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The full guide to number plates in the UK 

Car number plates tell us a lot about our cars – learn what they mean and the UK laws they must follow

A close up shot of a number plate reading: 'NEW'

UK number plates explained

We all take the number plates on our cars for granted, but why do we have them?

Are they just a random jumble of letters and numbers, or is there some logic to them?

How do number plates work?

Car number plates (also known as registration plates) are applied to all cars by law in the UK.

You can use your number plate to learn more about your vehicle, such as its age and where it was registered.

Every year, two new registration plate changes mark the age of the vehicle.

You might also choose to get a personalised plate for your car, giving it a unique look and making it more personal to you.

What do the digits on our number plates mean?

Car number plates are made up of a sequence of numbers that have followed the same format since September 2001.

The format is made up of three parts:

First two characters: the DVLA memory tag

The first letter represents the region your car was registered in, such as E for Essex, while the second identifies the local DVLA office that registered the car.

For example:

  • BA – BY: Birmingham

  • OA – OY: Oxford

  • VA – VY: Severn Valley, Worcester

You can see the full list of memory tags on the DVLA website.

Middle two characters: age identifier

The next couple of numbers show the age of the vehicle, narrowed down to a six-month period.

This will either be March to August or September to February, as the new registration age identification changes on 1 March and 1 September each year.

Last three characters: random combinations

The last three characters on your car’s plate are a unique combination produced at random by the DVLA.

A close up shot of a number plate on a white Mercedes

Number plates and car age

Using the age identifier on your car’s registration plate is the best way to tell the age of the vehicle.

Splitting the year into two parts – based on the two new registration change dates of March 1 and September 1 each year – helps you to identify the age of your car within a six-month period.

The switch to the new date system started in 2001, with cars registered between September 2001 and February 2002 given the ‘51’ tag.

New cars registered between March and August 2002 received the ‘02’ tag.

From September 2002 to February 2003, new cars were given ‘52’ plates.

In March 2003, the latest cars off the production line were branded with ‘03’ plates. And so on.

This twice-yearly update has carried on in the same format ever since.

To help get your head around it:

  1. March-August 2010: ‘10’

  2. September 2010-February 2011: ‘60’

  3. March-August 2022: ‘22’

  4. September 2022-February 2023: ‘72’

What about number plates on older cars?

If you have a car from before 2001, your car will have a completely different system, which uses three numbers, three letters (the last two being location identifiers) and a letter at the beginning, relating to the year.  

The system started in August 1983, so the letter at the beginning of the sequence was A. Cars registered after August 1984 had the letter B.

This continued until 1999 when the government introduced two registration periods a year.

By August 2001, when we reached Y, it was time for the new year-based system. 

Even older cars from February 1963 to July 1983 used a similar system, but the year-identifying letter was at the end, preceded by three numbers and three letters. 

When are new car registration plates released?

New car registrations are released every year on 1 March and 1 September.

These new plates will include the most current age identifier and are often popular upon release. Plenty of motorists wait to purchase a new car to make sure they get the latest registration plates on offer.

As the UK regulations state you can't put a newer plate on an older car, you'll have to keep the latest registration on your new car or move it onto an even newer model in the future.

A close up of a personalised number plate showing '007'

How to get a personalised number plate

If you’re not a fan of the standard plate on your car, you can buy a private registration plate personalised for your preference.

The DVLA reserves a few plates each year it thinks will be popular options for motorists on the market for a private plate.

These are on sale and in auctions throughout the year, giving you the option to snap up your ideal reg.

You can also buy these plates from dealers or through a private sale – just make sure you check the laws for number plates in the UK.

One thing to remember is that you can’t use a personalised number plate that makes your car appear newer than it is.

Once you’ve got your personalised plate, you can pay an £80 fee to the DVLA (by post or online) to have it transferred to your vehicle.

You can also apply to retain the plate for 10 years, even if it’s not currently registered to a vehicle.

The most expensive personalised number plates

Private registration plates can be expensive, but prices usually start at around £200 depending on what you choose.

Some plates are iconic and pricier as a result. In the UK, the most expensive personalised plate sale was in 2014 for a massive £518,480.

This was for the ‘25 O’ registration, referencing one of the most valuable classic cars in the world – the stunning Ferrari 250 GTO.

Another coveted private plate is ‘F 1’, which sold for £440,625 back in 2008, while ‘X 1’ sold for £502,500 in 2012.

More obvious plates include ‘DEV IL’, which sold for £308,253 in 2021, and ‘KI NGS’, which sold for £231,000 in 1993.

These plates have gone up in value in the years since, with the ‘25 O’ plate valued at around £750,000 in 2018.

What are the UK laws for registration plates?

Some laws must be followed when it comes to registration plates in the UK:

  • Must be made from reflective material

  • Must use the standard font

  • At the front, black characters must be displayed on a white background

  • At the rear, black characters must be displayed on a yellow background

  • Be marked with a British Standard number

  • Be marked to show the number plate supplier

  • Can have raised characters

  • Certain flags, like the Union Jack, can also be displayed

You can’t:

  • Have glittery or frosted letters

  • Have ‘carbon’ style details

  • Use neon colours, or anything other than black

  • Rearrange the letters or change the spacing

  • Have a dirty number plate that makes it hard to read

  • Have a patterned background

  • Try and make your car appear newer than it is by choosing a private plate with a more recent date

A number plate being fitted to the front of a car

Legal number plate size in the UK

When it comes to number plate sizing, the law will change depending on how old your car is.

For vehicles registered between 1 January 1973 and 1 September 2001, the characters on your number plate must be 89mm in height.

Vehicles registered outside of these dates can have characters that are 79mm in height and must have 11mm between each character.

They must also have 33mm between the age identifier and the last three digits.

Legal number plate width in the UK

The standard size for a seven-digit number plate in the UK is 520mm by 111mm, but some variation is allowed based on the number of digits you have.

Shorter plates are allowed by DVLA standards, as long as they follow the guidelines for spacing between characters. If you have a shorter registration number with fewer digits, you’ll be able to have a smaller plate.

As long as you have at least one letter and one number, you can follow the UK guidelines for a shortened plate that is still legal.

For example, a four-digit number plate can be shortened by keeping the 11mm space between characters at the start and end, with 33mm between the two parts of the plate.

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