Saturday, September 30, 2023


How it Happened: A vehicle’s identification number (VIN) and what it means

Your fingerprints are unique. No two people in the world have the exact same fingerprints. Not even identical twins. Your fingerprints help to identify you. A vehicle identification number, or VIN, is the same. It acts as a vehicle’s fingerprints. The VIN is unique to the vehicle for which it’s assigned. No two vehicles share the exact same VIN.

How VINs began

You’d be wrong if you thought Henry Ford introduced the vehicle identification number to the automobile. In fact, no one person or company is credited with inventing the VIN. Earliest references to a vehicle “fingerprint” point to the engine serial number. Insurance companies and DMVs used this engine serial number for identification purposes prior to 1954. The problem? If an engine was replaced, that vehicle’s identification was potentially compromised.

Automobile companies generally used their own numeric serial numbers as an early form of vehicle identification. Then, as the industry expanded, vehicles began to be produced in different parts of the U.S. It soon became difficult to track numbers and vehicles—even within a single company. From 1954 to 1981, there was no official standard for how companies identified the vehicles they made. Each manufacturer used their own format. And these formats frequently changed from year to year.

Standardizing the vehicle identification number

In 1981, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standardized what we now know as the VIN. It required all on-road vehicles to have a 17-character vehicle identification number. You can see a breakdown of the meaning of each character here.

How the VIN can help you

You will need to know your vehicle’s VIN when insuring the vehicle or making a claim. The VIN identifies your vehicle if parts are recalled.

If you want to buy a vehicle, the VIN will help you find out about the vehicle’s accident history. It will also show current liens and previous owner history.

Finding the VIN for your vehicle

Cars and trucks

Stand outside the vehicle and look into the driver’s side of the windshield. Mounted on the dash should be a small tag with the VIN listed. If the VIN is not there, it may be inside the driver’s door frame.


  • Travel trailers or campers: Look along the frame and the tongue. Also check inside any basement compartments and interior cabinets, where other RV information is listed.
  • Fifth-wheels: Check at the roadside front lower exterior wall or sidewall. Or look along the pin box framework.
  • Motorhomes: Look from the outside through the windshield to the driver’s side dash. Or check the interior driver’s side dashboard area.

If you are unable to find your RV’s VIN, ask the dealership or a mechanic for help. You will, of course, see the VIN on your title and/or bill of sale. However, the actual VIN tag on your RV is the most reliable form of identification.



Gail Marsh
Gail Marsh
Gail Marsh is an avid RVer and occasional work camper. Retired from 30+ years in the field of education as an author and educator, she now enjoys sharing tips and tricks that make RVing easier and more enjoyable.


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Neal Davis
3 months ago

Thanks, Gail. I did not know that VIN was such a recent development.

Bob p
1 year ago

DW is a natural born bank robber, she doesn’t have detectable finger prints. On a recent concealed carry permit application her finger prints were taken twice but couldn’t be entered into the computer base because they didn’t show up plain enough. She still got her permit, probably because she’s over 80. I qualified as a pistol Sharp Shooter in the Marines and she’s a better shot than me so don’t think she’s a push over. Lol

RV Staff
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob p

Hi, Bob. I’ve worn down my fingerprints, maybe because I’ve been typing for 63 years. When I applied for my concealed carry permit many years ago, the application got rejected the first time because there weren’t any discernible fingerprints. But they gave up on the second attempt and I got my permit. I have a .357 magnum S&W. I also have 18+ acres of remote mountain property that the black bears, mountain lions, etc., let me share with them. When I showed my mom my gun, many years ago, she looked horrified and exclaimed, “You’re not going to put bullets in it, are you?!” No, Mom. I’m going to tell whatever is attacking me to have a seat while I load my gun. 😆 Take care. 😀 –Diane

1 year ago

VIN are also stamped on many body components as a thief deterrent.

1 year ago
Reply to  tom

That’s another reason the numbers are scattered throughout the vehicle. The numbers are also stored in the vehicles computer. In PA, we are required to get emission testing done in most locations. The VIN is used to record the information with the state and also to trace any recalls or safety bulletins. During the inspection, the mechanic verifies the matching numbers.
The VIN placed on the plate under the windshield makes it nearly impossible to modify. The windshield and the dash panel needs to be removed to access the tag.
It also contains information about the vehicle such as build date, build location, model and drivetrain information.

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