You’re driving along, and the sun starts to go down. You turn on your headlights and find only one works. It doesn’t happen often, which is why your headlight replacement bulb type isn’t right on the tip of your tongue. Still, it’s worth making a note for the next time you need to replace a light.
Finding the right bulb used to be simple for car owners in the U.S., where federal regulations mandated sealed-beam headlights. Until the 1975 model year, round sealed-beam headlights were the norm. They were simple: You swapped out the entire headlight. They usually had an easy to remove retainer that held them in. Swapping one out was relatively easy. And, helpfully, the manufacturers used to have the brand name and part number embossed on the glass.
But simple wasn’t the same as good. European cars from the same period had more complex, brighter headlights. And now, we do too (though regulations still keep U.S. headlights from being as bright as some other countries allow). The first step is to figure out what type of headlight bulb you already have.
The (Not So) New Kids on the Block
Contemporary headlights are generally one of three types:
- Halogen headlights: These have been around for about 20 years and are now the most common kind of headlight on the road. They use a filament like the one in an incandescent light bulb (which is what the sealed-beam headlights were), but it’s surrounded by halogen gas inside a capsule. The lifespan of a halogen headlamp is roughly 1,000 hours.
- Xenon headlights: These are a more recent development — the last 10 years or so — and were introduced on higher-end cars. Like halogen ones, they have a gas-discharge type of light. They’re brighter than halogens, more energy-efficient and have an expected lifespan of 2,500 hours.
- LED headlights: These are the newest and are increasingly popular. They are bright, extremely energy-efficient and last 30,000 hours or more. That’s equivalent to 3.4 years of having your headlights on 24/7. Most drivers won’t own a vehicle long enough for an LED headlamp to fail in normal use.
If you’re replacing a headlight on a car that’s less than 20 years old, it’s probably halogen or xenon.
Checking the Bulb Type and Number
The first place to look when you find yourself asking “what headlight bulb do I need” is your vehicle’s owners’ manual. Near the back, there should be a section on dimensions, statistics and manufacturer-recommended replacement parts. It should have the bulb type and part number listed.
If not (or if you don’t have your owners’ manual handy), an online search for your model, make and year of vehicle with “headlight bulb type” should get you the information. And if all else fails, remove the lens cover and pull out the bad bulb. Most manufacturers stamp the part number on the base of the bulb.
Check out all the headlight bulbs available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on what headlight bulb you need, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Mike Hagerty is an automotive journalist whose work has been featured on radio, TV, in print and online since 1997. He's the Publisher and Editor of MikeHagertyCars.com, and contributes car reviews to the Los Altos Town Crier and losaltosonline.com. Previous outlets have included KFBK and KFBK.com in Sacramento, California, the ABC television affiliates and Hearst-Argyle and Emmis radio stations in Phoenix, Arizona; AAA magazines for Arizona, Oklahoma, Northwest Ohio, South Dakota and the Mountain West and BBCCars.com.