Surely, you’ve heard of an HPI check before. But what, exactly, is it for? Do you really need one? And, with different offers available: Which is best for you?

In this article, we’ll lead you through everything you need to know to make an informed decision. We’ll go through all the different points an HPI check verifies. We’ll separate the important ones from the less important ones. Finally, we’ll list the various providers of these services and explain the differences between them.

Most importantly, we’ll investigate a key question: Is there such a thing as a free HPI check?

Before we get there, however, let’s start with the basics:

What is an HPI check?

An HPI check is a test which provides you with information about a vehicle’s history. You mainly use it when buying a used car.

Let’s say you’ve found an interesting private offer. The seller tells you all about how his car has never been in an accident. How it’s always passed its MOT and that it’s never had any major repairs done. Do you just believe him? Do you trust him and pay up? Or wouldn’t you rather be able to verify these claims before investing a lot of money?

The HPI check allows you to research all of this and more. At the cost of between £4-£30, depending on the test, you’ll get a plethora of data to help you avoid costly mistakes.

What does HPI check stand for?

HPI is an abbreviation of Hire Purchase Information. It is, however, not just the name of a test, but also of the company which originally introduced it to the UK.

HPI was founded in 1938 by a consortium of six big insurance firms. They were faced with more and more cases of fraudulent re-financing. By pooling their information, they wanted to stay one step ahead of the fraudsters.

Their efforts were not in vain. Shortly after the war, the police started working together with HPI. Over the next decades, it grew from a subsidiary into a nationwide service provider in its own right, selling valuable information to other insurers.

1993 marked an important stepping stone for the company. From this year on, it opened up its services to the general public. This meant that everyone could request a vehicle history report when buying a used car instead of having to go through mediaries. Just shortly before Y2K, the service went online.

Today, buying a second hand vehicle in the UK is incredibly safe. We take this for granted. But things haven’t always been like this. We have a lot to thank HPI for.

Why you should conduct an HPI check

We’ve already touched upon the basic premises of the HPI check. To understand why this information has changed the industry for the better, you need to understand one thing: Unless you verify each single bit of information in a car deal, your chances of getting cheated are still pretty high.

You don’t have to take our word for it. Hard facts speak louder than a thousand words. And their message is clear: It’s better to be safe than sorry:

  • 88% of cars on sale have a hidden history of problems.
  • 25% of cars tested by an HPI check have outstanding finance.
  • 4% of cars tested by an HPI check were written off and may potentially not be safe to drive.

Some of the more expansive HPI checks also indicate the approximate running costs of the car. This can be useful when considering the total costs of a vehicle, as opposed to just the purchase price.

What is included in an HPI check?

An HPI check isn’t cheap. Yes, some of them cost as little as £4. But these ultra cheap services can not seriously be compared to a full-fledged HPI test. You really get what you pay for. A £4 test will only give you some very basic data, usually skipping financial information. A more expensive one, on the other hand, provides you with pages full of data, all of which are potentially relevant.

Let’s take a look at the typical points included in an HPI check. The first three of these deserve a special mention, as they’re clearly more important than the others: Outstanding finance, write-off and stolen cars.

After that, we’ll also delve into some of the other components of the check and explain why they’re potentially useful as well.

Outstanding finance

The seller may be the driver of the car. But he or she may not be the official owner of the car. If they’re still paying off a loan, for example, the bank or dealer is. By buying the car under such circumstances, you are also buying all financial obligations still related to it.

In other words: If there is still a loan on the car, you will be responsible for paying it off. If you can not meet your new obligations, the finance company can reclaim the vehicle, leaving you with nothing.


We usually think of write offs as heaps of metal and plastic wasting away on a scrap yard. However, there are four different categories of write-offs. And even though most of these cars are no longer okay to drive, they may still look reasonably fine to the naked eye.

An HPI check can tell you exactly whether a vehicle has been written off and what its current status is. In some cases, you should never drive a particular vehicle  again. In other cases, a repair will do. Either way, you’re almost certain to face additional charges.


Every day, the police add 30 new stolen cars to their database. The actual number may be higher still. Criminals will do everything in their power to cover their traces and sell these vehicles on.

Theft is the absolute worst-case scenario when buying a second hand car. Not only will you lose the car to the previous owner the second the police identify the car. You also stand no chance whatsoever of getting your money back.

An HPI check provides you with up to date information on stolen cars. There is still a theoretical chance of a stolen vehicle not showing up in the HPI check. But these chances are very slim indeed.

What else is included in an HPI check?

