When the term “Irish number plates” is being used, first of all, it’s important to clarify which nation’s registrations are being discussed. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, whereas the Republic of Ireland (sometimes referred to as ‘Southern Ireland’) is its own country. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have their own unique number plate systems that follow very different formats.
As part of the UK, it’s possible for Northern Ireland number plates to be legally displayed on UK cars, but this isn’t the case with the plates used in the Republic of Ireland. It’s quite easy to quickly distinguish between the two types of registrations at a glance. Like other plates in the UK, the Northern Irish registrations currently issued begin with letters rather than numerals, whereas in the Republic of Ireland they always start with numbers.
The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has merged with its Northern Irish counterpart the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency Northern Ireland (DVLANI) and subsequently Northern Irish plates are now also issued from the DVLA in Swansea, Wales. When the term “Irish plates” is used, this commonly refers to Northern Irish plates that can be used by drivers in mainland UK.
While there are many similarities between Irish plates and other plates available to use in the UK, there are some differences that can make them an attractive option to car owners, especially those in the market for a private or personalised number plate.
For further information on the registrations used on cars throughout Ireland, read the following sections of our comprehensive guide to Irish number plates, where we answer some commonly asked questions.
Northern Irish number plates
The system for car number plates in Northern Ireland makes use of the national system employed by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that first began in 1904 when the Motor Car Act of 1903 was officially made law. At this time, Ireland’s registrations featured two-letter codes to represent counties and cities, but today they stand for councils.
Irish dateless number plates
Irish number plates contain both letters and numbers, but these alphanumeric characters don’t represent an age indicator. This means effectively that Irish plates are dateless and can therefore be assigned to cars of any age without drivers worrying if they’re suitable or fearing breaking the law. The current style of number plates for the UK, along with prefix and suffix style, means that plates all contain an indication of age, so motorists have to be aware of the rules regarding attaching them to a vehicle.
It’s expressly forbidden under UK law to attempt to disguise the age of a vehicle by attaching number plates from an earlier year than the one in which the car was first registered. Auto traders and private sellers caught trying to pass off a vehicle as a younger model can be expected to at the very least pay weighty fines, and in the worst case face charges in a court of law for such a criminal offence.
Buyers of number plates should always ensure the registrations they’re purchasing are appropriate for the vehicle they’re assigning to them. For this very reason, Irish plates are often considered a popular option, as they sidestep the age issue and any risk of breaking the law.
There are a number of possible reasons why people may wish to hide the age of a car. For example, some car buyers are keen to keep the age of their vehicle less public for the sake of personal privacy. A Northern Irish number plate that disguises the date on which a car was first registered can be an appropriate choice for such drivers.
Northern Irish registrations are among the lowest priced number plates, which means they’re also the most cost-effective solution for keeping the age of a car unknown.
Irish private number plates
Those seeking to pick up a personalised or private plate, whether for their own car or as a gift, can sometimes benefit from buying an Irish registration.
As mentioned, Irish number plates have no age indicator, which means you don’t have to consider the car they’ll be assigned to in the future. This can be a great help if you’re purchasing a private plate for a friend or family member as a present. It gives you a lot more scope when buying a private registration for someone else, when you’re not yet sure what year the car they’ll be using in the future will be from, as you can be sure that whichever car they opt for, your number plate present will be a fit.
Only recently has Z become a letter used on number plates here in the UK, and the letter I is still not utilised. It was commonly believed that these characters could be mistaken for the numerals two and one respectively, and to avoid false identification of number plates by the authorities, they were omitted from registrations issued.
On Irish number plates, the letters I or Z are always included to identify them as Irish plates. For car owners with these letters in their name seeking a private plate to show off vehicle ownership, Irish plates can open previously impossible options.
While private plates are notoriously more expensive than regular plates to purchase, Irish plates are often far less costly, allowing those in the market for a personalised plate a more affordable range of choices to consider.
What does an Irish number plate look like?
