Number plates

A car number plate

Find out what the numbers and letters on vehicle registration plates stand for, with information on legal requirements, replacements and personalised plates.

Key car insurance points

The number plate - every UK-registered vehicle's own unique fingerprint.

In most cases it can instantly provide details of the vehicle's age and where it was originally registered.

It's also an instant reference for police, car insurers or other authorities who want to learn more about the vehicle's history, ownership and tax and MOT status.

How the number plate system works

Since September 2001 the current registration format is: Two letters, two numbers, a space and, finally, three numbers. But what does all that mean?

Two letters

The initial two letters are known as a 'local memory tag'. All registration numbers beginning with A, for example, indicate the car has been registered in the Anglia region.Car

Other memory tags include C for Wales (Cymru), L for London, S for Scotland, Y for Yorkshire and W for West of England. A full breakdown of local memory tags can be found on this DVLA guide.

Two numbers

The two numbers are known as the 'age identifier'. The first number indicates whether the car was registered in March or September. From 2001-9 the first digit was either 0 (for March) or 1 (for September).

For vehicles registered since 2010 the first digit is 1 (for March registration) or 6 (for September). From 2020, the first digit will be either 2 or 7. From 2030 the digits will be 3 and 8. From 2040 they will be 4 and 9. Effectively this allows the current system to run until 2049.

The second number tells us what year the car was made. So a registration with 08 tells us it was manufactured and registered in March 2008. And a registration with 13 tells us it was manufactured and registered in March 2013.

Space and three letters

Following the local memory tag and registration date is a space and three letters. This random sequence ensures each vehicle has its own unique identity.

If you've damaged or lost your number plate you'll need to find your local DVLA-approved number plate supplier

Older number plates

1983-2001

Number plates registered during this time showed the age first, followed by a unique series of three digits specific to that vehicle, then the three letter local memory tag.

An 'A' registration means that the vehicle was sold new in August 1983, a 'B' that it was sold new in August 1984, and so on... Until March 1999 new vehicles were only registered annually in August. Registrations from 'T' to 'Y' indicate the six month period they were first registered.

1963-82

A rare spot nowadays, this registration worked in a similar way to the succeeding system but with the age identifier at the end of the number plate.

So you'd have the three-letter regional identity, the vehicle's unique three-digit number, then the age letter.

An 'A' registration during this period means the vehicle was sold new in January 1963, a 'B' that it was sold new in January 1964, and so on... The registration year ran from January to December until 1967 when it was moved to August, so 'E' registrations only ran from January 1967 to July 1967.

Don’t forget, even though you may be buying a private number plate, it belongs to the vehicle
Matt Oliver, Gocompare.com

Personalised number plates

Personalised number plates can range from convenient standard registrations that happen to include your initials to non-date specific plates such as VIP 1.

Their popularity is huge. In the financial year 2013-14, the DVLA says that it sold 246,484 personalised registration numbers.

There are three key rules for personalised number plates:

  • You can't let the car appear younger than it is. For example, a plate of HA13 YES can't be used on a car that was registered before March 2013
  • A 'Q' plate cannot be purchased as a personalised number plate
  • Northern Irish number plates (which begin with NI) can't be transferred to non-Northern Irish registered vehicles

The more attractive the personalised number plate, the higher the value. Regardless of cost, a personalised number plate can only be registered with the DVLA using one of the following documents: V750, V778, V62 or V5C.

You pay to register a personalised plate and then also have to pay to keep it. Full details can be found on this DVLA guide.

Insurance for personalised number plates

Drivers with personalised number plates should be aware that if their vehicle is stolen or written off then they could be at risk of losing the plate.

On 23 February, 2015, Gocompare.com analysed the 226 comprehensive car insurance policies listed on the matrix of independent financial researcher Defaqto.

It was found that if a car insurance policy includes cover for personalised number plates and a claim is made for the cost of the car, including the plate, then the insurer owns the vehicle that the registration number is assigned to and, therefore, owns the rights to the registration number.

The claimant can buy the registration number back if the insurer is willing to sell it to the policyholder or hasn’t already sold it on, for no more than the settlement price.

If the vehicle has already been disposed of by the insurance company then all rights to the registration plate go with the vehicle.Van insurance

But that’s not the end of the personalised plate conundrum.

If a vehicle with a personalised plate is stolen, its owner will have to wait 12 months to get the number plate back.

They will also have to prove that the car had a valid MOT and tax at the time of theft to reclaim the personalised plate.

If the vehicle has been written off, the owner should contact the DVLA and the insurer to let them know that they want to keep the plate – the insurer will then write a letter of non-interest and send it to the DVLA.

The registered keeper will have to pay a retention fee to keep the plate if they don’t have another vehicle to transfer it to.

Motorists who have had their vehicle with a personalised number plate written off have to work fast. If the car is scrapped the number plate dies with it.

The registration number moves with the vehicle it's assigned to, not the person who may have bought the registration number.

"If you've invested in a private number plate you should consider whether you've got it properly insured," said Gocompare,com's Matt Oliver.

“When you register a private plate to a new vehicle you obviously have to tell your insurer or your policy will be invalidated, but you also have to consider whether you've adequately covered the plate itself.

“Don’t forget, even though you may be buying a private number plate, it belongs to the vehicle. Whoever owns it owns the plate, whether that's you, the insurer following a claim or if it’s scrapped - the registration number remains with the vehicle."

Replacement number plates

If you've damaged or lost your number plate you'll need to find your local DVLA-approved number plate supplier.

To produce the replacement they will need original documentation to prove that you are the owner of the car (such as a V5 document) and proof of your identity and address.

The same process is applicable if your number plate has been stolen, but it's essential that you contact your local police force beforehand.

Sequences of letters you will never see on UK plates include BUM, GOD and SEX

Legal Requirements

There are certain requirements every number plate needs to be legal:

  • It must be made on reflective material
  • It should have a white background on the front of the vehicle and a yellow background on the rear
  • The characters must not be altered or stylised. They must be in black and, since 2001, be 79mm tall and 50mm wide (with the exception of the number 1 and letter I)
  • Motorbikes must only show a registration plate at the rear of the cycle
  • A European flag can be added to your number plate. It must be made of reflective blue and yellow and be at least 98mm tall and between 40-50mm wide
  • The following UK flags are legal: Union Jack, St George's Cross, the Scottish Saltire or the Welsh Red Dragon. However, these flags are not legal when travelling outside the United Kingdom and will still require the addition of the oval GB sticker

Did you know...?

  • All registration numbers are actually owned by the Secretary of State
  • Vehicle registration has been a legal formality since 1903
  • There will never be a 'Z' registration as it looks too similar to the number 2. However 'Z' is used as a letter in the second part of plates
  • Sequences of letters you will never see on UK plates include BUM, GOD and SEX. This rule was established in 1932 and it's not likely to change any time soon
  • Failure to show your number plate can incur a £1,000 fine and your vehicle will fail its MOT

By Dave Jenkins