I’ve had quite a number of novice sailors approach me and ask, “Hey, man, do boats have VIN numbers, like my car has it?” I’m always inclined to say, “Not really, not in the way you think.”
No, boats don’t have a VIN. The VIN on a boat is technically the HIN or its Hull Identification Number. It could be because their vessels sit on their trailer, which has a VIN, so boaters think it applies to the boats as well.
A VIN is only ever assigned to a land or road vehicle, and the former to boats.
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What is the Difference Between a VIN and a HIN?
I totally understand the confusion people get when they try to look up boat VIN number. After all, aren’t they both “identification numbers”? Boats are technically vehicles, too…
It doesn’t help that in certain states like, for example, Colorado, the boat registration papers mix the hull ID number with the VIN as evidenced by the picture below.
It could also be that the sticker on the boat’s trailer will bear both the HIN and VIN numbers.
To avoid getting your head all muddled up when trying to distinguish these two, always remember these points:
- A Hull Identification Number (HIN) is composed of 12 numbers (at least, in all states in the US).
- A Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is made up of 17 characters.
- The Hull Identification Number location is usually on the boat itself. You can also get it from the boat’s title, such as this boat that was registered in Illinois:
- The Vehicle Identification Number location is also printed on a sticker or plate on the vehicle it’s supposed to identify, whether it’s a car, truck, or trailer.
This is why if you’re looking for the boat’s VIN number location, what you really should be searching for is its HIN, which is typically 5 characters shorter than a VIN.
The same goes for the VIN number on a boat motor. There’s really no such thing! What people really mean is the boat engine’s serial number, which itself isn’t the HIN but instead plays a huge role in tracking the motor’s maintenance history.
What Does the HIN on a Boat Mean?
So you’re here trying to check the HIN number. But what do those jumbled 12 characters mean in the first place? Allow me to demystify it for you.
- Manufacturer’s Identification Code (MIC) – The HIN begins with a mix of three characters (e.g. AAT, ZXS, and NCK) assigned to each boat manufacturer by the US Coast Guard.
- Hull Serial Number – 5 numbers follow the MIC. The manufacturer randomly assigns them to serve as the main identifier of the boats.
- Date of Manufacture – This is usually composed of both a letter and a number. The letter represents the month the boat was built, and the number next to it tells you the year it was manufactured.
The letters are assigned to each month alphabetically, so if your boat was constructed in September of 2009, it would be assigned with the combination ‘J9’.
- Model Year – Last but not least is the boat’s model year or the exact year that particular boat model was released. If it was released in 2008, then the number would be ‘08’.
Given the inputs above, we can arrive at a sample HIN: AAT57893J908.
Take note that on paper, some VINs may include the country code (e.g. US, CA, UK, etc) in the beginning, thereby, increasing the number of characters to 14.
Use a boat VIN decoder (or HIN, rather) to confirm the information above. They’ll only ask for your boat’s exact HIN, and they’ll handle the rest. Try it out by going to this site: HINDecoder.com.
1. Why is the HIN important?
As for its importance, the HIN serves more than just as a way to identify your boat. Before 1972, people had a hard time tracking boats’ ownership and overall history. It was either they didn’t have identification numbers at all, or the manufacturer designated the serial numbers themselves.
What if the boat had been involved in accidents before? What if it’s actually stolen property? How will you know the amount of damage it has sustained and how many times it has been repaired and maintained?
The HIN addresses all those issues (i.e. theft and fraud prevention and knowing its history more intimately). It also tells you how old it is, which is good for heritage and prestige purposes.
2. Where is HIN located on the boat exactly?
As far as where are Hull Identification Numbers located, it’s always a good idea to check the starboard side of the transom. It’s printed there on a metal or plastic plate.
Should it become too illegible, you can always whip out the boat’s title or registration papers and check them there.
It could also be in a clandestine location that you can contact the manufacturer about should you be struggling to look up the boat hull number. Clue: try checking the inside of the hull.
Finding Manufacturer Codes
If you’ve looked at every nook and cranny of your boat and your HIN search still proved futile, you can try doing a boat serial number lookup by using a number of tools.
If you want to know the exact manufacturer of your boat, you can refer to this list of codes prepared by the US Coast Guard itself: Manufacturers Identification.
That’s really the only free boat VIN check (or HIN check) that you can perform, other than if you just want to decode it.
If you prefer to depart from the Hull Identification Number search free route, you can head to https://boathistoryreport.com/. There, you can search for it based on the State Registration Number and USCG documentation – for a price.
Why Does the HIN Look Altered and Does Not Match the Boat?
I understand that some people try to get a HIN number for a boat to confirm whether the characters printed on the label are the same as the ones on the documents.
Chances are, they think that the HIN looks edited or, simply put, doesn’t match the one reflected on the title. If you happen to encounter the same hitch on the road, don’t worry just yet.
For example, there’s a logical reason why the last digit on the HIN may be different from what is said on the title compared to what’s on the plate. A 7 could have been changed to an 8, for instance.
These could very well just be factory errors that you can contact your boat manufacturer. It’s a wholly different story if the entire characters of the HIN on the papers don’t match the ones on the plate. If you can find the hidden HIN, then now’s definitely the time to do so.
- It’s also high time to start considering the possibility of the boat being stolen or affixed with a counterfeit HIN. Your best option is to inform the Coast Guard about it immediately as HIN alterations can result in hefty fines.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many HIN numbers do boats have?
If you’re referring to the actual combination of characters, then there’s only one that will be assigned to the boat. If you meant the number of characters, then it’s normally 12 in the US.
Can the HIN number be covered with paint?
No. While every state may have differing degrees of strictness when it comes to enforcing HIN visibility regulations, the rule of thumb is you shouldn’t cover them with paint. It’s certainly fine to use the number over the hull – just don’t get too carried away that you end up covering the characters.
Ultimately, the question, “Do boats have VIN numbers?” paves the way to better education for budding boat owners. I’m all for people who want to learn more because the boating industry is still not without its share of issues that arise from the lack of it.
Again, what you’re really looking for is the boat’s HIN, which serves as its unique identifier and a helpful tool to know its manufacturer, date of manufacture, model year, plus in-depth history.
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