Many websites offer comprehensive vehicle history based on a search of the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). If you'd rather deal with someone in person, car dealerships can also access this information. In virtually all cases, to get a useful report, you'll pay a fee ranging between £9 and £19. For basic data on the car's year and make, you can get a free lookup. Your state's DMV website may have access to a car's registration status, but details will be limited.
A few websites, such as Decodethis.com, offer a simple decoder, or lookup, for the VIN number. The site has a program that knows what the various digits and characters in the VIN mean. You'll get the car's year, model, make, and country of origin, but no history. This service is free. Many sites that hint at free VIN reports are really in the business of selling them. By the time you navigate through their various pages, you'll find yourself being offered a full report for a fee.
Carfax, Edmunds, and many other sites sell full reports. These will tell you the car's transaction history, if the car was totalled in an accident, odometer readings, and other useful information. Different sites have different fee structures. You can purchase one report for a flat amount, or several reports at a discounted rate. Some sites let you do unlimited lookups for 60 days for a fee. Usually, when you're interested in a used car, you check the VIN report for problems. More rarely, someone needs a report for several cars.
Car dealers also have access to VIN information. Since they're in the business of buying and selling cars, they need to look up cars' histories. You can ask a dealer for a report, though they'll charge for it.
Some state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) websites have lookups for information based on VIN or license-plate number. The report is limited to registration date, status, and a few other nonpersonal details. Depending on the state, this may be free.