Since they were first introduced as law in 1904, car number plates have seen many changes. In terms of style, colour, format and the information they offer to both drivers and the authorities, the compulsory vehicle registrations we display on our cars have come a long way.
From the plates of today with their format of seven characters to the registrations used in previous periods to identify vehicles such as prefix and suffix plates, you’ll find everything you need to know in our handy UK number plate format guide.
A car number plate that doesn’t adhere to the rigid rules set out by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) can result in hefty fines of up to £1,000 and even cause a vehicle to fail its annual MOT, so it’s well worth every driver’s time to ensure their number plate keeps to the code. As for number plate format, you might be interested to know just how much you can learn about a car at a quick glance.
Originally developed as a way for the authorities to identify cars involved in accidents and crimes, today’s number plates can be very useful when you’re looking to make a purchase as they include an age indicator. Knowing the age of a car is a must when buying and it’s against the law to attach a plate to a vehicle with the intention of making it appear to be a younger model.
UK number plate format
The current number plate format here in the UK was put into practice in 2001. These latest registrations are displayed in black characters on a white field at the front of vehicles and in black characters on a yellow field to the rear. The number plates feature a unique code of seven characters, a number chosen to fit the space available on vehicles and to ensure they’re always easy to read. There are very specific guidelines for these characters down to their width and height, along with the font used to display them. There are even rules on the colour of fixtures and fastening used to attach a plate to a car so they don’t affect how clearly the characters can be read.
The seven characters of the current format of UK plates begin with two letters to denote the area the plate was registered in. These are followed by two digits, which are an indication of the vehicle’s age. These characters are followed by a space and then three more letters issued sequentially to dealerships to identify individual vehicles. These letter sequences never contain the characters I and Q and are specially screened by the DVLA for combinations that individuals may find offensive. If discovered, combinations forming rude words are skipped and not used.
Current number plates are issued twice a year: in spring and then again in autumn. The third and fourth digits on a number plate will vary depending on which of the two releases it’s part of. If the car is registered during the first number plate release between March and August, it takes these two numbers from the year part of the date. For example, if it’s registered in 2019 the third and fourth characters on the plate will be 1 and 9. If, on the other hand, the plate number is issued in the second release from September to April, the digits are formed from the year date plus 50. This means that if a car is registered in the second release of number plates, its third and fourth registration characters will be 6 and 9. With this system, car buyers can easily see just how old a vehicle is down to six months before making a purchase.
The current format for car number plates in the UK is expected to provide enough unique registrations to last until the year 2050, at which point a new system will need to be devised.
Types of number plates
There are five main types of number plates used in the UK. These different registration styles for the most part come from different eras. They include the current plates (which are sometimes called new number plates), suffix number plates, prefix number plates, dateless number plates and Irish plates. Additionally, there are plates used by diplomatic personnel, the armed forces and Q registration plates allocated to cars with indeterminable identity or age by the DVLA.
Irish plates can be used in the UK and are seen by some as an attractive choice because they can disguise the age of a vehicle due to their format. They can also contain the character I, which drivers seeking private plates are sometimes on the lookout for.
Prefix number plates
Prefix registrations were first issued in the UK in 1983. This was necessary because by 1982, all the available suffixes utilised by the previous system had been exhausted. Going forwards from August 1983, the new format featured a reverse system that presented a single year letter to denote vehicle age at the date of registration.
The first prefix style number plates were issued with letter A in 1983 and ended in Y in 2001 when the system was replaced in favour of the current format. Y was the last prefix used. Z was not used on UK-issued number plates at the time as it was believed to be too easily mistaken for the numeral two.
Prefix number plates take the following format: a single letter prefix to denote the year a vehicle was registered, followed by between one and three numeric characters, a space and then three letters that indicated where the vehicle was first registered. This created an entire range that began with A1 AAA and ended in Y999 YYY.
Suffix number plates
As was later the case by 1982, by the year 1963 the quantity of available registrations for cars was running out and a new system was sought. Suffix number plates were introduced, creating a new scheme for the nation and discarding previous system.
