What Is a Technical Service Bulletin?

An automaker’s service bulletins can reveal issues with your car that need attention–even ones that have never caused you a problem.

Capital One

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Communication is the key to any successful relationship, a principle that holds equally true between drivers and automakers. When car companies learn about recurring problems on recent models—especially ones that may not be easy to diagnose or correct —they use a specific type of communication called a Technical Service Bulletin to inform dealers and repair shops about necessary fixes, parts malfunctions, or required updates.

A bulletin, or TSB, details specific problems affecting one or more vehicles in an automaker's line-up. Each bulletin describes an issue in detail, denotes which models are affected, and typically includes repair instructions. A TSB is triggered by information a manufacturer has gathered from customers and dealers about commonly reported problems. These are then addressed by bulletins once a fix has been approved.

What's the Difference Between a Recall and a Technical Service Bulletin?

A recall is similar to a TSB in that it describes a problem and establishes a process to get it repaired. Where it differs is the magnitude of the issue: Recalls are reserved for problems that impact safety or repairs related to emissions control systems. (The EPA offers an emissions-specific look-up website.) A recall involves government oversight on reporting and owner notification, and is always performed free of charge, even after a vehicle’s warranty has expired.

Are Technical Service Bulletin Repairs Covered Under Warranty?

A TSB repair performed by the dealer will be covered as long as the problem falls within existing warranty coverage. In some cases, an automaker may even extend the warranty for certain components or vehicle systems that have been subject to a TSB, although this is done on a case-by-case basis.

If a vehicle’s warranty has expired, a repair related to a TSB may still be covered by a manufacturer under a goodwill policy, depending on the severity of the issue. If the vehicle is well outside the warranty period, however, you'll most likely be charged for the service.

Where Can I Look Up Technical Service Bulletins for My Car?

There are a number of ways to find out if there are technical service bulletins that apply to your vehicle. The easiest is to head online, where NHTSA provides an easy look-up tool that requires you to enter the 17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN) to see safety-related investigations and any outstanding recalls for that automobile. Another section includes communications from the manufacturer, which is where the TSBs are located. The VIN can be found on most registration and insurance documents, as well as at the lower left of the windshield. You can print the TSB to bring to the dealer service center or independent mechanic.

Some TSBs issued before 2012 might not appear on the NHTSA's website. You can also contact a dealership service department for your car’s brand to get information about technical service bulletins, as each will have access to a comprehensive database that lists known problems for your vehicle. Some brands, like Toyota, even make their TSB database searchable online.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.