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Can You Look Up a Vehicle By its VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)?

Can You Look Up a Vehicle By its VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)?
A VIN can provide a wealth of information about a vehicle. Here, we talk about what a VIN is, and how to look up a vehicle using it.
Satyajeet Vispute
Last Updated: Sep 25, 2017
Did You Know?
Knowing the VIN of a vehicle can help authorities track and locate it in case of theft. Thus, it is important that you note down the VIN of your vehicle at the time of purchase itself.
Purchasing a vehicle is always a big investment. In case of a resale automobile, it is important that one knows everything about a vehicle's history and the condition that it is in, prior to spending his/her hard-earned cash on it. But from among the thousands of cars in your town, how can you acquire information about a particular one? The answer lies in a small alphanumeric series associated with every car.

Known popularly as the VIN, this series is literally a key that can open up a treasure of information about a vehicle. Hence, each potential buyer should know about the VIN, and how to look up a particular vehicle through it. In the following lines, we shall first learn what the VIN is, and how to locate it. Subsequently, we shall explore different ways to gather information about a vehicle through a (VIN) number look-up.
What is a VIN?
In the U.S., there is a unique Social Security Number for every person. Similarly, there is a unique series of characters and numbers assigned to each automobile, called the Vehicle Identification Number, abbreviated as VIN.
VINs were first used in the 1950s. However, back then, there was no standard format used to assign these numbers to cars. This created a lot of technical issues, until, in 1981, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) standardized its format.

The standard VIN used in cars today is made up of 17 alphanumeric (alphabets and numbers) characters. The following is a sample VIN showing what each number/character within it stands for.
How to Locate the VIN on an Automobile
Before purchasing a used vehicle, it is useful to find and note down the VIN on it. This can help you gather a lot of information about the vehicle's past. Depending upon the type of vehicle, the VIN can appear at different places. The following are the possible places where you are likely to find your car's VIN.

✦ In most cars, the VIN is located on the left-hand-side corner of the dashboard, and can be seen through the windshield.

✦ Often, it is inscribed on the front-side of the engine block. It can be observed by opening the hood.

✦ It may be found on the driver-side car door post by opening the door and inspecting that side of it where the actual lock mechanism is present. Sometimes, it may even be found on the driver-side door jamb.

✦ In some cars, it is written underneath the spare tire. This can be read by opening the trunk and looking beneath the spare tire.

✦ In motorcycles, the VIN can be found inscribed on the frame, usually near the fuel tank.

✦ The VIN also appears on almost all vehicle-related documents, including the car's title papers, registration documents, insurance papers, and service records.
Can You Look Up a Vehicle By its VIN?
So now that we know what the VIN is and where to find it, we can revert to our original question - can you look up a vehicle by its VIN? Obviously, the answer is yes. The VIN is unique to each car, and it stays with the car right from the day that it is purchased to the day that it is scrapped and sent off to the junkyard. If one knows the VIN, he/she can gather a lot of information about the vehicle. However, not all the information can be acquired for free. But then again, you might not need all of it either. So, classified according to different scenarios, the following are the methods of looking up a Vehicle by its VIN.

Scenario 1: If you want to find out the specifications of a vehicle.

This can be done by visiting the National Motor Vehicle Title information System (NMVTIS) website. If the VIN is known, then this information can provide you with important vehicle details, such as fuel economy, ratings, crash tests, and other specifications. This information can be acquired for a nominal fee.

Scenario 2: You are looking to purchase a vehicle, and want to check for fraud or theft.

In this case, a free service can be used. You can visit the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) website and type in the 17 digit VIN of the automobile that you are planning on purchasing. If the vehicle has a history, in that, it has been reported stolen or has been in any major accident/s, then you will be able to get a free report of it through this service. Note however that being a free service, it allows you only a maximum of 5 searches from a single IP address, per day. Also, it is only useful if the theft or accident was reported.

Scenario 3: You want to find out if the vehicle has been recalled.

If your vehicle has been recalled, it means that the model has been found to malfunction or has safety issues. In such a case, you use the service provided in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website. There, you can visit the 'Recalls & Defects' section, where, by typing in your vehicle's VIN you can check for any defects in it, or if it has been recalled.

Scenario 4: You are planning on purchasing a vehicle, and want complete and detailed information.

In this scenario, availing yourself with one of the many paid services is the best option. There are many trusted websites including Carfax, Edmunds etc., which you can use. For a fee, these websites will provide you with a very detailed report of the car, which includes, but isn't limited to, the following things:
  1. Odometer rollbacks
  2. Vehicle registration details
  3. Complete accident history
  4. Information about Vehicle usage, for example, if it is used as a taxi
  5. Information about vehicle damages and the repairs conducted
  6. Service records
  7. Recall information
  8. Title information
As we can see, the vehicle identification number can provide us with a lot of information about a vehicle. According to our specific needs, we can easily look up information about a vehicle through its VIN.