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How does the British number plate system work?

Many people find the British number plate system bewildering. The Car Expert explains how it all works and what all the letters and numbers actually mean.

“What do the letters and numbers on a number plate mean?”  is a question that we have been 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).

There are no plans for this system to change in the aftermath of Brexit. In fact, the only point of difference is that the DVLA’s official guide to number plates has dropped the blue strip and EU stars from the number plates in all its documentation.

We’re also not going to discuss any of the previous number plate systems before 2001. The numbering system has changed several times, so maybe we’ll look at previous systems another time.

Current British number plates are arranged in the format of two letters, followed by two numbers, followed by a space and then three letters (eg – XX20 XXX) as shown below.

GB number plate example | The Car Expert
The latest version of the DVLA’s number plate guide has removed the optional blue EU identifier on the left-hand side. #hardbrexit? Image (c) DVLA

The first two letters show where the car was first registered

The first two letters are called a ‘memory tag’, which is DVLA-speak for a location identifier for where the car is first registered. this used to be determined by the DVLA office where the registration took place, however the DVLA closed all its regional offices at the end of 2013 and now handles new registrations directly with car dealerships through an online system.

Even though the system is now centralised, dealers still tend to be allocated registration numbers that reflect their traditional area code, so (for example) if you are buying a new car from a London dealership, you will almost certainly be allocated a number plate starting with an L.

Other regions of England have their own letter codes; Yorkshire-registered cars start with the letter Y, Hampshire-registered cars start with an H, and so on. If you’re buying a new car in Scotland, it will almost certainly start with an S. For cars registered in Wales, it will start with a C for Cymru.

If you look closely at the list below, you will see that the letters I, Q and Z are never used in the location identifier.

DVLA number plate memory tags | The Car Expert
The list of memory tags / location identifiers. Image (c) DVLA

The numbers show when the car was first registered

The two numbers are called the ‘age identifier’, which tells you in which six-month period the car was first registered. This initially seems confusing, but you quickly get your head around it

The numbers change every six months, in March and September. The March codes are easy to remember as they follow the year of registration (so a car registered between March and August in 2020 will have the number 20, a car that was registered between March and August 2005 has the number 05, and so on.).

For cars registered between September and February, it’s slightly more complicated. The numeric code equals the year (as of September) plus 50.  So a car registered from September 2020 until February 2021 will have the number 70 (= 20 + 50). A car registered in September 2006 – February 2007 has the number 56 (=06 + 50), and so on.

In theory, this system will run until we get to February 2051 unless a future government changes it before then.

Yes, there should be more numbers on this list but apparently the DVLA is just as lazy as you’d expect. Image (c) DVLA

The last three letters are random

The last three letters are officially random. In practice, dealerships are allocated batches of registration numbers, so your local dealer will probably have a run of consecutive numbers. When they have used up all of that allocation, they will be assigned another batch. So it’s not technically random, but close enough.

The letters I and Q are not used because they can be confused with 1 and 0 or O, and the DVLA withholds any combinations that may be considered offensive or sweary – we won’t give you any examples but you can use your imaginations…

Personalised number plates are a whole different story and are not covered here, but again the DVLA will censor anything it considers inappropriate or offensive.

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Number plate trivia

It is possible to have an ‘old’ number plate on a ‘new’ car, as the DVLA sells number plates that it thinks have a high commercial value. So you could put a ’55’ plate (Sept 2005 – Feb 2006) on a new 2020 car if you like. This is fairly common with people trying to make words out of their number plate, or owners trying to conceal how old their car really is.

However, you cannot have a newer number plate code than the one allocated for that car’s date of registration. So you couldn’t have a ’20’ plate (2020 car) on a 55-reg car (Sept 2005 – Feb 2006), to reverse the example above.

When you change cars, you are allowed to keep your number plate if you don’t want to have to remember a new number every time you change your car. 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. Again, this is poorly enforced.

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

Well 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 (where the DVLA is based) 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.

MINI with 66-reg number plate

This article was originally written in September 2012 and was most recently updated in March 2020 in time for the new 20-plate festivities.

Stuart Masson
Stuart Masson
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.


  1. hmmm… so you can’t have Q because it’s too similar to zero and the letter O, but you can have the letter O because it’s nothing like 0 (zero)… ??!*!?

