“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

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

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 12 Comments

  1. 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….

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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!

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