Apart from these three major points, many HPI checks include a variety of additional items. These include the following:

  • Mileage discrepancies: Believe it or not, there is something called a national mileage register. Contained within it are approximately 140 million vehicle mileages. So when you’re considering buying a car, you can compare the reading on the odometer with the number in the register. Clocking is still an extremely common practise and the mileage register offers at least some basic protection.
  • Exported/Imported: Very few cars these days are still actually manufactured in the UK. When we speak about an ‘imported’ vehicle, however, that’s not what we mean here. Rather, the question is whether a car was originally produced for the UK market. This matters, because cars need to confirm to certain specifications. If a vehicle conforms to Indian market requirements, for example, it may not do so with regards to the UK. Vice versa, a car intended for export can not be used or insured for use here.
  • Colour changes: Whenever you change the colour of your car, you need to report this to the DVLA. This allows you to see if a car’s data is truly up to date by comparing the colour on file to the actual one. The same goes for changes in the registration plate.

An HPI check … with HPI

HPI no longer holds a monopoly on car history reports. Over the past years, the market has opened up and diversified considerably. The influx of low cost, text message based services is a major disruptive factor. These offer basic information at a fraction of the price of the original test.

Another has been the RAC’s radical price reduction for its own history report. At £15.50 for a single check, it is currently by far the cheapest deal. Despite its cut-cost price, it is almost identical to the offerings of the other major players on the market.

That said, HPI remains by far the most popular car check provider. Some of its success may stem from its name-given advantage. But HPI has also used its leading position to continually improve its services.

It maintains a mileage database of its own, for example, which is arguably better than the national mileage register. It is also the only publicly available service giving you insights on whether your car may have been ‘cloned’ (stolen and then given a new identity). What’s more, it offers a £30,000 guarantee against errors in its database which lead you to a bad decision.

What about the competitors?

Before we take a look at claims of a free HPI check, let’s see what the competition has to offer.

Many of the super cheap HPI checks have improved considerably. Take, for example. This service offers three levels:

  1. Free, which checks just Vehicle Details, Valuation and MOT Status & History.
  2. Basic, which includes a far more thorough check. The basic package verifies whether or not the car was stolen. But it will not check if there is outstanding finance on it. At £1.99, this is a very cheap deal.
  3. Comprehensive, which adds a finance check as well as a 30,000 Pound ‘data guarantee’.

The comprehensive check is the one you should consider. Costing just £9.99, it is not quite as comprehensive as the bigger checks. But it is quite a lot cheaper.

The big players

Of the more expansive offerings, those by Experian (called autocheck) and Autotrader (called vehicle check) are essentially as good as the original HPI check. There are only minor variations between them, so you can base your decision on:

  • Price – especially multiple checks differ widely in terms of costs. The RAC’s offer is slightly cheaper than the rest, for example. So you can save some serious money here.
  • Guarantee – many companies have responded to HPI’s £30,000 guarantee. But not all have. Also, there are differences when it comes to the details of the guarantee, so be sure to read the fine print.
  • Some specific points you would like to verify.

In a test by Auto Express, Experian finished first, ahead of the RAC and Auto Trader. But the gaps between the competitors are narrowing.

DVLA: A free HPI check?

As we’ve mentioned, an HPI check can be quite pricey, especially if you need to request several of them when looking for a used car. Little wonder, then, that a free HPI check is an extremely popular search term.

If you remember, claims to offer a free car history check. So why not just use that one instead?

The simple reason is that this free test can not even remotely be compared to its ‘basic’ and „comprehensive’ packages. In reality, there is no free HPI check. And at least for a while, there won’t be.

Here’s why.

Technically speaking, you can get quite a lot of valuable information for free. As we’ve explained in our article on the DVLA car check, you can get the following data just by entering your registration number:

  • Vehicle make
  • Date of first registration
  • Year of manufacture
  • Cylinder capacity
  • CO₂Emissions
  • Fuel type
  • Euro Status
  • Export marker
  • Vehicle status
  • Car colour
  • Vehicle type approval
  • Wheel plan
  • Revenue weight
  • MOT results
  • Insurance status

Not bad!

However …

At the same time, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Most of this information deals with the technical specifications of your car. It’s interesting, but hardly a ‘car history report’.

The DVLA data is great for getting a feeling for whether or not the car may be a good choice. The MOT information will also give you a rough idea of the condition the car is in.

All existing HPI car checks make use of the data provided by the DVLA to bolster up what else they have.

you should not consider this a ‘free HPI car check’, however. Don’t be fooled by claims that you don’t need to pay to get a car history report. If you really want to protect yourself from expensive mistakes, you’re going to have to invest a bit of cash.