Most of us know there’s a wealth of information contained in Vehicle Identification Numbers, or VINs. Since 1981, VINs on motor vehicles sold in the North American market (and elsewhere) have been standardized not only on passenger cars, but motorcycles, commercial trucks, even trailers. With access to the internet, a vehicle’s life story is a search away. What you may not know is that armed with a little knowledge, you can determine both the vehicle’s country of origin and model year at a glance.

TL;DR condensed version at bottom of post

I’m not going to get into complicated info like factories, engines, check digits, and such. It doesn’t pertain to vehicles from before 1980, nor does it pertain to some markets outside of North America and Europe. This sort of info isn’t so easily memorized, and there’s enough articles on the subject elsewhere. Also note that this isn’t a comprehensive resource, just for a quick ‘n’ dirty way to inform yourself or impress your friends. There’s likely something I’ve left out or gotten wrong entirely, so deal with it.

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We’re only interested in the first, second, and tenth digits today. The VIN below is for a vehicle manufactured in Japan, model year 1989:

The first thing we’ll check is the country of origin, since it’s a source of confusion and argument. Is your Dodge U.S.-made, or Mexican? Was your Mom’s Honda born in Japan, or Canada? The first two digits usually* have the answer in the form of the World Manufacturer Identifier, or WMI.

*KusabiSensei rightly points out that European WMIs may sometimes refer not to where the factory is located, but where the company’s headquarters is registered. Notable examples are Mini under BMW ownership, and Opel/Vauxhall.

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I’ll list some common countries below, but first know that the very first digit identifies the continent:

  • A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H are made in Africa
  • J, K, L, M, N, P, and R are made Asia
  • S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z are made in Europe
  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 are made in North America
  • 6 and 7 are made in Oceania
  • 8 and 9 are made in South America

In many cases, the first digit alone tells you what exact country the vehicle was manufactured in. Sometimes you’ll also need the second digit to know for sure. The second digit refers to both the manufacturer and the country of origin. If you want, you can check here for the full list of countries, but to keep things simple, I’ll list some of the country codes most commonly expected to be found on North American roads:

Asia

  • J = Japan
  • KL to KR = South Korea

Europe

  • SA to SM = United Kingdom
  • SN to ST = Germany
  • VF to VR = France
  • W (all) = Germany (“W” originally stood for West Germany)
  • VA to VE = Austria
  • YS to YW = Sweden
  • ZA to ZR = Italy

North America

  • 1, 4 & 5 = United States
  • 2 = Canada
  • 3 = Mexico

Oceania

  • 6 = Australia

South America

  • 9A to 9E, 93 to 99 = Brazil

To wrap up the most common and easily memorized countries, USA = 1, 4 or 5; Canada 2, Mexico 3, Japan J, Germany W.

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Now on to the year, which is much simpler to identify. The tenth digit refers to the model year that the manufacturer has designated, which may not necessarily be the calendar year that the vehicle was manufactured.

Again, both letters and numbers are used, and with the year they are in sequential order. 1980=A, 1981=B, 1982=C, and so on. “I”, “O”, “U”, “Q”, and the number “0” are not used at all, since they are easily misread. In order to memorize them, know that the current VIN system was first widely adopted in 1980. 80 is a nice, round number, we’re looking at the tenth digit in the VIN, and the alphabet begins with “A”, so we remember that 1980=A. After skipping I, O, U, and Q, we’re almost out of letters to use by the time we hit 2001. So, we switch to numbers. 2001=1, 2002=2, and so forth. Really easy to remember, huh? Come 2010, we’re out of numbers already, so we revert back to letters. 2010=A, 2011=B, etc. There’s little chance of confusing a 1980 with a 2010 model, so re-using letters is no big whoop.

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Here’s the full list:

  • A – 1980 OR 2010
  • B – 1981 OR 2011
  • C – 1982 OR 2012
  • D – 1983 OR 2013
  • E – 1984 OR 2014
  • F – 1985 OR 2015
  • G – 1986 OR 2016
  • H – 1987 OR 2017
  • I – Not used, because it looks like a “1”
  • J – 1988 or 2018
  • K – 1989 or 2019
  • L – 1990 or 2020
  • M – 1991 or 2021
  • N – 1992 or 2022
  • O – Not used. Neither zero or the letter “O” are used as the 10th digit.
  • P – 1993 or 2023
  • Q – Not used since it light be confused with O or 0.
  • R – 1994 or 2024
  • S – 1995 or 2025
  • T – 1996 or 2026
  • U – Not used since it might be confused with a V.
  • V – 1997 or 2027
  • W – 1998 or 2028
  • X – 1999 or 2029
  • Y – 2000 or 2030
  • 1 – 2001 or 2031
  • 2 – 2002 (or 2032, etc...)
  • 3 – 2003
  • 4 – 2004
  • 5 – 2005
  • 6 – 2006
  • 7 – 2007
  • 8 – 2008
  • 9 – 2009

TL;DR

First digit is the country; 1, 4 or 5 = USA; 2 = Canada, 3 = Mexico, J = Japan, W = Germany.

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Tenth digit is the model year and is sequential; A = 1980 or 2010, B = 1981 or 2011, 1 = 2001, 2 = 2002.

Sources: Wikipedia, Research Maniacs, Olathe Toyota

(Originally posted December 2013)