UK license plate: how to read it, how to get one
With their inimitable font, it is pretty easy so recognize a UK license plate on the roads. The United Kingdom flag present on the rear UK number plate makes it even easier. But did you know that by merely reading a license plate from the United Kingdom, you can pinpoint relatively precisely the owner area, and identify the approximate date of registration? Or that you can register personalised number plates in the UK? Here is all you need to know about vehicle number plates in the United Kingdom.
UK license plate: how does it look like?
The United Kingdom license plate system is also known as vehicle registration plates or number plates. It uses a unique combination of letters and numbers assigned to vehicles for identification purposes. The system provides information about the vehicle’s age, origin, and registration details.
UK number plate look and dimensions
A standard UK number plate consists of black characters on a white or yellow background. Front plates are white, rear plates are yellow. A rear UK number plate sports the Union Jack on the left side. “UK” country letter code is displayed underneath the flag. It replaces « GB » code since Brexit.
The letters and numbers must be in a standard typeface (Charles Wright font) and meet specific height of 79mm and spacing requirements for legibility. The standard dimensions of a UK license plate are approximately 520mm in width and 111mm in height.
How to read a number plate UK?
A standard UK license plate format consists of seven characters arranged in the following pattern: BD51 SMR. Here’s what each part represents:
- BD: the first two letters represent the local area code or memory tag, indicating the area where the vehicle was registered. Different regions have specific memory tags associated with them
- 51: the two numbers in the middle represent the age identifier. This helps identify the age of the vehicle based on the year of registration
- SMR: the final three letters are randomly assigned and provide additional uniqueness to the UK license plate
Here is more info about those identifiers:
Area code (memory tag)
This tells the area of the UK where the vehicle was first registered. For example, « LA » indicates London, while « YA » represents Yorkshire. BD is Birmingham. These tags are assigned to specific DVLA offices responsible for vehicle registrations in different regions. The first letter represents a global area, and the second one is more specific. For example, Y is for Yorskshire. Cars from Leeds might have as second letter of their area code A, B, C… up to L. From M to V the car is from Sheffield. If the second letter is W, X or Y it is from Beverley.
Age identifier of a UK license plate
The 2 numbers in the middle of the plate represent the age identifier. This changes twice a year, in March and September. For example, « 23 » indicates a vehicle registered between March 2023 and August 2023. 53 is about a car registered between September 1st 2003 and end of February 2004.
3 last random letters
The last three letters of a UK license plate are randomly generated to provide distinct combinations. Please note that there are variations and specific rules within this system, such as for special vehicles (e.g., electric vehicles) and other special cases, such as UK personalised number plates. Here is more about them.
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How to get a UK license plate?
The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) is responsible for vehicle registration in the UK. If you’re registering a new vehicle or transferring ownership of a used vehicle, you’ll need to deal with the DVLA.
Here is the process to change ownership of UK second hand car:
- The person you bought the vehicle from should give you the green ‘new keeper’ slip so you can tax the vehicle. It’s mandatory to tax it before you drive it!
- They should then send the log book (V5C) to DVLA or tell DVLA online you’re the new keeper
- If you don’t get your new V5C within 6 weeks, you can register the car yourself
If the seller gave you the log book, fill in:
- Section 2 with your name and address if you have a new style log book
- Section 6 if you have the older style log book
Once done, send by post the log book to DVLA to the following address:
Personalised number plates UK
If you’re interested in getting a personalized number plate, it’s a good idea to visit the DVLA’s official website to get the most up-to-date and accurate information about the process, guidelines, and fees involved. You can order directly any available custom number plates, for a fee starting at £250. It’s important to note that there are certain guidelines and restrictions set by the DVLA when creating personalized number plates. For example, plates cannot make a vehicle appear newer than it actually is, and offensive or inappropriate combinations are not allowed.
How to get private number plates in the UK?
Go the DVLA website page related to personalised registration. Check availability by typing the desired personal number plate. Once you find a nice vanity UK number plate at a suitable price (it varies depending on popularity of certain combinations), you can purchase the personalized number plate online.
