With Confidence – In Canada, you need a VIN to register or transfer ownership of a car and to renew your license plate permit. Having an accurate VIN can help identify the vehicle and ensure a pleasant experience when you visit your licensing and registration bureau.
  • Finding Out if a Car is Stolen – Law authorities can use your VIN to search local or national databases and confirm if it or its parts are stolen. To be extra careful, you can also check all the car’s VIN plates for signs of tampering and alteration. Make sure the VIN matches the car’s original registration too.  
  • Accessing Government Services – Your provincial or territorial government may offer vehicle identification services, such as replacement of lost or damaged VIN tags. You may even be able to buy basic driver’s records (no driver’s license, ownership, odometer or collision details) for less than with a private company. 
  • Protecting Your Car’s Identity – Although every Vehicle Identification Number is technically different, a good forger can duplicate a stolen car’s identity to sell it or its parts off easier. This is another reason to buy a car that has more than one matching VIN plate, so you won’t end up with a stolen vehicle or a total lemon.

Where Can You Find The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)?

Different car manufacturers have different ways of assembling vehicles. In the past, most Vehicle Identification Numbers would have been located solely on a car’s engine block. However, due to an increase in engine replacements and thefts over the years, many companies began adding VIN numbers to other parts of their cars in the 1980s.

Today, a VIN will usually be stamped, written, etched or engraved on:

  • A tag/label on interior of the driver’s side door jamb
  • An metal plate where the driver’s side dashboard meets the windshield
  • The car’s registration, auto insurance and service documents 

While you may see the VIN in one or more of these areas, vehicles that have been manufactured after 1987 and are considered at high risk of theft may also feature the VIN on other essential parts, such as the engine, transmission, fenders, or other doors.

Find out why you should also check your car’s safety rating before purchasing.

Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) FAQs

Why does my VIN have less than 17 characters?

If your Vehicle Identification Number is less than 17 characters, it’s probably because it was produced before 1981, when VIN placement varied according to the automaker’s designs. Watch out, because if the car is newer than 1981 and doesn’t have a 17 character VIN, it may be a fake or changed number on a stolen car. If the car is older than 1981, there may also be less chance of finding its official registration or licensing documents in private or government databases.

How do I know if my VIN has been tampered with?

Remember, car thieves can be good at faking or duplicating a VIN, especially if it’s in an exposed or easily modified area, like the tag on the driver’s door. Although engraved VIN numbers can help authenticate a second-hand car, be on the lookout for warning signs such as any markings on the area of the VIN (scratches, glue, paint, etc) or mismatched VIN numbers on different parts of the car or history report. Once again, you can use tools like CARFAX Canada’s free VIN decoder to confirm that a vehicle’s specifics match those of its registration and licensing information. 

What should I do if the VIN on my car dashboard doesn’t match the VIN on the ownership permit?

When you inspect the car and find that the VIN on the driver’s side dashboard isn’t the same as the one on the ownership permit, it’s another sign that you shouldn’t buy it, as it could mean the vehicle is stolen or damaged to the point of being unsafe on the road.  If you’re worried, contact your provincial or territorial vehicle licensing and registration bureau for more information. You can also call the local authorities and your insurance provider to report the car if the VIN doesn’t match the one on the car’s pink slip. These types of steps are recommended by the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC). 

Always Check The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

Buying a car, even a used one, maybe a significant expense and it’s important to do all the prior research you can so you don’t end up with a dangerous or faulty piece of junk. Checking that the vehicle has a valid and unique VIN is one of the first steps to take toward the safety of yourself, your passengers and those around you when you drive.

Bryan Daly avatar on Loans Canada
Bryan Daly

Bryan is a graduate of Dawson College and Concordia University. He has been writing for Loans Canada for five years, covering all things related to personal finance, and aims to pursue the craft of professional writing for many years to come. In his spare time, he maintains a passion for editing, writing screenplays, staying fit, and travelling the world in search of the coolest sights our planet has to offer.

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