  2. I used to be obsessed with number plates and still am to a degree. As someone originally from the Isle of Wight, we use the “HW” plate. However, I know full well that these plates are also allocated to other parts of the country, especially recently with the HW69 and HW20 plates. There are plenty of Ford Transits registered with these plates. For example “HW69 RAX” is a waste collection van used for Tameside Council (Greater Manchester); another, “HW69 OHD”, in Fife (Scotland); “HW20 KLC” in Cannock (Stafforfshire) and so on. I don’t have a problem with it (I find it quite comical really).

  3. As far as we know, there are no plans for this system to change post-Brexit, although there’ll probably be a motion by some right-wing xenophobe MP to ban the (optional) blue EU badge on the side of current plates.

    Keep your stupid political opinions to yourself.

    • I thought this system was crazy when first proposed. Why did they not opt for the two letter postcodes instead of the regionals? .e.g. C for wales, S for Scotland, W for west country. Also why did not the actual year of registration in full?
      Example: for a car registered in Stockport in June 2020 could be SK20**6. The ** represents two randomly generated letters and ‘6’ represents month of June. For October, November, December would need to use hex system i.e.A, B, C.
      So a car registered in Plymouth in November 2021 would be: PL21**B
      This system keeps the maximum 7 letter/digit requirement.
      ps. in the random generated letters if 10 digits were also used it would allow for almost 1300 combinations per month – enough to satisfy the registration of new vehicles.

  4. Most informative: thanks. I saw a car recently with a current style plate but the first two letters were XX. I understand the X series is used for export vehicles but do not understand how they come to require a UK registration plate. Would you be able to explain please?

  5. In the old days when there was a single letter for a year it used to be really, really bad for the car industry. No one wanted to buy a car in the second-half of the year and just held off until the new licence plate came out. Great for having a major sale day on new plate day, not so good if you’re just trying to get through the winter. They brought out a twice-year change to fix this. When they moved to have a number to represent the year they were worried they’d re-introduce the old problem unless they found a way to represent the part of the year the number plate was issued when they only had 2 digits to do it. Hence the +50 system.

    • If the government and industry were really concerned about the peaks and troughs in registrations, they would simply adopt an undated system like most countries.

      The car industry and car dealers happily drummed up the significance of having the latest number plates (and continue to do so), so no point complaining that customers won’t buy “old plate” cars in the other months.

  6. Hello Stuart, my old Triumph had a unique registration number issued back in 1968 (initial registration); i took the car abroad with me on an overseas posting. Now 20 years later. the car is returning to UK .Is my original reg number still valid ? I still have the original registration documents . Thanks

    • Hi Robert. Possibly…

      If the vehicle was permanently exported, the original registration number may have been dissociated from the car and sold to someone else as a private plate.

      If no-one has used that plate since it was exported and it is still available, the DVLA may re-allocate it to your car.

  7. Look in an Old “Eagle” Diary (the Boys Comic from the late 50’s) you will find all the Original Style County Reg. prefixes,in fact even Old AA handbooks had these facts.

  8. @Stuart Masson: Apart from France, Holland, India, Australia and Northern Ireland of course. Not to mention the countries that have red plates to designate the rear of a vehicle..!

  9. We see a large number of new models of vehicles including lorries on the road with number plates starting with just a single letter and then quite often only two digits eg L14 xxx Are they all plates which have been specially transferred from old vehicles to newer ones or is there another system in play? Motorbikes used to qualify for ‘short’ numbers, presumably because they tend to have less space for the plates.

    • Hi Andrea. Usually they are personal plates, where the owner or company has paid to have those plates on the vehicle. If they want to keep those plates later on, the vehicle will be assigned another number.

  10. Wow, that is quite a pointlessly complicated system alright. I like what they do in Ireland: Year e.g. 2016 first six months is 161 and second six months is 162. Area Code e.g. D for Dublin, C for Cork KK for Kilkenny etc and then a one to six digit number sequence starting with 1 for the first car registered etc. E.g. 162-KK-123456 or 161-D-1.

  11. In 1963 while on holiday in England, I noticed a number of sports cars had their registration numbers painted on their bonnets (hoods). Have seen only license plates in front since then. Did the law change?

  12. my friend has a car starting plate with ‘O’ letter O and the police have sent a document starting with ‘0’ zero – what is the position here?

  13. Does the law say that you have to have front number plates? I see expensive supercars around London with no number plate on the front all the time.

    • Hi Lee. Yes, the law states that all cars must have a front number plate. However, the fine is quite small (it used to be £30, not sure if has increased) so those who can afford the supercars can afford to pay the fine many times over if they don’t want to have a front number plate.

