A long time ago headlight bulb options were pretty straight forward. You had round or rectangular headlight bulbs in just a few sizes that were used by pretty much every automaker. Basically you just had to match the bulb to the hole in the grille and make sure it was high or low beam (or a combination of the two). But in the early 1980s the Lincoln Mark VII introduced the idea of a headlight assembly where the bulb could be replaced like a flashlight, while the lens and housing stayed on the car. While this made service simpler, it didn’t exactly make finding the correct type of headlight bulb at the parts store easier. Let’s take a look at the different types of headlight bulbs available and where you might find them.
Sealed Beam Headlight Bulbs
We’ll start with the classic sealed beam bulb. These bulbs are large and usually round or rectangular. The lens, reflector, and filament are one non-serviceable assembly. The lens is usually glass. Most passenger vehicles moved away from sealed beam bulbs in the 1990s, but there are plenty of vehicles still on the road that use them. In particular the fleet vehicle industry stuck with sealed beam bulbs thanks to cheap replacement costs and ease of service.
Today unless you have a vintage car or work truck you probably won’t be buying a sealed beam headlight bulb. But if you do happen to have one of these vehicles and want to move into the modern age there are actually LED headlight bulb versions of sealed beam assemblies on the market. Just remove your old halogen bulb and update your headlights to the 21st century.
By far the most common type of headlight bulb is the halogen bulb. If you are wondering “what headlight bulb do i need” the likely answer is a halogen bulb. These bulbs give off a nice bright long lasting light thanks to the presence of one of the halogen family of gasses sealed inside. Their design makes for a much hotter bulb though, so the headlamp assembly has to be designed to handle the high heat output.
Here’s a few common sizes and common vehicles where you might find them:
- H11 headlight bulb – 2007-2020 Chevrolet Silverado, 2005-2017 Ford Mustang, 2006-2021 Honda Civic
- 9003 headlight bulb – 2007-2020 Honda Fit, Harley Davidson motorcycles, Kawasaki motorcycles
- 9005 headlight bulb – 1987-2005 Buick LeSabre, 2001-2016 Toyota Corolla
- 9006 headlight bulb – 1995-2007 Toyota Avalon, 2000-2014 Subaru Impreza
- 9007 headlight bulb – 1996-2003 Dodge Grand Caravan, 1996-2006 Chrysler Sebring
- 9012 headlight bulb – 2011-2015 Chevrolet Volt, 2004-2007 Nissan Maxima
Some halogen bulbs work as fog light bulbs as well, so one bulb can be used for a myriad of applications.
High-Intensity Discharge (HID) Headlight Bulbs
You probably heard about HID headlights years ago when talking about luxury cars. While these ultra bright bulbs were once the realm of the high end market, now you can find all kinds of normal vehicles with the option for HID headlights. These lights don’t use a filament like a normal bulb, but use extremely high voltage to strike an electrical arc inside a sealed glass bulb. A separate ballast is used to get the lighting arc started, so this system is slightly more complicated. If your vehicle is equipped with higher end options then HID lighting is likely among those features. If your HID lights stop working, make sure to check the ballast as well.
Light-Emitting Diode (LED) Headlight Bulbs
If you have a newer vehicle with LED headlights then you likely won’t need a new LED bulb for quite some time. LED lights have long service lives and are very energy efficient. For automotive use on modern vehicles the LED light itself is likely part of the headlamp assembly and not meant to be replaced by itself. So if you have factory LED headlights and are asking “what kind of headlight bulb do i need” the answer is the entire headlamp assembly.
If you have an older vehicle there are LED retrofit options that simply plug in to the existing wiring and bulb mount. These let you use LED headlight bulbs in a vehicle that was not originally equipped with them.
Figuring out what is the best type of headlight bulb really comes down to vehicle application. Typically it is best to choose the same type of bulb the the design engineers specified for the vehicle. While it is possible to upgrade headlights, remember that the NHTSA has strict guidelines that control not just the light type but also how it is projected. Just dropping a brighter bulb in a headlamp assembly can seriously impair the vision of oncoming drivers due to a mismatch in bulb and reflector.
Check out all the headlight products available on NAPAonline or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA Auto Care locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on answering “what headlight bulbs do i need” all the way to picking the best LED headlight bulbs, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
With an automotive writing career spanning over two decades, Brian has a passion for sharing the automotive lifestyle. An avid DIYer he can usually be found working on one of his many project cars. His current collection includes a 1969 Olds Delta 88 convertible and a slant-6 powered 1975 Plymouth Duster.