An automobile is an incredibly expensive investment, full stop. The price of a vehicle itself is already a lofty purchase for one to make in their lifetime. That’s not even including the added cost that you have to put into it over time, either for maintenance, repairs, or added accessories down the line. So then, what about VIN etching? Is this a worthwhile expense to consider for protecting your car?
Or… Might you just be burning your cash to please the dealerships? For years, VIN etching has been offered as an optional service that car salesmen would shove down your throat just before you drive it off the lot. Of course, they’ll convince you how important etching your VIN number onto the car’s windshield, windows, and individual body panels are – to deter thieves from stealing and selling it.
However, car dealerships could charge upwards of $2,000 for a full-on VIN etching service. At that point, you may as well ask yourself this: “Is a VIN etching service really worth it?” Moreover, does it truly deter theft, as dealerships so often claim? I mean, $2,000 to convince thieves not to steal your $20,000 or $200,000 car sounds like a deal, no? Hmm… Maybe that’s not the case, after all.
- What Is A VIN?
- How To Read A VIN?
- Why Etch It?
- Worth It?
- Is It A Scam?
- Cheaper Options
- Should You?
What’s This VIN That You’re Etching Onto Your Car, Anyway?
Since we’re discussing VIN etching, we may as well provide more context into the gigantic elephant in the room. What’s this VIN thing that’s plastered all over your car in the first place? Otherwise, it’s known as a Vehicle Identification Number or sometimes referred to as a ‘chassis number’ or ‘frame number’. That’s since a VIN is typically inscribed to your car’s chassis, and is assigned to each one.
In layman’s terms, you can think of VIN as your car’s own social security number. It’s a unique code for identifying every production vehicle, and it’s not exclusive to cars. All motorized vehicles, such as motorcycles, trucks, and even scooters or towed trailers have VINs. Just like your social security, a VIN is a fingerprint of sorts, and no two vehicles can ever have the same VIN designated for them.
The idea of an identifiable VIN number for vehicles started in 1954. Unfortunately, the system was a mess back then, with no standardized format. Every carmaker had their own VIN, and it was quite a challenge to ever track down their respective VINs. Things, thankfully, improved in 1981, where all carmakers are required to use a new standardized 17-digit VIN format created by the NHTSA.
This system gradually expanded to other countries around the world, as well. A vehicle’s specific VIN is a necessary identifier for important aspects of car ownership like wanting to buy and sell your car, trading it in or parting it out for spares, scraping it to a junkyard, or needing to track it down after it’s been stolen. VIN numbers aren’t identical in every region of the globe, but they’re similar.
How Can You Read Your Car’s VIN Number For An Etching Service?
When you’re getting a VIN etching service done, you’ll notice 17 characters scrawled out onto your new car next to one another. They consist of a series of numbers and letters, all of which appear – at first glance, anyway – as though they’ve been picked randomly. Nonetheless, there’s a clever system in place for what each character means, and it can tell you a lot about a particular vehicle.
Specifically, knowing how to read your car’s VIN can make you aware of where it’s built, its make or model, as well as its specifications and even the paint color. So, let’s try to decode what each digit in a car’s VIN means:
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First 3 Digits – Your Car’s WMI (World Manufacturer Identifier)
The first three digits are the most crucial to understand in knowing who made your car, and where it was built. It’s commonly referred to as the World Manufacturer Identifier or WMI. Note, that a VIN doesn’t include the characters O (o), I (i), or Q (q), to avoid confusion with the numbers 0, 1, or 9. If you want a detailed and exhaustive WMI list, there’s a page on Wikibooks just for that.
