vehicle identification number

What’s a Vehicle Identification Number? How to Decode the World Manufacturer Identifier

Did you know that every car has a unique Vehicle Identification Number?

A Vehicle Identification Number is a code used to identify and track vehicles worldwide. The first three positions of the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, make up the World Manufacturer Identifier, or WMI. These three positions reflect the manufacturer and the country of manufacture.

Combined with the remaining sections of the VIN, the WMI ensures that the vehicle identification number is unique for all vehicles manufactured in the world for a period of 30 years.

History of the Vehicle Identification Number

Most people don’t realise that since the dawn of mass production, virtually every vehicle has had some form of a unique identifier stamped onto its chassis. The VIN is often referred to as the ‘chassis number‘ for this reason.

Vehicle identification numbers were first used in 1954 in the USA. These numbers helped manufacturers link production to orders, but numbering conventions varied by manufacturer.  

From 1954 to 1981, there was no commonly accepted standard for VINs, and therefore different manufacturers used different formats.


In 1981, a global numbering system was created to be used by all automotive manufacturers. The resulting Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is a 17-digit alphanumeric code that uniquely identifies every vehicle in the world.

ISO 3779 specifies the content and structure of a VIN to establish, on a worldwide basis, the uniform identification numbering system for road vehicles. This standard applies to motor vehicles, trailers, motorcycles, and mopeds.

Having a unique code helps in the identification of vehicles by agencies such as those dealing with motor vehicle registration, law enforcement, and theft recovery.

How the Vehicle Identification Number Works

The VIN is broken down into three sections:

  • The World Manufacturer Identifier
  • The Vehicle Descriptor Section
  • Vehicle Indicator Section

World Manufacturer Identifier

The first three characters of the VIN make up the World Manufacturer Identifier or WMI. These characters reflect the manufacturer and identify the country of manufacture.

The Society of Automotive Engineers in the USA allocates WMIs to countries and manufacturers. This central coordination ensures consistency and avoids duplication.

Each country has an organisation that acts as a coordinator and allocates manufacturers a unique code. Manufacturers are given a WMI by the relevant national organisation based on the country where the manufacturer has its headquarters, per the International Standard ISO 3780.

If a manufacturer builds fewer than 500 vehicles per year, the third character of the WMI is given as a 9.

At the end of the article is a list of the country codes in use.

Example of WMI

WVG is allocated to Volkswagen MPV/SUVs

  • The W is allocated to Germany
  • The V is Volkswagen
  • And the third character is the vehicle category.

So other VW codes are WV1 for commercial vehicles or VWV for cars.

Only the WMI is allocated, the vehicle descriptor and the vehicle indicator sections are determined by the manufacturer.

Vehicle Descriptor Section

This is the next six characters of the VIN, which are designated by the manufacturer. The VDS describes the general attributes of each vehicle. Again, the manufacturer decides the coding and sequence of the characters.

Vehicle Indicator Section

The last part of the VIN is the Vehicle Indicator Section (VIS) and consists of eight characters, the final four of which are numbers. The manufacturer uses this section to identify individual vehicles.

If the manufacturer wishes to designate year and plant in this section, the recommendation is that the year is indicated by the first character and the manufacturing plant by the second.

Should a manufacturer produce fewer than 500 vehicles per year, the third, fourth and fifth characters of the VIS are assigned by the national organisation and identify the specific manufacturer.

Combined, these elements make up the unique VIN which identifies the vehicle and the manufacturer, year of production, place of production, and vehicle characteristics.

Vehicle Identification Number Illustrative Example

Where to Find the VIN

The VIN is stamped into the chassis of a car at the time of production and remains with the vehicle for its life. It cannot be changed since it serves as the vehicle’s unique identity code. 

The VIN can often be found under the bonnet near the windscreen or towards the front of the engine bay, or around the door frame of one of the front doors. But different manufacturers stamp the chassis in other locations – and sometimes more than once.

Many vehicles have a ‘visible VIN’, shown near the bottom of the windscreen.

This allows for quick and easy identity checks, for example, by the Police or for vehicle audits.

Other Things to Note

The letters I, O and Q are not used in VINs because they could be confused with the numbers 1 and 0. If you are unsure, it’s the number.

What are the Uses for a VIN?

When a car is produced, its VIN is assigned to it. It is used to identify every vehicle uniquely.

You should check the VIN when buying a used car. Ensure that the VIN shown on the V5 vehicle registration document is the same as the number stamped on the vehicle chassis and any other plates located on the car.

A VIN is also used to identify a vehicle involved in an accident for insurance records and body shop repair work; manufacturers also use it to issue car recalls.

The VIN is used for stock identification and audit purposes by those in the automotive sector. Using software such as CheckVentory Audit, a photograph of the VIN provides a simple yet very effective means of evidencing the physical presence of a vehicle at a particular location at the time of the audit.

These images are verified and stored to create a sophisticated database. This data, combined with AI and validated against other data sources, provides automotive dealers and funders with timely and powerful management information.

There are various technologies deployed for vehicle auditing – read this report for an overview of the current and emerging options. The free PDF weighs up the pros and cons of each technology and assesses whether these provide the right features and benefits for today’s market.

Country Codes