How Long is a VIN Number? (17 characters, but It Depends…)

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17 characters. Article over.

Right?

Well, not exactly. There’s a little more to it than that.

While modern vehicles feature standardized, 17-character VIN numbers, this wasn’t always the case. Learn more below.

Number of Characters in a VIN

Every vehicle manufactured since 1981 contains a vehicle identification number consisting of 17 characters.

Each section of the VIN provides certain details about the vehicle.

In other words, a vehicle identification number contains both standardized codes and unique identifiers to communicate important details about each individual vehicle.

You can learn how to read a VIN here. 

A VIN will never contain the letters “O”, “I”, or “Q” in order to avoid confusion between the number 0, 1, and 9. 

In the United States, manufacturers adopted a standardized VIN format in 1981. This new format required all on-road vehicles that were to be sold in the U.S. to include a 17-digit VIN that would contain details about the vehicle. 

Is a VIN always 17 digits?

Prior to 1981, VINs still existed, but different manufacturers used different formats. They weren’t always 17 characters. Some were longer, many were shorter.

For this reason, it can be difficult to decode older VINs. In some cases, the database may be able to pull partial data. In others, the VIN database may not be able to find any information about the vehicle. 

Older vehicles may have 16 or fewer characters, and may follow completely different formats than the standardized VINs of modern vehicles.

Most older VINs before 1981 will typically range in length from 11 to 17 digits. 

Today, both the United States and the European Union use a standardized VIN format based on criteria established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

If you’re interested in decoding the VIN of a vehicle made before 1981, check out our classic car VIN decoder to get started.

What if the VIN is not 17 Digits?

If your vehicle was manufactured after 1981, the VIN will always be 17 characters. 

If not, double-check that you’ve read the number correctly. 

17 digits is a lot, and it’s easy to get mixed up or miss one!

Otherwise, it is likely that the vehicle was manufactured prior to 1981.

A modern vehicle without a standard, 17-digit VIN could indicate that it is not legal for on-highway use.

How to Decode an Older VIN (Less than 17 Characters)

If you are researching an older vehicle (pre-1981), decoding the VIN will usually not be as simple as plugging it into the VIN check. 

You also may not be able to get any data back if you try to run a vehicle history report.

However, there are still some ways you can decode an older VIN, and protect yourself from getting scammed. 

To decode an older VIN number, you’ll need to do some research into the manufacturer as to how VINs were structured throughout the years. 

If the vehicle has any sort of notoriety or collectibility, you’ll typically be able to find a hobby website or owner’s forum with a VIN chart to help you decode yours. 

If you’re interested in purchasing an older vehicle, you can protect yourself by:

  • Visually inspecting the VIN stamps and VIN plates on the vehicle itself. 
  • Making sure the VINs on the vehicle match what is written on the title and registration paperwork. 


Interested in more information about the vehicle identification number? Check out all of our VIN tools and resources here.