It seems like pretty much everywhere I look, serial numbers can't do the things that it seems they should be able to do.

They can't help people figure out what bike they have.

They can't help at all when recovering a stolen bike, unless you have the bike's number linked to your identity somehow (good luck finding the bike in the first place).

It seems like the only thing they're useful for is warranty fulfillment. You take your bike to the shop, and they check the serial number to make sure that it's the same one you bought from them three months ago. Is this the only intended purpose of a serial number?

  • I suspect that, from a manufacturer's point of view, the serial number is a bit of a PITA, but it helps them assure that the bike is really one of theirs, and when it was manufactured. Plus I suspect that many countries/states require that all new bikes sold there have serial numbers. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 22 '15 at 18:17
  • Personnaly, some bike manufacturer (usually the smaller, hand made bikes) might be able to get you the history of a bike using the serial. My friend bought a vintage Marinoni and was able to get manufactured date, original paint color, who made it, when it was repainted. I don't think big brand manufacturer (e.g. Giant) might be able or willing to do that. – Bibz Aug 22 '15 at 20:04
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    @DanielRHicks I think you have it exactly backwards. Serial numbers were originally put there by the manufacturer because it's useful to them, e.g., for stock control and for identifying bikes with defects in a recall. For example, your laptop has a serial number but nobody ever talks about using that to indicate ownership after a theft. – David Richerby Nov 16 '16 at 8:21
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    @DavidRicherby - Actually, a laptop serial number, if available, would be used to identify a stolen laptop. And how often have you heard of a bicycle recall? – Daniel R Hicks Nov 16 '16 at 13:00
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    Adding [canonical-answer] tag so we can point other questions at this, the ones that quote a serial and expect a full lookup. – Criggie Jun 5 '20 at 5:35

If a manufacturer found they had a quality problem with a batch of products (e.g. bikes but equally cameras, phones...) the serial numbers would allow identification of the substandard units.

If you've recorded the serial number of your bike and a bike thief is caught with bikes in their possession the serial number should help you get it back. This has happened a few times recently around here.


A common use of serial number is to prove ownership. If you don't have the serial number linked to your identity then that is your problem. My shop registers the serial number. If they don't put it on the receipt then force them to write it on the receipt. On a used bike write it down and take a picture with your residence in the background. My local police will let you register a bike and they will check serial number of any bikes recovered against that list. Stolen property reports are sent to pawn shops.

You find your bike at a pawn shop. If you have proof of ownership of THAT bike they will return it to you. In my state they have to hold property for 2 weeks before selling.

You suspect a neighbor stole your bike and you take a picture of your bike in his / her garage. Take that to the police and they will investigate. Without a serial number you cannot prove that is your bike.

You see your bike on CraigsList and you call the police. If police won't meet you then go to the buy take the bike and call the police.

You see your bike on eBay and buy it. Prove to PayPal you bought your stolen bike and they will take action. eBay does not want to be in the stolen property business.

A serial number may not slow them down from stealing it but it sure slows down selling it, aids in recovery, and help convict criminals.

A common scenario is they will take a van of stolen bikes to another state and sell them there. I buy a bit on CL and if they have out of town plates I walk. If they cannot give me a credible history on the bike I walk.

Another user of serial number is fraud detection. Is it even a valid serial number? Is it the correct frame for that serial number? Multiple bikes with the same serial number - definitely some counterfeiting going on.

Proof the property property was stolen. If the police raid a garage or warehouse because they suspect goods they have hard evidence that bike is stolen property.

  • I am curious who they register the serial number with? – Michael B Aug 22 '15 at 20:31
  • @MichaelB. Who is who? – paparazzo Aug 22 '15 at 20:44
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    You said - "My shop registers the serial number" who do they register it with? How do you link it to your identity? – Michael B Aug 22 '15 at 20:54
  • @MichaelB Register: enter or record on an official list or directory. My shop has little registry that they record the serial number, date, and person. I suspect there are other shops that do the same. – paparazzo Aug 22 '15 at 20:59
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    ahh so that's what register means, I'd wondered for a while. So its not registered to anything nationally? so unless police went to that shop and specifically asked about that serial number there's no official link between bike serial numbers and identities on a national level? – Michael B Aug 22 '15 at 21:06

The main function of a serial number is to prove that you own the bike. Just like a VIN number on a car, your serial number helps authorities determine who the lost or stolen bike belongs too. Also, it does help the store you purchased the bike from, as well as the company that made the bike, in keeping track of warranties, who owns the bike, the address where the bike belongs, e.t.c. Think of your serial number the same way as you think of registering your car.

As a side note, using the serial number for finding out information about the bike such as make, model, year, e.t.c., may work sometimes, but it is not genuinely a reliable way to find out that information.

  • It may be hard to proof make of a bike with the serial number but often it will be useful to rule out a lot of makes, as those have a different kind or length of number. – Willeke Aug 23 '15 at 7:55
  • I am wondering if the factory who made the bike can tell by the serial number when the bike was made. – fixit7 Jun 5 '20 at 6:02
  • @fixit7 They may be able to tell with top of the range branded models but certainly not with department store welded gas pipe examples. – Carel Nov 3 '20 at 13:16

I recently had a cycle stolen, the copper (I'm in England!) who came to take the statement, wasn't at all interested in taking the serial number, he reckoned they're never recovered / returned that way and a photo of it was far more useful.

When it was initially stolen, I couldn't find the booklet I'd written the serial number in, so I called the supplier (one of the big online places) and they told me they didn't track serial numbers and there was no way to find it out if I didn't make a note of it.

I think they have a lot more to do with security theatre than actual security. It makes us feel like they're less likely to be stolen, without providing any real protection against.

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    Security and recovery are NOT the same. A lock prevents / slows down a theft and serial number help you prove it is your bike if it is stolen and recovered. – paparazzo Aug 22 '15 at 20:52
  • @Frisbee My point is that a serial number provides no more chance of recovery than a receipt. Since there is no nationally recognised way of tracking either. A cycle stolen in one part of the country and sold in another will never be recovered, and ebay et al makes selling it in the same area quite unlikely anyway. – Michael B Aug 23 '15 at 10:58
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    What? Really you think you can find your Trek 620 in a pawn shop and tell them to give it to you because you a have a receipt for A Trek 620. No you have to have have proof of ownership tied to THAT 620 and that is what serial number does. Police recover it. You see it in a garage. Lack of a nation registry does not mean NO value to serial number in recovery of stolen property. – paparazzo Aug 23 '15 at 17:49
  • @Paparazzi The guy just said that he spoke to the police about his stolen bike and they weren't interested in knowing its serial number. Unless Michael's going to hunt around local pawn shops or people's garages, he's not going to find his bike there so, again, the serial number is no use. – David Richerby Nov 16 '16 at 8:18
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    On the other hand, Cambridgeshire police, who deal with 3000 reported stolen bikes a year, recommend that you do register the frame number, and do (sometimes) reunite stolen bikes with owners that way: cambs.police.uk/crimeprevention/advice/advice.asp?ID=148 – armb Nov 17 '16 at 13:34

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