1st Digit – Country Of Origin
The first digit tells you exactly where the car was built. For example, a vehicle sold for the US market may have been built overseas, such as in Europe or South America. This is how you can tell, based on the region it came from. The first digit can include the letters or numbers:
- A to H – Africa; e.g. A for South Africa, or D for Egypt
- J to R – Asia; e.g. J for Japan, K for (South) Korea, M for India, or P for Malaysia
- S to Z – Europe; e.g. S for the United Kingdom, W for Germany, V for France, or Z for Italy
- 1 to 5 – North America; e.g. 1 for the USA, 2 for Canada, or 3 for Mexico
- 6 to 7 – Oceania (Australia and New Zealand); 6 for Australia, and 7 for New Zealand
- 8 to 9 – South America; e.g. 8 for Argentina, or 9 for Brazil
2nd Digit – Vehicle Manufacturer
Next up, we can learn who manufactured the car. It goes hand in hand with the 1st digit, as a singular character won’t be enough to distinguish the country of origin. How can the entirety of a continent share just one or two different letters or numbers, right? Therefore, the SAE – or Society of Automotive Engineers – assigns the first, second, and third digits together. For instance:
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- SA to SM is assigned to the UK, where A to M represents manufacturers building cars in the UK. All the while, SU to SZ is reserved for Poland, where U to Z is assigned to marques built in Poland.
- 3A to 3W is for cars built in Mexico, with A to W being left aside for the brand of cars produced there. Elsewhere, 3X to 37 are booked for vehicles assembled in Costa Rica.
3rd Digit – Division Or Subsidiary Of The Vehicle Manufacturer
The final WMI character will determine the specific division or subsidiary of the manufacturer that put together your car. Once again, the SAE commonly designates all three WMIs together, as they could delegate the manufacturers and country of origin together. Typically, cars that are built in small numbers per year are assigned 9. Here are some examples of the first 3 digits combined:
- AAV – Volkswagen (models built in) South Africa
- JA3 and JA4 – Specifically just for Japan-made Mitsubishi models
- KN – Specifically just for South Korean-made Kia models
- WMX – Mercedes-AMG (models built in) Germany (W was originally for West Germany)
- 1FA – Ford models made the USA, although Ford has many other VINs for cars built elsewhere (AFA for Ford South Africa, SFA for Ford UK, WF0 for Ford Germany, etc.)
4th To 8th Digits – An Individualised Description Of Your Vehicle
Next, we get to 5 distinct digits taking up the 4th to 8th characters on your vehicle’s VIN. This is how you’re made aware of the vehicle specifications, detailing its most crucial features. These include its engine size or type, what body style it has, or any safety features that it carries. Here’s what they all mean:
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- 4th Digit – This is reserved for model-specific information and features. Manufacturers often reserve this for a car’s standout characteristics, such as details on extra safety equipment.
- 5th Digit – The following character represents the exact series of a particular vehicle model. It may be to denote what production batch it was or model-specific generations.
- 6th And 7th Digits – This one’s for what body style your vehicle carries, and what type of vehicle it is. Be it an SUV, convertible, 4-door saloon, hatchback, van, pickup truck, and so on.
- 8th Digit – The last character will make you aware of the engine size that your car uses. Since each vehicle may be sold with varying engine options to choose from, the 8th digit (usually represented by a letter) is quite handy. You can use this to find spare parts that fit the correct engine size and type.
9th Digit – A Vehicle’s “Check Digit”
It’s essentially a stamp of approval. Once your car’s been registered, the rest of the 17-digit VIN will be validated for its authenticity. Using a complex formula, tabulating the rest of the VIN should thus correspond to the 9th digit. This validates the VIN and authorizes it to be sold and driven. In other words, the 9th digit could also be used to detect any faked or invalid VIN codes.
10th Digit – Model Year (Or Year Of Manufacture)
Here, you can read as to precisely when your car was built. It may otherwise indicate the model year or year of manufacture. The 10th digit may either be an alphabet or a number. Although, remember that the letters I, O, and Q aren’t used here. Additionally, the characters U, Z, and 0 (zero) won’t also be adopted for the model year descriptor. Here are some examples:
- A to Y – Cars built from 1980 (to be badged and sold for the 1981 model year) to 2000 (sold as the 2001 model year)
- 1 to 9 – Cars built from 2001 to 2009 (built in those years, to be sold as 2002 and 2010 model year cars, respectively)
As you can see, there are some limitations here as the calendar keeps on counting. Hence, why the NHTSA has since revised the system to ensure that the VIN can keep up. After 2009, cars built from 2010 (2011 model year) to 2030 (2031 model year) will go back to the alphabets A to Y. After that, cars assembled from 2031 (2032 model year) to 2039 (2040 model year) will use 1 to 9 again.