  14. Stuart i recently bought a French Renault Clio produced in 2004 it was Pushed into the UK in 2014 but they gave me a 15 plate

    • Hi David. It may have been changed by the previous owner; it is perfectly legal to fit an 'older' plate than was originally fitted to the car, but you can't fit a 'newer' plate. So you can have a 55-plate but you couldn't have a 62-plate, for example.

      If you do a history check on the car, you will probably find that it originally came with an 09- or 58-plate.

  15. I'm really confused. I have a car that was manufactured in 2001 in Ireland. .. It had an irish number plate originally (obviously) it was imported to England in 2003 and was given a personalised number plate. I bought the car a couple of years ago and the previous owner wanted the personal number plate back so I applied to the dvla for a new one and they sent me a 53 plate… surely that isn't right is it?

    • Hi Natasha. The 53-plate reflects the date that the vehicle was first imported into the United Kingdom (September 2003 – February 2004). The DVLA does not have access to registration data from other countries, so it can't verify the first date of registration when the car was new.

      Your car's build plate may show a date of manufacture for 2001, but this doesn't mean that it was registered in 2001. Newly-built cars often sit in stock somewhere until they are sold, which could be weeks, months or sometimes more than a year.

  16. I have searched through many sites trying to identify the issuing area with the codes commencing J but all state that this has not yet been allocated. I have seen three cars with area codes JT09 or JH10 and cannot believe that every site is outdated re this information. Any clues where I could find this info?

    • Hi Alexa. As far as I know, the letter J is not used at the start of any regular-issue number plates at the moment. It is likely that these plates will be personal plates, where the owner has picked out their letters and numbers and paid extra for it.

  17. Hi Stuart, I have three simple questions please:
    1. My wife bought me on 25th July 2012 a personalisd plate number SM12BAN. Now I'm looking for a car to buy, what years/months do I have to consider buying the car?
    2. How do I allocate my new personalised plate number to the newer car I purchase instead of its own standard number plate comes with it?
    3. What can I do with the plate number comes with the car I buy? Do I keep it or sell it or ? DVLA mentioned in one of their information that I need to send that plate number back to them. If that so, How can I sell this car in future without a plate number if DVLA takes it? any advice please
    Many thanks

    • Hi Sam. You can't put that plate on any car older than a '12-plate' (no older than March 2012). Anything newer is fine, but you can't put a 'newer' plate on an 'older' car.

      You need to put the number plate on retention (google DVLA number plate retention form). It will cost you about £105 (because the DVLA are shameless thieves), and will take about 6 weeks to sort out (because the DVLA are useless). Your car will revert to its original number plate, so if you haven't kept the old plates then you will need to get some new ones made.

      If you're buying a new car, the dealer can arrange to have your new car fitted with the new plate when you collect it. If you're buying a used car, you have to arrange a number plate transfer through the DVLA (again, will take a few weeks because the DVLA apparently isn't aware that the internet exists).

  18. When I was a young lad living in England I had a book that told me the area codes for rego numbers e.g VJ CJ Were Herefordshire , DD DF Were Gloucestershire FK Was Worcestershire Does this still apply and where can I get a list of these area codes?

    • 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.

  19. 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!

  20. 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!

    • 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

    • 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.

  23. @ 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….

  24. Hi Stuart,

    Thank you for the wonderful blog. I have a question… Can we change the AGE Identifier of the vehicle?

    • You can assign a registration OLDER than your car, you cannot assign a registration that would make it appear newer

    • As far as I know, it was a policy brought in to prevent people trying to pass off cars as being newer than they really are (presumably to help buyers too lazy to look at a logbook).

  25. 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.

    • 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.

    • I can advise as someone that once worked in a LVLA that the second character is not selectable. Say for example my office area code was ‘A’ then we would issue all plates from AA?? ??? to AZ?? ???

    • Hi Debbie,

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


    • Actually thats incorrect. Yellow plates were used at the rear as they are a softer colour. You cannot have white lights at the rear of a vehicle, and ditto the number plate which is white would reflect too brightly

    • Hi David. So how does the rest of the world manage with white rear number plates? UK is fairly unique in this regard.

  26. 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?

  27. 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.

    • The White and yellow scheme is so you know what direction a vehicle is travelling in or parked in when no lights are displayed

  28. 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!

  29. 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.

What are your thoughts? Let us know below.

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