Understanding car registration plates

We look at how car registration plates work and how to read them...

Every year, twice a year, the registration plates on our cars will change. This isn’t news, of course, this happens every year and has been this way since 2001.

However, it can often be quite confusing to understand, especially if you add personalised number plates in the mix.

So in this article, we are going to look at how registration plates work, and how to go about getting a personalised number plate.

How do you read a registration plate?

The UK number plate system is odd, and at times, confusing. So let’s explain what those letters and numbers mean.

The first two letters

The first two letters of the registration plate indicate the area code of the DVLA office the car was first registered.

The number

The number on the licence plate is the age identifier, this tells you what year and which 6-month period the car was first registered.

The last three letters

These are just random letters. They make the car different to the other vehicles on the road. Interestingly, Z is only used as a random letter and is never used as an area code.

Why does the age identifier change?

The age identifier on the licence plate changes in March and September. The code is either the last two digits of the year it was issued. So for registration plates issued between March and August this year (2017), it would be ‘17’. If you got the vehicle in October 2017 and the registration plate was issued in October 2017 the number would be ‘67’.

There’s no official reason why this changes. However, one of the advantages of doing this is that the numbers won’t run out until 2051, so we have plenty of time.

numberplate: LS54 YNM

For future reference, we’ve provided a table of the future number plates below.

car registration plates 2017 to 2023

Why do some cars have symbols on the side of registration plates?

Some cars in the UK conform to the European standard design. This incorporates a strip on the side with the EU symbol, the gold stars, and the country identification code. In our case, it would be GB. This isn’t compulsory. However, you must display a GB sticker if you are driving outside of the UK and do not have the EU symbol on your registration plate. So, if you drive a lot in the EU, then it might be worth investing in a registration plate that does have the EU symbol on it.

However, we have voted to leave the EU, but there is no word yet on what will happen to those registration plates.

Some people who do not have the EU symbol on their registration plate have opted to have their national emblem in its place. This is why some cars will have a dragon on the side of their registration plate.

When were registration plates first introduced?

In 1903, index marks of one or two letters were issued to various licensing authorities, most started to issue registration numbers starting at 1.

It is thought that the first registration mark was issued in Hastings, East Sussex on 23rd November 1903 and was DY1. The registration mark A1 was issued in London later on.

The three letter/three number series was introduced later in 1932 but by the mid-1950s all the marks had been allocated so some authorities reversed the plates, with letters following numbers.

Numberplate - NEW

The addition of the year began between 1963 and 1965 and in 1967, the registration year changed from January to December to August.

Interestingly, the Q plates were introduced in 1983 and are used for kit cars and some imports where the date of the first registration can’t be established.

The current system with the two number ‘age identifier’ in the middle of the plate was introduced in September 2001.

Getting a personalised number plate

Personalised number plates are pretty popular, and are a great gift for someone who has just passed their driving test.

So in this section of the article, we are going to go into how you can get a personalised number plate and how to put the personalised number plate on your car.

Can I add a private plate to my new lease car? Check out the answer to this commonly asked question here

How to buy a personalised number plate

There are a few places you can buy a personalised number plate and they are all equally as good but it just depends what you prefer.

Buying from the DVLA

This is the first route that you should look at because it cuts out the middleman. The DVLA has a search tool that allows you to search for your criteria and browse their collection. These include current style number plates which is the two letters followed by two numbers, then a further three letters.

They also have prefix plates, those issued prior to 2001 before the current system was introduced. These consist of one letter followed by one, two or three numbers, with three further letters at the end.

man in a suit replacing a registration plate on a red car

Buying from a broker

There are several other companies that buy and sell personalised number plates. If you can’t find the one you are looking for on the DVLA website then it is worth looking at these websites. However, they to do tend to be more expensive than the ones on the DVLA website.

Buying privately

If you are after a specific plate that you know exists, but you can’t seem to find it through a broker or the DVLA, then it is worth keeping an eye on classified adverts in car magazines and motoring supplements in newspapers. The number plates that crop up in these adverts tend to be rare and they are often priced to reflect this.

How do I transfer a personalised number plate?

Once you have your plate and want to keep it when you want to sell your car on, then you will have to do this via the DVLA.

There will be a nominal charge and the DVLA allows you to hold the plate until you are ready to register it to your new vehicle.

To do this you will need your car’s registration document, also known as the log book or V5C. You can do this all online, but you can only do it between 8am and 6pm, Monday to Saturday.

Have a lease car? Find out how to put your personalised plate on your lease car here.

Hopefully this has cleared a few things up about how registration plates work, their history and how you can get a personalised plate. Plates change twice a year, and will either signify the year or the year+50 depending on whether you get your new car at the start of the year or the second part of the year. You can get a personalised plate from the DVLA, a private broker or through adverts in motoring supplements if you want a plate that is a bit rarer.

working on laptop, close up of hands of business man.

Andrew Kirkley

Director at OSV Ltd
Andrew enjoys: Movies and travelling to new cities to explore different cultures.

Andrew has been in the motor trade for over 20 years. What he enjoys most about his job is the team spirit and the dedication of his work colleagues. He also appreciates the teams input in the improvement of the company.
Andrew Kirkley

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