11th Digit – At Which Plant Did You Car Come From?
Somewhat of an extension to WMI, the 11th digit corresponds to which plant in particular built and assembled your vehicle. This is since manufacturers can have numerous factories within a singular region. This is compulsory for cars made in regions such as North America or China. However, the European Union doesn’t require a unique ‘Plant Code’. Every brand has a distinct 11th digit.
12th To 17th Digits – The Production Line (Or Serial Number)
The final 6 digits describe more of your car’s production. Mainly, it’s to be used as a serial number to say where your car sits in an entire model’s production span. Although, it may include other details such as what transmission you have, the specific shade of paintwork, or other optional extras that have been fitted onto your car. This sequence is specific to each vehicle and manufacturer.
What’s VIN Etching, And How Does It Work?
Usually, you’ll find the VIN number on your car’s bodywork. It may be hidden under the hood (at the front of the engine compartment), driver’s side interior dash (this is the most common spot), or on the door pillars. In addition, you may also find the VIN on your car’s windshield and windows. This is where that VIN etching thing comes in. Etching in your VIN onto the glass is a common practice.
Originally, this is made to deter theft, as engraving the VIN on the glass could have a monumental impact on thievery. If you’ve etched your VIN onto the windshield and all the side windows, the thief will have no choice but to remove, discard, and then replace all that glass before parting with it. Otherwise, getting caught with mismatched VINs – the bodywork and glass – could yield jail time.
Typically, it’s fairly easy for a thief to spoof or strip the VIN stickers from the rest of the car. On that note, it’s far more uneconomical for them to do it with the glass, as you can’t easily scratch it out. A vehicle’s windows are commonly the most expensive parts of a car. They could just sell the car with mismatched VINs, but that increases the risk for both the thief and their would-be customer.
By forcing thieves to get rid of the glass and replace it, this alone is actively diminishing or outright eliminating any profits the thief might get for stealing a car. For instance, a replacement windshield can cost upwards of $1,000, while a single side window will set you back $200 or more. VIN etching is generally done for every single piece of glass, which makes it far less profitable for a car thief.
What Are The Arguments In Support For VIN Etching?
On the flipside, windows without VIN etching could turn to be a massive payday for a car thief. Your windows are interchangeable with many other similar vehicles. Thus, a thief could yield large profits by removing and then selling just the windows alone. If it doesn’t have a VIN on it, who’s to say that it’s an original window from the manufacturer, or a slab of glass stolen from another car, right?
With older vehicles specifically, disassembling them into pieces and selling each spare part can often be more fruitful financially compared to selling it as a complete unit. As a theft prevention method, many argue that VIN etching is a most wonderful creation for a few key reasons besides what we’ve just mentioned:
- VIN etching increases the chance that your stolen vehicle may be recovered. It’s not a given, but local law enforcement can more quickly distinguish a stolen vehicle by the mismatched VINs between the windows and the chassis or paperwork.
- Vehicles that have VIN etching on the glass could entitle their owners to discounted insurance rates. In some states, this reduction could be as high as 15%. However, not all auto insurance companies offer such discounts, with or without permanently engraved VINs.
- Dealerships may allocate additional warranty or benefits for a VIN-etched vehicle. They say that if your car gets stolen, they’ll help cover your insurance deductible if you have VIN etching on it. Again, this isn’t entirely true, and it should be judged on a dealer-to-dealer basis.
Is Doing A VIN Etching On Your New Car Worth The Ask?
VIN etching can be done in a variety of methods. It could be stenciled onto the glass, although it may be done using a specialized acidic etching paste. But what’s the cost of having this done to your car? As we highlighted early on, having a VIN etching service done as a first-party option by a car dealership isn’t cheap. You can expect ludicrous asking prices of $200 to $2,000 from a dealer.
