64-reg number plates

“How does the UK number plate system work?”  Asked by many people, many times, over many years…

The current number plate system in Great Britain has been around since September 2001.  Northern Ireland has its own system which is quite different, but today we’re concentrating on the GB system (England, Scotland, Wales).  We’re also not going to discuss any of the previous number plate systems before 2001.

British number plates are arranged in the format of two letters, followed by two numbers, followed by three letters (eg – XX 00 XXX).


An explanation of a UK number plate by The Car Expert

The first two letters are an area code, which refer to the DVLA office where the car was originally registered.

The two numbers are an age identifier, which tells you in which 6-month period the car was first registered.

The last three letters are random.

The numbers change every 6 months, in March and September.  The March codes are easy to remember as they follow the year of registration (so a car registered in March – August 2012 has the number 12, a car registered from March – August 2005 has the number 05, etc.).  For cars registered in September – February, the code is the year (as of September) plus 50.  So a car registered now (September 2012 – February 2013) will have the number 62 (=12 + 50).  A car registered in September 2008 – February 2009 has the number 58 (=08 + 50), and so on.

This system is expected to run until the end of February 2051 (number code would be 00).  Personalised number plates are a whole different story and are not covered here.

Number plate trivia

Therefore, it is possible to have an ‘old’ number plate on a ‘new’ car.  However, you cannot have a newer number plate code than the one allocated for that car’s date of registration.  (eg – you can have an ‘04’ plate on a ‘12’ car, but not a ‘12’ plate on an ‘04’ car.

When you change cars, you are allowed to keep your number plate.  It simply involves giving the DVLA an unnecessarily large amount of money, filling in an unnecessarily large amount of paperwork and waiting an unnecessarily long time for them to get around to processing it…

Z is only used as a random letter, never in an area code.

It is illegal to use different fonts or space the letters in any way other than illustrated above, despite the fact that thousands of car owners do it.  It is also illegal to alter the digits or strategically use mounting screws to make the plates look like they read something different.

Why does Britain have such a pointlessly complicated number plate system?

Technically, that’s a different question, but it very often follows the original question of “how does the system work?”.  Beats me, but I guess it gives a lot of public servants in Swansea something to do…

For a more detailed explanation of the system, and for details of number plate systems for other UK territories, Wikipedia has the full details of all area and number codes.

Jaguar with personalised number plate. The Car Expert explains how the number plate system works


Stuart Masson is the owner and editor of The Car Expert, a London-based website which provides expert and impartial advice for anyone buying a new or used car, as well as news and information from all over the automotive world.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. winston

    How long before number plates become irrelevant due to GPS tracking of every car by the government anyway? Surely it’s the next step in the war on motorists.

  2. Jerry

    The second number relates to the last digit from the year. The first number (either 0 or 5) relates to its registration date (march & september respectively). the first 2 letters vary depending on WHERE the car is registered ie FX/FY tend to be the lincolnshire ones. The final letters are a random combo. Not sure what will happen in 2010 in regards to the numbers…. ive heard that it will revert to 0-9 again but the march/september numbers will become 1/6 respectively!

  3. Tom Colebatch

    I just wish we didn’t have to have yellow plates on the rear. I would much rather have white for both front and rear, yellow just looks stupid on pretty much any car.

  4. mikenorth

    I understand the area codes of the current registration system, where the first letter is the official local mnemonic, and the second a local office identifier, but how can I find out what second letter is to be used in, say, 2014 and 2015, for a particular area?

  5. Debbie Masson

    why is the front plate white and the back plate yellow?

    1. stuart

      Hi Debbie,

      Good question. It’s purely to make it easier to immediately spot if a car is coming or going.

      stuart

  6. Mikenorth

    I understand that a purchaser of a new vehicle can sometimes select the last three letters of the registration subject to their availability, but I am still waiting for someone to tell me how the second letter (the local office identifier) is determined, and whether the purchaser of a new car can chose it.

    1. stuart

      As far as I know, Mike, the second letter is chosen by the DVLA and not the dealer or the purchaser. The last three letters can sometimes be chosen from a relatively small selection, but the DVLA will hold back any combinations that they deem to be potentially offensive or confusing. Also, popular combinations of letters (eg – SAM or TOM) are usually held back by the DVLA and sold separately for higher profits.

  7. ASG

    Can you settle an arguement please. What year was registration beginning D270?

    1. stuart

      Assuming that’s a UK number plate, it should be from August 1986 to July 1987.

  8. Ned Allen

    @ winston, that’s exactly what I was thinking the other day.

    They’re getting rid of the paper tax disc soon, so why not number plates.

    Think about it… a chip could be hidden somewhere in the car during manufacture that could be read easily by the authorities.

    But, then how could I identify a car that was razzing away from a bank robbery if it didn’t have plates on it. Again, though, aren’t they either always stolen or have a false set of number plates on them anyways…

    You can see what keeps me awake….

  9. Sid

    How much does the resale of a car differ if choosing plates from a march to sept slot as compared to sept to march?

    I have a choice between a march plate or wait till the 1 sept??

    Whats your advise.

    1. stuart

      Hi Sid. It really depends on how long you are going to keep the car. If you plan to keep it for 4-5 years, it will have no real difference to its value by then. If you only plan to keep the car for 1-2 years, a 14-plate car (current plates) would be worth a little bit less than a 64-plate car (new plates from September).
      New car sales plummet in August and February, the two months immediately prior to the plate changes. But this is largely because new car customers prefer to have the latest plates on their car. However, it can mean that there are some good deals to be had if you are buying the car this month.

  10. Sid

    Thanks Stuart. The car has been fixed on a 4 year finance package. In which case, I note there is not much of a difference with the March OR Sept plates.

  11. Bally

    Hi there, I was thinking of purchasing a private plate using the 58 as the year identifier. However my car is currently a 2008 car but has an 08 plate, would it still be possible to put my new number plate on this car? Thanks!

    1. stuart

      Hi Bally. Unfortunately this will not be possible. With a private plate, you cannot have a year identifier that is newer than your car. Therefore you could have an 08 identifier or anything older, but not 58 or anything newer.

  12. Thomas

    I have 1998 Volvo v70 automatic 125000 miles petrol what is it’s value?

  13. Don Chamberlin

    Hello British friends from the USA. I agree that the yellow plates are pretty ugly. You make such classy cars; your license plates should enhance them. The black and white ones, or the real old silver and black ones are nice. Yellow, not so. But that’s your business, not mine!

  14. Mike

    Hi , can anybody tell me please what year is number plate y400jpw. I dont get it. Thanks

      1. Mike

        Thanks Stuart. But it is a toyota 2012 , how is that possible? It is a fraud you think?

        1. stuart

          Hi Mike. In that case, it is presumably a private plate that someone has fitted to the vehicle. It is perfectly legal to fit a number plate that is ‘older’ than the car, but you can’t fit a ‘newer’ plate than the age of the car.

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