Nearly all bikes have serial numbers, save for a few old bikes and hand-made machines. These numbers have more than one function, but for owners they’re a useful weapon against theft. Or they can be.
Statistics from Project 529 suggest that fewer than 20% of cyclists know their bike’s serial number. That may be because they’re located in out-of-the-way places, but it’s a shockingly low number all the same.
In this guide to bike serial numbers, you’ll find out why you need to know this number, where you’ll find it, and how it’s used by others.
Where Can You Find The Bike Serial Number On Your Bike?
Serial numbers are found in various places on a bike. By far the most common is beneath the bottom bracket, so the lowest part of the frame. Other possibilities include rear stays, on the seat tube near the crankset, or on the head tube.
The serial number isn’t prominent on the bike for aesthetic reasons. A random series of digits doesn’t add much to a bike’s look. Anyone giving the bike unwanted attention knows where to look for the number, so it’s not hidden in any real sense.
On steel, titanium or aluminum bike frames, the serial number is usually stamped indelibly into the frame. More traditional, vintage bikes may have the number discreetly etched into the manufacturer’s nameplate at the front of the bike.
Serial numbers on carbon fiber frames are usually on laminated stickers. These are harder to remove or deface than you might think, at least without damaging the frame or leaving an obvious trace.
What Is A Serial Number, And Why Is It Important?
A serial number identifies a bike frame once the bike has been sold. Before a bike is sold and while it’s in warranty, it has a business purpose, too.
Bike serial numbers help manufacturers and vendors to manage their inventory. They can identify products either in their possession or that have left a warehouse.
A business may use inventory to control stock, balance supply and demand, trace movement of goods, stop fraudulent insurance claims and record after-sales service.
In some cases, a bike serial number can provide information beyond just the model, such as frame color and size or componentry.
From a bike owner’s point of view, the sole purpose of a serial number is to help recover a stolen or lost bike. No matter what parts have been changed on the bike, that serial number is exclusive to that bike frame.
If you know the serial number of your bike, there is no excuse a thief can offer as to where the bike came from. It’s yours, without question. But just knowing the number isn’t enough: you need to link it to your name by registering it or insuring it.
Won’t A Thief Just Remove the Serial Number?
Yes, career bike thieves do often go to the trouble of shaving off, filing down or painting over serial numbers. Even if they sell the bike on quickly, protecting their “customers” is in their own best interests.
The serial number alone could still help retrieve your bike from casual, opportunist thieves who may not be so rigorous in covering their tracks. Bikes are also stolen and abandoned during other crimes.
How To Register A Bike
Knowing a bike’s serial number and proving the bike is yours are different things. You must link yourself to the bike by taking out insurance or adding your bike to a national bike register. If you have original receipts, so much the better.
Registering Your Bike – Info & Items Needed
To register your bike online, you’ll typically need to provide a few things:
- Make & model
- Serial number
- Other security numbers
- Date purchased & cost
- Bike features (number of gears, other details)
- Photos (if possible)
Registering a bike is usually free and should be free, ethically speaking, but you may have the option of buying security products once you’ve registered. These won’t typically be related to the serial number, but they will help to further ID your bike.
Where To Register
Bike registers are usually national databases. Below are some of the most popular in their respective countries and beyond.
- Project 529 – North America & Canada
- Bike Index – U.S. based, international register
- BikeVAULT – Australia
- BikeRegister – UK
- Stolen Bikes in the UK
- New Zealand Bicycle Registry
It’s also possible in some countries to register a bike with local authorities or police forces.
You can add your bike to some registers even after it is stolen, though it obviously helps if you’ve noted the serial number before the theft.
Video: About Bike Index (for the U.S.)
How To Check If Your Bike Is Stolen?
For many people, the secondhand market is a way to buy a bike with high spec for less money. If you’re buying a used, “new-to-me” bicycle or have already received it, how do you check if the bike is stolen?
Peruse the Bike Register First
The first port of call is national bike registers. For instance, BikeRegister in the UK has a searchable Bike Checker page for just this purpose. Other registers may issue lists of stolen-bike serial numbers.
You might be able to identify the bike through photos or by looking at specific features or builds. Many times, people make bikes unique by swapping parts.
Let’s say you want to buy a bike that you’ve seen online, or at least arrange to test-ride it. Ask the seller for the serial number before meeting them. Better still, ask for a photo of the serial number. An honest seller shouldn’t mind providing this.
Be aware that bike thieves do modify serial numbers where possible. Study the number very closely. Does it look tampered with? Check stolen-bike registers for similar numbers if you are suspicious.
Don’t confront a bike thief in person unless you’re confident in doing so. Thieves are criminals who may resort to anything to avoid being caught.
Trust Your Instincts
Bike thieves strive to maintain anonymity, so if someone tries to sell you a bike on a street corner, you’d be right to feel suspicious. In fact, thieves occasionally store stolen bikes in public places to avoid being caught out by GPS trackers.
What If It’s Your Bike That’s Stolen?
If you’ve had a bike stolen, the first thing to do is alert the police. Then, get it onto a bike register if you haven’t done so already. Many of them have communities attached to them who will actively search for your bike.
In your own search for the bike(s), check local ads, visit local pawn shops or quick-loan shops, and browse online auctions and secondhand markets. Be aware that many thieves operate outside of eBay since it’s an obvious place to look.
As well as eBay, check Craigslist, OfferUp and LetGo, all of which are popular fencing outlets. Look for individual bike components, too, as thieves may break the bike into parts, especially if the components are valuable.
Thieves may also swap bike parts around to allay suspicion. Look very closely at other items someone is selling if you suspect anything, including whole bikes.
Video: How To Recover A Stolen Bike
What If Your Bike Doesn’t Have A Serial Number?
Serial numbers are partly for use by manufacturers and vendors, but not all bikes have them. Some old or handmade bikes may be missing a number.
What happens if there is nothing on your bike that uniquely identifies it?
An archaic way to ID a bike is to stuff a name and address in the handlebar. That can work, but you need something harder to dispose of than hidden pieces of paper.
Today, there are ways to identify a bike that are hard to counteract, including GPS trackers + alarms, stealth UV etching products, QR codes, and microdots.
Microdots are minute dots that are barely visible to the naked eye and only viewable at 60x magnification under UV light. The dots are applied in large numbers (usually 1,000 to 2,000) and contain a unique number that identifies the bike or other asset.
Some of these measures are used in conjunction with warning stickers, obviously with the aim of deterring thieves in the first place. Even if you have a serial number, they strengthen bike identification.
Bike Serial Numbers: FAQs
Do Police Find Stolen Bikes?
Police recover many thousands of bikes, but only a small minority are returned to owners because most thefts go unreported and the bikes aren’t registered.
Is It Legal To Track Down Your Bike Yourself?
It’s legal to track down the bike and recover it if it’s in a public place. But you can’t legally trespass to retrieve stolen property.
Do E-Bikes Have Bike Serial Numbers?
Because e-bikes are regarded as regular bicycles, they have serial numbers and not VINs. You’ll find the serial number in the same locations as standard bikes.
Serial numbers are easy to find, yet most bike owners never take advantage of them. That’s why only a small percentage of stolen bikes are returned to their owners.
By entering the serial number of your bike on a national or international register, you link yourself to that bike and help to prove ownership.
Consider adding other forms of ID to your bike to make it harder to anonymize.
Did you find this article informative or useful? Please feel free to leave comments, add further hints and tips and share the article as you wish.