“How does the UK number plate system work?” 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). As far as we know, there are no plans for this system to change post-Brexit.
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. Or just look it up on Wikipedia.
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 show where the car was first registered
The first two letters are an area code, which originally referred to the DVLA office where the car was first registered. However, at the end of 2013, the DVLA closed all its regional offices and now handles registrations directly with new car dealerships through an online system.
Still, dealers tend to be allocated registration numbers by the DVLA 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 (LA – LY, excluding LI, LQ and LZ, which are not used). If you’re buying a new car in Scotland, it will almost certainly start with an S (SA – SY, excluding SI, SQ and SZ)
The numbers show when the car was first registered
The two numbers are an age identifier, which tells you in which six-month period the car was first registered.
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 in March – August 2018 will have the number 18, a car that was registered between March and August 2005 has the number 05, etc.).
For cars registered between September and February, it’s slighly more complicated. The numeric code is the year (as of September) plus 50. So a car registered in 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.
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 may have been allocated LA18 AAA to LA18 AZZ by the DVLA. When they have used up all of those numbers, they will be allocated another batch. So it’s not quite random, but close enough.
The letters I and Q are not used, and the DVLA will withhold any combinations that may be considered offensive or sweary.
This system is expected to run until the end of February 2051 (by which time the number code would be 00). Personalised number plates are a whole different story and are not covered here.
Also worth reading: The insurance implications of personalised number plates
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 2013 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 ’13’ plate (2013 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. 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?
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 (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.
This article was originally written in September 2012, and was comprehensively updated in February 2018.