Guide to UK car registration plates
Introduced in September 2001, we explain the UK’s current number plate system
You might already know that in the UK, new number plates are launched each spring and autumn, but do you know how our number-plate system works?
Britain is one of the few countries to issue age-related registration numbers to its cars – a tradition dating back to 1963. Vehicle age was once denoted by a letter from A to Y found either at the beginning or end of the registration number. With its somewhat arcane nature, it’s astonishing that the system became so familiar – the only way to understand it was to memorise what each letter meant.
The present system was introduced in 2001. The fact that it uses numbers (e.g. 17 for a car built in 2017) means it should be easier to follow, but there are complications – particularly on cars registered between September and the end of February. Read our guide to how old your car is here.
The biggest reason that the system was given a re-think was to do away with the annual plate change – an event that could radically skew a car manufacturers’ yearly statistics. Why buy a car in July when you could have one on with the latest registration mark on 1 August?
Under the current system, registration marks change twice a year, in March and September, so the rush to have the latest style of plate is less pronounced than it once was. Additionally, the number on a car’s registration plate now has less impact on value than the former annually changed letter.
Apart from showing the age of your car, its number plate also tells you roughly where it was first registered. Read on for more about when and how registration numbers change. We’ll also take a look at personalised number plates – although our dedicated piece on that subject has more information, should you need it.
It goes without saying that it’s a legal requirement to display number plates and this has been the rule since 1903. While there are a number of different shapes of number plate for different vehicles, there are strict rules governing what a number plate must – and must not – contain.
The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) administers and records all UK number plates, which must be white at the front of the car, yellow at the rear and contain black lettering, in unique and a prescribed font called “Charles Wright, 2001”.
Current UK registration system
Since September 2001, UK registration plates have comprised seven characters, divided into three groups. Two letters are followed by two numbers and a further three letters: e.g. AB12 CDE.
The first two letters indicate where the car was first registered. This is known as the plate’s ‘memory tag’ or its area code. A number plate starting with the letter ‘LA’, for example, denotes a car that was first registered in London, with the ‘L’ indicating London and the ‘A’ narrowing down the location further – in this case to the Wimbledon area.
The allocation of these area codes was based on the location of the DVLA’s regional offices, which have since closed. The convention remains, though, so if you see a post-2001 car whose number plate begins with the letter ‘G’, this tells you it was first registered in what the DVLA quaintly calls the ‘Garden of England’ – namely Maidstone and Brighton.
The first cars to follow the current scheme were registered on 1 September 2001 on a ‘51’ plate, with those bought new from March 2002 featuring the ‘02’ number. The system then followed with the ‘52’ registration mark in September 2002, ‘03’ in March 2003, and so on.
To clarify, during the first decade of the present system, cars registered between September and the end of February received a ‘5’ year prefix. The following decade a ‘6’ was issued. So, a car registered from 1 September 2011 will have a ‘61’ registration.
On 1 March 2020, ‘20’ plates began to appear (although you might not see too many as car dealerships were closed for several months due to coronavirus). Cars registered from the beginning of September 2020 are issued ‘70’ plates, and so the process continues.
The last three letters of a number plate under today’s system are completely random (although they never feature the letters ‘Q’ or ‘I’) and exist only to allow every registration issued to be unique. If you’re buying a new car that hasn’t been registered yet, the dealer may let you choose from several available registration plates.
Green number plates for electric cars
From autumn 2020, electric cars get special registration plates, with a green part to highlight their eco credentials. The new green number plates for electric cars have been introduced to raise the profile of EVs and enable incentive schemes to accelerate the uptake of these zero-emission cars.
‘D’ number plates explained
If you see a car with a strange-looking number plate that features the letter ‘D’ sandwiched between six numbers, this indicates a diplomatic car operated by a foreign embassy, consulate or high commission. A letter ‘X’ in the same position denotes the car is registered to an embassy or consulate staff member who isn’t an actual diplomat.
1983-2001 prefix/suffix number plate
From 1983 to late 2001, number plates were made up of a single letter, followed by two or three numbers and three letters: A345 BCD, for example. The numbers 1-20 were held back for personalised number plates as seen in the image above, although these followed the same format. The letter ‘A’ started things off in summer 1983, followed by ‘B’ plates in 1984.
In 1999, this alphabetical progression was made bi-annual – like it is now – in an effort to stem the rush consumers made to dealerships to secure themselves the latest plate every August. However, because the number plate’s appearance didn’t change, this didn’t really have the desired effect.
It wasn’t until the arrival of the ‘51’ plate when today’s system started in March 2001 that the dramatic August/September sales surge was prevented – although the current system was also implemented because the previous one had run out of unique combinations.
Under the old system, number plates beginning with the letters ‘I’ and ‘Z’ were reserved for Northern Irish cars, while ‘Q’ was used in situations where a vehicle’s age was unknown, or for kit cars that couldn’t be ascribed a specific registration date due to the nature of their construction.
Personalised registration plates;
Personalised, cherished or vanity number plates are big business today, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the DVLA realised there was serious money to be made from them and started to release plates deliberately designed to resemble words. Prior to that point, number plates that spelt out (or nearly spelt out) names and other phrases did so only by chance.
Personalised number plates range in price from a couple of hundred to several hundred thousand pounds. It’s usually possible to get yourself a plate with your initials on it relatively cheaply, but as a general rule of thumb, the closer a plate is to spelling out an actual name and the fewer characters it has, the more expensive it’ll be.
There are a few restrictions when it comes to personalised number plates, though. Plates that bear a resemblance to offensive and vulgar phrases aren’t issued, and you’re also not allowed to use a number plate that shows your car to be younger than it actually is.
If your name is Chris, for instance, and you own a car first registered in 2014, you won’t be allowed to apply the number plate ‘CR15 XYZ’ on it, as this would indicate the car is a year newer than it actually is. You can, however, make the car look older than it is, so the same plate would be fine on a 2016 car.
Finally, you’re not allowed to alter the specified spacing for number plates, italicise the letters or use any other fonts. Fitting coloured screws (to make a ‘6’ look like a ‘G’, for example) is also banned. These restrictions are all in place to ensure the uniformity and legibility of number plates, something that's particularly important for the number-plate recognition cameras used by the police and other authorities. Any breaches can see your car fail its MoT and net you a £1,000 fine.
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