Number plates

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

Amy Smith
Updated 12 Nov 2019 | 2 mins read

How the number plate system works

The current registration format is two letters and two numbers followed by three letters.

The first 2 letters are known as a 'DVLA memory tag' and identify where in the UK the vehicle was registered.

The two numbers are known as the 'age identifier'. The first number indicates whether the car was registered in March or September. From 2010-19 the first digit was either 1 (for March) or 6 (for September). The second number tells us what year the car was made.

The last 3 letters at the end are random.

For example, the number plate CA19 ABC is a vehicle registered in Cardiff, in March 2019.

You can find the full list of memory tag and age identified codes on the DVLA website.

Older number plates

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.

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. Such as A123 ABC.

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

These registrations have the age identifier at the end of the number plate, rather than the start.

So you'd have the three-letter regional identity, the vehicle's unique three-digit number, then the age letter. Such as ABC 123A.

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.

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 2018-19, the DVLA says that it sold almost 404,000 personalised registration plates.

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

Personalised number plates can only be registered with the DVLA using either a V750, V778, V62 or V5C.

You can find out how to register, sell or transfer a personalised plate on the DVLA website.

How to buy personalised number plates

It's best to buy a personalised plate straight from the DVLA website. Third party companies may add extras fees on top of the cost of the plate.

You can enter a word or letters you want to include on your new plate and then compare number plates to find the one you want.

The price of personalised plates ranges from £250 to hundreds of thousands, so be sure to check as many variations of the plate you want before you buy.

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.

If your car insurance policy includes cover for personalised number plates and your car is stolen or written off, you'll get a settlement payout to cover the cost of the plate. However, then the insurer owns the vehicle that the registration number is assigned to and therefore owns the rights to the registration number.

You may be able to buy the plate back from your insurer, as long as they haven't already sold it on or destroyed the vehicle.

If your vehicle is stolen, you'll have to wait 12 months to get your personalised plate back and prove the car had a valid MOT and tax at the time of theft.

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.

Legal Requirements

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

  • Be made from a reflective material
  • Display black characters on a white background (front plate)
  • Display black characters on a yellow background (rear plate)
  • Not have a background pattern

Failure to show your number plate can incur a £1,000 fine and your vehicle will fail its MOT.

Motorbikes only need to display a number plate on the rear.

There are also some rules around the characters on the number plates:

  • Characters (except the number 1 or letter I) must be 50mm wide
  • The character stroke (the thickness of the black print) must be 14mm
  • The space between characters must be 11mm
  • The space between the age identifier and the random letters must be 33mm
  • The margins at the top, bottom and side of the plate must be 11mm
  • Vertical space between the age ID

A full list of number plate rules can be found in this DVLA guide.

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