At a glance, a Northern Irish number plate might look quite similar to the other plates on mainland UK, using black alphanumeric characters on a white background on the front of vehicles and the same style of characters on a yellow plate at the rear, with the registrations always presented on a plate made from reflective material to allow it to be seen clearly at night when unlit.
This style used today in the UK was first adopted by Northern Ireland in 1973 and was the last significant change to number plates in Northern Ireland. This change also saw Northern Irish plates adhere to specific regulations of characters displayed on number plates in terms of size and shape.
The format of the characters and letters that can be used on Irish plates are different, however. Whereas a current UK number plate consists typically of two letters, followed by two numbers, followed by three letters, an Irish registration sequence will display one to three letters followed by between one and four numbers.
The numerals from one through to 999 are for the most part referred to as “cherished registrations” issued only through special requests for an additional fees, and the same is true of numerals with four identical digits like 1111 or 9999. Any other sequence of numbers that exists between the numbers 1000 and 9998 are just allotted on a first come first served basis.
While there is no change due to the look of Irish plates in the future, others have indicated that the supply of available registrations in this format is depleting. One alternative offered has been that the number plates will reverse their format and put the numbers first, followed by letters.
How to read Irish number plates
Reading Irish plates isn’t difficult, but be prepared. As mentioned, unlike current number plates issued in the UK, you won’t be able to work out a car’s age from its registration.
The first character on an Irish plate is just a letter in a sequence, the two following letters denote the origin of where the car was registered. These two characters always feature either an I or a Z to represent Ireland and another letter to denote the county or council issuing them. The numbers that follow are again issued sequentially and have no meaning.
Are Irish number plates legal in UK?
While plates from the Republic of Ireland are illegal in the UK, plates from Northern Ireland, commonly known as “Irish number plates”, can be assigned to vehicles registered in Scotland, England, Wales and of course Northern Ireland itself.
Republic of Ireland (‘Southern Irish’) number plates
The Republic of Ireland has its own format for vehicle registrations, officially known as “index marks”. Number plates were introduced in the Republic of Ireland at the same time as they were in Northern Ireland when the Motor Car Act of 1903 was made law in 1904. The legislation stated that all motorised vehicles being used on public roads throughout Ireland must carry unique number plates issued only by the local authority where the car was first registered.
Registrations in the Republic of Ireland only use black and white plates as opposed to the ones we see on UK roads that feature a yellow plate at the rear to give drivers at-a-glance knowledge of whether they’re looking at the front or back of a car. While the alphanumeric characters used on these registrations are always black on a white reflective field, unlike in Northern Ireland, they don’t have to use a standardised font such as the Charles Wright employed on UK plates. This means that across the Republic of Ireland, you’ll see a wide variety of styles when it comes to number plate characters.
For the most part, it’s common to see the letters IRL and the European Union flag of 12 gold stars, arranged in a circle on a background with a blue reflective finish, located to the side of Republic of Ireland number plates. This symbol must always be placed on the left hand side of the alphanumeric characters. The name of the county, when represented above the registration characters on a number plate, must always be written in Irish – for example, the city of Dublin must be shown as ‘Baile Atha Cliath’.
If car owners are pulling a trailer or caravan, a duplicate of the plate must be clearly visible on the attachment when on the road in Ireland.
Unlike Northern Irish registrations, you can work out how old a Republic of Ireland car is using the current number plate format with ease if you know how to read them. The current format for plates begins with a three-character age identifier that allows you to identify how old a car is to within six months, just like plates issued today in the UK.
From January 2013, the Republic of Ireland has used two registration terms each year. Number plates feature a different three-number year identifier for the first and second six months of a year. For example, a car number plate issued in the first six months of 2019 will begin with the digits 191, and if issued in the second six-month period, they will be 192.
The next characters, often separated from the first three by a dash, feature one or two letters that represent the council or city where the car was registered. The final sequence of one to six digits is issued sequentially from the county council, beginning with the first vehicle registered for the period.