On average, dealership-done VIN etching will set you back around $400. This is a grotesque figure for what is essentially a simple engraving. The reason why dealers do this is simple – profits. They include this as an extra service to boost their own profits upon selling a vehicle. To them, this isn’t any different from offering to deliver the car to your house or having it waxed, for an added fee.
This high price may come at a loss for a would-be thief. In addition, it’s also a significant budget to ration out just to cover the cost of etching your VIN permanently on the windows. But this expense somehow gets even worse for two reasons:
- Some dealers pre-etch the VIN onto the glass for every vehicle on the lot prior to a sale. So when you go ahead to buy a car, you’ll have no choice but to pay for that VIN etching that you didn’t ask for.
- Salesmen may include the price of a VIN etching (which hasn’t yet been done) onto the bill of sale or the asking price of a car. By printing this onto the paperwork, they’re insinuating that it’s a mandatory service, rather than it being an add-on option that buyers can choose to opt out of.
Is VIN Etching A Way For Dealers To Scam You?
In short, No, dealers aren’t actively scamming you to get a VIN etching service done. With that said, it doesn’t mean that their oftentimes pushy behavior is morally justified. Their most common line of defense when being asked why they’re being so insistent about VIN etching is that it’s a legal or regulatory requirement. For buyers who are unaware, they might buy this argument.
However, this isn’t true. Yes, some states do mandate that car dealers must offer some VIN etching service for their customers. But… Not even a single state requires that customers have to pay for a VIN etching to be done. At the end of the day, the law says that spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on VIN etching is optional. You can choose to purchase it at the dealer, or not.
Whether or not a VIN etching is worth it will be dependent on your situation. We’d recommend that if your dealership lot has every single car’s glass etched with the VIN, you can ask the salesman to exclude that from the price. After all, it’s an option that you didn’t specify. And maybe, it’s one add-on that you didn’t want anyway. If the dealer is being too forceful, you can always walk away.
The same goes for if the dealership is adding the VIN etching service onto the sticker price without your consent. So, remain diligent when checking over the final tally. You don’t have to force yourself into paying for it, and the dealer knows that. Remind them that the law doesn’t require you to pay for a VIN etching. As them to remove it from the price, and if they won’t budge, just walk away.
Are There Cheaper Ways To Get VIN Etching Done?
Suffice to say, VIN etching remains to be one of the scummiest ways that car dealerships try to rinse as much money out of you as possible. So much so, that there are numerous lawsuits filed against dealerships for being too assertive and insistent on forcing buyers to pay for a VIN etching. But let’s say you really want a VIN etching to be done. At the very least, it offers you peace of mind.
There are cheaper ways to go about this than paying $200 or (far) more at a dealership. Here are a couple of options if you want to get it done outside of a dealer:
- DIY VIN etching kits can be found on sites like Amazon for as little as $15 to $20. All it entails is you need to send the DIY-kit maker your VIN number, and you’ll get the stencil sent over with your 17-digit VIN. The kit should also include a bottle of etching liquid that you can spray over the stencil as per the included instructions. You can then repeat that process for all your windows.
- The only way to beat $15 (these kits can sometimes be had for far less, though) is free. VIN etching is highly recommended by police agencies, insurance providers, as well as theft-prevention groups. As such, these organizations often hold sponsored events and conventions where you can get a VIN etching done for free. So, look around your local area for a complimentary engraving service.
Final Thoughts; Should You Get A VIN Etching Done?
VIN etching is proven to dramatically decrease car theft. Depending on what part of the country you’re from, having your VIN engraved on the glass could reduce the chances of theft by 65% or up to 97%. Quite outstanding figures, to say the least. Moreover, statistics show that VIN-etched cars have a 60% to 85% chance of being recovered and returned to their rightful owners.
In summary, we’d argue that VIN etching for your car is a worthwhile investment to make if it helps you rest easier at night. Even if it’s not exactly a 100% guarantee, it does ultimately aid in deterring car theft. Nevertheless, we do believe it’s downright criminal for you to pay $200 or up to $2,000 to do it. That’s especially when you can pay a fraction of the price, or none at all for the same benefit.
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