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

Despite the mass-produced nature of cars, we often have a highly personal relationship with them. Many manufacturers allow near-endless customisation when buying a new model and some owners go as far as to give their car a name. For some, though, the ultimate method of making their car unique to them is a personalised number plate.

The boom in the personalised number plates 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

Despite this, traders 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

This is the first route you should try, as it avoids a middleman’s mark-up. The DVLA has an excellent search tool that allows you enter your criteria and browse a collection of plates that meet (or almost meet) your search terms. They include results comprised of current style number plates, meaning two letters followed by two numbers, then a further three letters. The DVLA also lists ‘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.

The DVLA also holds number-plate auctions periodically. These are either physical auctions where you can bid in person (as well as online or over the phone) or ‘timed auctions’. Timed auctions work in a similar way to popular online auction sites: you submit a maximum bid (hidden from other buyers) and the system automatically bids for you, up to the limit you’ve set. If your bid is the highest, the plate is yours.

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’ve already got your hands on the perfect plate and want to keep it when you sell your car, this can be done via the DVLA. The service costs £80, but don’t worry if you haven’t got a car to put the plate on immediately: the DVLA allows you to hold the plate until you’re ready to register it to your new vehicle. 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?

The DVLA’s personalised number plates run from a couple of hundred pounds up to a few thousand. 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 the price of the car a number plate is likely to be attached to can have an effect on its price. Expensive cars tend to be owned by wealthy people, who are often willing and able to pay high prices for the right number plate. Plates containing the numbers ‘911’, for instance, tend to be expensive, as Porsche 911 owners are keen to get their hands on these characters.

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

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