Tips and advice

How to buy or transfer a personalised number plate

Treasured, cherished or vanity – whatever they’re called, personalised number plates are big business. We explain all you need to know

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Personalised number plates (also known as private plates) can be one of the biggest investments made by owners looking to personalise their cars. They can be very expensive; the cheapest plates usually cost around £200 but the most sought-after can easily command six-figure sums

The personalised number plate trade is a relatively new one. Up until about 25 years ago if a number plate spelt out a name, word or phrase, it was merely a matter of luck, as number plates were created based on a car’s age and its place of first registration.

Guide to UK car registration plates

Traders soon realised, however, that they were having notable success selling plates with relatively few characters, or ones that happened to spell out (or nearly spell out) names and phrases. Many of these number plates came from older cars: the plate ‘S1’, for example, was the first number plate ever issued in Edinburgh and is now worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In 1989, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) realised there was serious money to be made in designing and permitting number plate combinations that appealed to the personalised number plate market. Since then, the DVLA has sold over four million personalised plates and made over £2billion for the Treasury in the process.

How do I buy a personalised number plate?

There are three ways you can buy a personalised number plate. The first is to buy directly from the DVLA, the second is to use a company or broker and the third is to buy privately.

Buying from the DVLA

Buying directly from the DVLA means cutting out the middleman, meaning at least one less fee to pay. The DVLA’s dedicated website has an excellent search tool that allows you to enter your criteria and browse a collection of plates that meet (or almost meet) your search terms. The results will be a combination of current style number plates - two letters followed by two numbers, then a further three letters, and ‘prefix plates’ – those issued prior to 2001, when the current system was introduced. Prefix plates consist of one letter followed by one, two or three numbers, with three further letters at the end.

A way to potentially make a big saving is via the DVLA’s number-plate auctions, which are held periodically. These are either physical auctions - where you can bid in person, online or over the phone - or Timed auctions. Timed auctions are similar to those on typical online auction sites, where you place a highest-bid that cannot be seen by others and then the system bids on your behalf up to this maximum amount.

Buying from a broker

There are several companies out there that buy and sell personalised number plates. If you can’t find the plate you’re after on the DVLA’s website, it’s worth searching brokers’ websites. Number plates sold through brokers tend to be more expensive than those sold directly by the DVLA, as you’ll essentially be paying for two lots of profit: the DVLA’s original price and the broker’s mark-up.

Buying individual plates privately

If you’re after a specific number plate you know exists, but can’t find it through a broker or the DVLA, it can be worth keeping an eye on classified adverts in car magazines and newspapers’ motoring supplements. The number plates that crop up in classified adverts tend to be rare ones, and they’re often priced to reflect this.

How do I transfer a personalised number plate?

If you have the perfect plate already attached to your car but don’t want to lose it when it’s time to sell, this is not a problem - the DVLA is able to transfer the plates for a fee of £80. If you don’t yet have a new car to transfer the plates to, you are permitted to hold the plate until you are ready to register it to a new vehicle, so there’s no immediate rush. 

In order to complete a plate transfer, you’ll need your car’s registration document (known as the logbook or ‘V5C’) and although the transfer process can be completed online, it can only be done between 8am and 6pm, Monday to Saturday.

How much does a personalised number plate cost?

Prices for personalised number plates vary considerably, from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand pounds. If you’re buying from a DVLA auction, however, the price is whatever someone is willing to pay on the day. Plates sold through classified advertisements and brokers are often rare and desirable examples, so expect to see four, five and even six-figure sums being asked for these.

As a rule of thumb, the fewer characters a personalised number plate has, the more expensive it will be. Similarly, the higher the demand, the higher the price: number plates that resemble more popular names are more expensive than ones that spell out relatively rare names.

Also note that if a plate can be associated with a certain car, for example ‘911’, then this can drive the price up. Expensive cars tend to be owned by wealthy people, who are often willing and able to pay high prices for the right number plate. Some Porsche 911 owners who are keen to get their hands on a 911-related plate may be willing to part with large sums of cash to get one.

Read our guides on to car registration plates, how to transfer car ownership and all you need to know about the V5C.

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