Have you purchased the personalized number plate? Now you’ll need to assign it to a specific vehicle. This involves completing the appropriate paperwork and paying associated fees. The process may vary depending on whether the plate is going on a new vehicle or an existing one.
When the plate is assigned to your vehicle, you need to order to a registered supplier your physical private UK number plates with your chosen combination. You’ll need to affix these plates to your vehicle in accordance with UK regulations.
Last but not least, it’s important to update your vehicle’s registration documents to reflect the new personalised number plate. This ensures that your vehicle is properly identified and registered. Just like regular number plates, personalized plates need to be renewed annually. You’ll need to pay the renewal fee to keep your UK personal number plate.
How much is my number plate worth in the UK?
The value of a private number plate in the UK can vary widely depending on factors such as the combination of letters and numbers, how unique or desirable it is, and current market trends.
If you’re looking to determine the value of your UK vanity number plate, you might consider reaching out to specialized UK personal number plate valuation services, checking online auction sites, or consulting with experts in the field who can provide a more accurate estimate based on the current market conditions and demand for certain combinations.
Special UK number plates
Beside the standard white and yellow UK license plates, special number plates are used:
Black UK license plates
Black UK number plates are plates used by the United Kingdom military.
Red and white UK number plates
Those are trade plates. They can have red characters on a white background, or vice versa.
Yellow trailer plates
To drive abroad, certain UK trailers must have their own UK number plate. This rule was implemented in 2019. A UK trailer license plate is yellow. It starts with a letter, followed by 6 digits.
History of UK number plate
Here is, in short, the history of UK number plates.
1903: creation of license plates in the United Kingdom
English number plates are introduced in 1903 on the basis of the Motor Car Act (number plates had existed in France since 1901). The objective is to be able to identify the owners of vehicles which are multiplying on the roads of the UK. These first plates are black and white. One or 2 letters made it possible to identify the region of residence of the owner, a number from 1 to 9999 completes the registration. The first plate had the reference “A1”. A represents the geographical area of London, “B” Lancashire, etc.
1932: first registration reform
As the automobile became more democratic, the 1903 registration system quickly reached its limits. It is therefore modified to be able to display 3 letters and up to 3 numbers. The first registration of this new registration system is issued with the sequence “ARF1”
1950s: second registration reform
In the 1950s, the second registration system was about to run out of references, the system changed again. Now digits come first, doubling the number of available numbers. The system plans to not use certain letter sequences that can result in unenviable words on a plate, e.g. BUM, SEX, etc.
1963: 3rd registration reform
From 1963, the structure of the registration is modified so that a letter makes it possible to identify the year of first registration of a UK license plate. This system will nevertheless be abandoned in 2001.
1973: yellow UK license plate at the rear
In 1973, the Department of Transportation decided that the rear license plate would henceforth be yellow. The front plate remains white, but it will now have to be reflective.
1990s: UK personalized license plate
In the 90s, the British experienced a craze for the real personalized license plate, freshly introduced.
2001: 4th registration reform
The registration system still in force today appeared in 2001. The plate has 7 characters:
- The first 2 letters corresponds to an area code
- The 2 numbers following indicates the year of registration
- The last 3 letters are formed by a random sequence
2020: green license plate will make its appearance
In order to give special rights to owners of green vehicles and to raise public awareness of environmentally friendly mobility, the British government has introduced a green number plate, reserved for electric and other vehicles.
FAQ UK license plate
With public resources, no. One would have to get info from DVLA or police staff, as access to such personal details is restricted.
In the standard UK license plate font (Charles Wright font), the number « 0 » is slightly narrower and taller than the letter « O. » Pay attention to the size and shape of the character
Yes, front number plate is mandatory in the UK.
Either they drive illegally, either it’s a vehicle of the reigning monarch used on official business.
From a hundred pounds to a million, depending on rarity.
The DVLA has an interesting inquiry tool. Check our license plate number check page for link and instructions.