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UK car registration plates explained

Ever wondered what the numbers and letters mean on your car’s registration?

Discover the history of the number plate

Discover the history of the number plate

You might have noticed some new licence plates on the road.

The new 24-plate arrived in the UK car market from 1st March 2024 and is available through Arnold Clark now.

March’s 24 number plates replace the 73 age indentifier which was released in September 2023.

And to celebrate the new change in plates, we've decided to delve into the history of the UK vehicle registration system.

From the first car registrations to the current system, here's what you need to know about number plates in the UK.

When is the 24-plate released?

The new '24' number plate was released in the UK on Friday, March 1st. The 24 age identifier will be on all new cars until the 74-plate arrives on 1 September later this year.

Why does my car have a number plate?

Quite simply, every car has a number plate to give it a unique identification so it can be linked to a registered keeper, and so it is obvious that it is a road legal vehicle.

What information can you get from a UK number plate?

A UK number plate will let you know how old a car is, and where it was first registered.

When do UK number plates change?

A new age identifier comes out twice a year on the first of March and September.

Do you need a front number plate in the UK?

Yes, it is a legal requirement for all cars to have a front number plate.

How much is my number plate worth?

It will totally depend, but before you get your hopes up, it's unlikely that a standard number plate is worth much.

Number plates, which tend to be more expensive, typically have very few characters.

How do UK number plates work?

Let's go back to the start.

The UK number plate system was brought in under the Motor Act of 1903, after the government saw the increasing need to identify owners of cars. Registrations were issued by local authorities, and the story goes that the first plate was ‘A1’, issued by the London County Council to the second Earl Russell, who dispatched his butler to stand outside all night to be first in the queue.

While that’s true, the mundane fact is that ‘A1’ was actually the second plate ever to be issued – the first one was the rather ominous sounding ‘DY’, in Hastings a month earlier. However, that hasn’t stopped ‘A1’ from gaining legendary status, and it now adorns a Bentley belonging to the Sultan of Brunei’s brother.

Early UK plates began with one or two letters which referred to the place where the plate was issued, followed by a number between one and 9999.

But the system wasn’t exactly intuitive. ‘A’ was London, and after that, it was anyone’s guess – ‘C’ was Yorkshire, ‘G’, ‘I’, ‘V’ and ‘S’ were used in Scotland and Ireland, and when they ran out of letters for local areas, two letters were used instead.

By 1932, there were more cars on the road than there were digits and letters to support this format. So instead, the convention changed to three letters and up to three numbers.

But by 1950, the government had the same issue and reversed the numbers and letters, and this system lasted for another 12 years.

By 1962, it was all change again. To make the numbering system more sustainable over the longer term, a letter was added at the end of three numbers. This time, the letter referred to the age of the car, so ‘A’ was used from January 1963, ‘B’ 1964 etc. In 1967, there was a change to the timing with the letter 'E' used from January until July and then 'F' running from August to July 1968, with 'G' arriving 1st August 1968. This format was in place until 1983.

There were other changes, too. In 1974, number plates ceased to be issued by local authorities and were centralised to the DVLC in Swansea; now, of course, known as the DVLA.

On 1st August 1983, the letters/numbers/age format was reversed to become age/ numbers/three letters. There was also the addition of a ‘Q’ prefix which was used for imports and kit cars, which is no longer in use. This series ended with a ‘Y’ in 2001.

The current system for UK registration plates from 2001 onwards

Now, registrations contain seven characters.

Just like the very first registrations, the letters stand for the area in which your vehicle was registered. This is called the ‘local memory tag’. The first letter represents the region and the second is the number assigned to the local DVLA office.

The two numbers after that are an age identifier. New plates come out every six months, from 1st March to the end of August, and from 1st September to the end of February.

Plates issued from March to August always refer to the year. Plates issued after that take the last two digits of the year and add 50. For example, in 2001 it was 51 and in 2020 it’s 70.

This will continue until 2050, when the second set of numbers will reach 00, and there will no doubt be another number shuffle or character added.

The numbers are always followed by a random selection of three letters that make your car uniquely identifiable.

Why do UK registration plates all look the same?

Under the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001, all UK registration plates must conform to British Standards. Your number plate must be:

  • Illuminated at night and have a reflective background (although classic car owners are allowed to retain their black plates).

  • Clearly seen, with no bolts/fixings or dirt obscuring the characters.

  • Easy to read, with colour, font and spacing which meets Department of Transport regulations.

  • Positioned correctly with a white plate at the front of the vehicle and a yellow plate at the back.

What makes UK registration plates illegal?

Any modifications to registration plates – such as italics or different colours – are illegal, and drivers can be issued with a fixed penalty fine of up to £1000, have their registration withdrawn and their car may fail its MOT. In other words, your plates are not the place to be creative – so hold off on the Comic Sans.

Can you put flags on UK registration plates?

However, you are allowed to express your national pride. New rules introduced in 2009 allowed drivers in England, Scotland and Wales to display union flags, St George’s crosses, saltires and dragons on their number plates, along with the letters ‘GB’, ‘UK’, ‘ENG’, ‘SCO’, ‘CYMRU’ or ‘WALES’.

You can also display the EU symbol if you’re planning to drive in Europe, and legally there is currently no obligation for drivers with the EU badge to get replacement plates after Brexit.

Why are certain letters and combinations never used in a number plate?

There are some letters that didn’t make the cut, simply because they look too similar to numbers. Between 1963 and 2001, ‘I’ and ‘Z’ were restricted as a suffix (and then later a prefix) for Irish use only and and ‘U’ wasn’t used for this purpose due to its similarity to V’. From 2001 onwards, ‘Z’ has been allowed to be used as part of the final three letters on non-Irish registrations.

Are there any banned number plates?

Anything to do with violence, sex or discrimination is automatically banned, while number plates that slip through the net can be rescinded at a later date.

As far back as the 1930s, when the three-letter format was introduced, some combinations of numbers and letters were taken out of circulation for spelling offensive or inappropriate words. The DVLA is still careful to remove any dodgy combinations or unintentional meanings that that might make the plate sought after at auction. For example, 2018’s classic ‘BR18 ERY’ and ‘RO18 BER’ were immediately ditched. However, as the letter selection is randomised, it’s more likely that your registration won’t spell out an actual word.

What about number plates in Northern Ireland?

Irish number plates are made up of three letters, followed by up to four digits and contain either the letter I or Z.

Combinations of letters are allocated to specific areas in Northern Ireland.

They can be used on vehicles anywhere in the UK, and not just restricted to Northern Ireland.

They are issued by the DVLA, like all UK number plates.

What about private and personalised plates?

If you really want to make your car’s plates one of a kind, personalised plates are available from the DVLA, via auction or online. When you’ve paid for the plates, you’ll receive a V750 certificate of entitlement to prove that you can put it on your vehicle. Be wary when buying a car with plates like this, however, because they can be used to hide the age of a vehicle.

What is a green number plate?

'A green number plate' will often be found on a new fully electric car, or one powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Introduced in December 2020, these number plates have a green flash on the left-hand side of the reg plate to indicate the car’s zero tailpipe emission credentials.

However, you can decide not to have the green flash on your plate if you don't fancy it. It is likely that most dealers will fit them as standard on newly-sold electric cars.

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