Every vehicle has its own number, appropriately called a Vehicle Identification Number: VIN for short. Researching that number can tell you a lot, including the car’s registration(s) by state, type of title and whether anyone’s made an insurance claim on the vehicle following an accident.
There are several ways to get a VIN checked that won’t cost a penny. You can even get one on your current car if you’re just curious about its history before you owned it.
This article was updated in November 2023 and I review it every month.
Here’s Where To Get a Completely Free VIN Check!
There are a variety of services you can use for a completely free VIN check before you buy a used car.
Getting a VIN check is especially important if you’re buying a car through Craigslist or eBay since you’re not working with a dealership that could provide free access to paid sites such CARFAX, AutoCheck or autoDNA.com.
Just pop in your car’s digits and these sites will do the VIN lookup and give you information on the vehicle.
But you should use more than one of these sites to get the full picture. Read on to find out why.
Table of Contents:
- National Insurance Crime Bureau
- How To Decode Your VIN
- Clark’s Key Rules for Used-Car Buying
National Insurance Crime Bureau
The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB.org) keeps it simple with its VIN check search tool. The site will tell you if your vehicle has been:
- Reported as lost or stolen
- Declared a total loss following an accident
This is the most basic of the completely free VIN checks you can get, and this site is limited to five searches within a 24-hour period per IP address.
To get your report, visit the website and enter your car’s VIN number under “Look Up a VIN.” You can also take a photo of your car’s VIN number and upload it to the website instead of typing it in. Once you agree to the terms and conditions and verify that you aren’t a robot, you can click “Search VIN.”
From there, you’ll see the VIN check results.
For a more complete VIN lookup, VehicleHistory is a free option that provides other data like fuel economy, cost to own and price analysis.
Other things you’ll get in this free VIN lookup include:
- Selling history
- Current recall information
- Detailed list of the expiration of manufacturer warranties
- Price predictions about the best time to buy a particular make and model
To get your free VIN report through VehicleHistory, enter your car’s VIN number on the homepage.
iSeeCars offers another robust free VIN check experience. Culling 200 data points, your free car history report from iSeeCars includes the following:
- Accident history
- Market value
- Price analysis
- Price history
- Projected depreciation
- The best times to buy and sell
The limit is five searches per month. To get your free VIN check from iSeeCars, enter your VIN number at the top of the page and click “Check This VIN.”
How To Decode Your VIN
VINs come in two lengths: 17 characters or 11 characters. Every motor vehicle that’s on the road today has a unique VIN.
While a VIN may seem like a meaningless string of numbers, there are a few keys to decoding it.
- The first character of your VIN indicates the country of origin.
- The second and third characters tell you the manufacturer and division.
- The fourth through eighth characters indicate vehicle description, safety and type of engine.
- The ninth character is the manufacturer’s security code.
- The 10th character tells you the vehicle’s model year.
- The 11th character is the assembly plant identifier.
- Characters 12 through 17 are the plant sequential number/vehicle serial number.
Clark’s Key Rules of Used-Car Buying
If you’re searching for a free VIN report, chances are you’re looking to buy a used car. According to money expert Clark Howard, buying used can be a smart move for your wallet. But it does come with some possible pitfalls you’ve got to watch out for.
Here’s what you need to know after you pull a free vehicle history report but before you buy.
Have a Mechanic Check the Vehicle Before You Buy It
It is possible that a free VIN check could come back clean with no accidents listed even though the car has clearly had major repairs.
This would be likely if a previous owner paid for repairs out of pocket instead of making an insurance claim. So use these services as a tool, but don’t rely on the information to be 100% accurate.
For real peace of mind when you’re buying a used vehicle, you’ve got to hire an independent mechanic to take a look at the vehicle before you agree to buy it.
The reality is that all used cars are sold “as is,” whether by a private seller or a licensed dealer unless they come with a written warranty. Worse yet, the seller is not required by law to be honest about the condition of the vehicle.
For that reason, one of Clark Howard’s key rules of used car buying is to get an inspection from a certified diagnostic mechanic before you buy. If you leave a deposit on the vehicle, make sure you get it in writing that the seller will return your deposit if the car doesn’t check out. Clark says you can eliminate nine out of 10 used car buying disasters this way.
When looking for an independent mechanic, you want to see ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certification. Garages that participate in what’s called the Blue Seal program typically feature the most highly trained ASE-certified mechanics. Visit ASE.com to find one near you.
Watch Out for Hidden Flood Damage
In the aftermath of any major hurricane or widespread flooding, you have to worry about flooded vehicles entering the used car market. Following Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of thousands of vehicles were rebuilt and had their titles “washed,” Clark notes.
That’s when dishonest people take flooded vehicles into states where they can easily modify the titles. This removes any evidence that a vehicle was ever in a flood. Cars with washed titles can then be sold to dealerships that either don’t know or don’t care that they’re buying flooded vehicles.
These cars often end up in the hands of “curb stoners,” illegal dealers who run ads in the paper. They pretend they’re selling their sister’s car or their mother’s car and they hope you don’t know what they know. About 20% of these cars go to unsuspecting people overseas. Clark says the other 80% stay right here at home.
To the naked eye, there’s usually no way to tell what’s wrong with these cars. But you’ll know you’ve got a flood car when you encounter failed electrical systems throughout the vehicle.
Again, it all comes back to the need for a good diagnostic mechanic to inspect the car thoroughly before you buy it!
Getting a free VIN check from the sites listed here is a great first step to take when you’re thinking about buying a used vehicle.
All the data you get back on your free VIN reports should match up across providers. If there’s no match, that’s a potential sign that the vehicle has undergone VIN forgery, and that should certainly give you pause before you move ahead with the purchase.