“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). 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 2016 has the number 16, 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 2016 – February 2017) will have the number 66 (=16 + 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.
Last updated: December 2016