These new registrations were named suffix number plates for their format, which included a single letter suffix that showed the year a car was issued. The suffix number plates began with a sequence of three letters to show the area where the car was originally registered, running from AAA to YYY. These letters were followed by a space and then a series of one to three numerals between 1 and 999 creating an identifier. Finally, the suffix letter was added to indicate the year of issue with the first plates of this system bearing an A to denote 1963.
To begin with, a selection of local authorities avoided adopting the new suffix-style format and kept to their own issuing schemes. However, by 1965 it was mandatory for all UK number plates to use the suffix style.
On top of making many new registrations available for car owners, the suffix number plate style was a helpful tool that allowed car buyers to quickly discover the age of vehicles they were interested in purchasing. This feature proved so popular that the age of a vehicle is still displayed prominently on UK cars and has been enhanced to allow buyers to identify how old a car is to within six months. Many other countries around the world still use number plates that never expose the age of vehicles.
In the early years of the suffix system for number plates, the suffix letter would be advanced on the first of January, but those in the car retail business noticed that sales were affected by buyers holding out for the latest letter to be rolled out. To try to even out car sales, those in the retail sector lobbied the government to move the changeover month to August. By 1967 this change was made official with the newly approved registration year running from August 1st to July 31st, a system which stayed in place until 1999 when number plates were changed twice a year.
Dateless number plates
The earliest number plates used in the UK featured letters to indicate the region where the registration was first issued, for example London as the capital city commanded the letter A, and sequential numerals followed these letters to create a unique identifier for the vehicle they were assigned to. For instance, one of the very first UK vehicle registrations issued was A1. Since these early registrations, unlike the ones we use today, bear no age indicator, they’re sometimes referred to as “dateless number plates”.
Managed and issued locally by offices of county councils as and when required, registrations of varying letter and number sequences were depleted at different speeds in different areas of the country.
The first run of UK registration plates were issued from 1903 with a format that included a prefix of one to two letters followed by a space and then a numeral ranging from one to 9999 issued sequentially via the county council’s issuing office.
Some issuing offices featured a single letter, for example, Birmingham was represented by the letter O, whereas other areas used two characters, such as like Rutland’s F and P. The only way to work out where a car was registered originally was to look up the code or know the list by heart. Number plates issued in Scotland and Ireland were also given two letter codes, with Scottish codes beginning with S and Irish codes with I.
By 1932, due to the boom in the UK automobile trade, numbers from the original system were in short supply and a new format was developed to create further registrations. The new format from that year onwards featured a sequence of three characters followed by a space and then a number from 1 through to 999 issued in sequence by the county council office.
These new number plates kept two-letter codes to denote the area they were issued in but any single letter codes remaining were replaced. In this new format the area code was represented by the second and third characters in the three-letter code. The initial letter was altered sequentially as soon as the previous letter had run out of all possible combinations.
By the 1950s, some local areas were discovering that their quota of available unique registrations were running out. When this occurred, a reverse sequence began instead, but after 10 years even this format had run out for many parts of the country. In the 1960s in areas where cars had become increasingly popular, a new change was added to assist issuing offices by introducing registration sequences that included one to four numerals and going back to area codes between one and two letters, but the sequences now ran in the opposite direction.
Dateless plates can be very popular options as private number plates as drivers aren’t always keen to advertise the age of their vehicles. These shorter plates are also often prized for their history. Often, the fewer characters a registration contains, the more prestigious it is considered to be.
In 1983, the letter Q was first used in registrations. Like the letters Z and I, it had previously been absent from registrations as it was believed it could be mistaken for a zero or a letter O. From 1983 however, Q was utilised by officials on vehicles whose age couldn’t be determined accurately. This included cars put together from kits, imported cars with insufficient official documentation to ascertain age, and cars which had undertaken a substantial rebuild to the extent that their VIN number no longer described their specs with any accuracy.
If the identity or age of a vehicle for these reasons is questionable, the DVLA will issue it with a Q registration number. If the DVLA deems this action appropriate, the original number plate associated with the car will no longer be valid and must not be displayed.
In order to get a Q registration for your car, it’s first necessary for your vehicle to pass an essential type approval process. After successful completion, it will then be issued its new Q number plate.