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Decoding Number Plates

“What do the numbers and letters on a number plate indicate?” is a question that we have been asked by numerous individuals, many times over many decades…

The current system of number plates for Great Britain has been around since September 2001. Northern Ireland has its own system that’s very different, but we’re concentrating on our GB systems (England, Scotland, Wales).

Also, we won’t discuss any of the previous number plate systems prior to 2001. The system of numbering has changed many times, and we’ll be looking at earlier system in the future.

Current British number plates laid out in the format of two letters, that are then followed by two figures, then a space, after that three letters (eg for example XX22 XXXX).

Prior to Brexit there was a blue vertical strip (known as a ‘flash’) across the left-hand side of the plate. It was adorned with the EU logo and the words “GB” underneath. These are no longer available for new cars, but remain legal if you already have them installed on your car.

The two letters in the beginning show where the car was initially registered

The first two letters are referred to as”memory tag” which is DVLA-speak to mean a identification of the location the first place where the vehicle was registered. This was previously identified from the DVLA office where registration took place. However, the DVLA shut down all regional offices at the end of 2013 and now manages new registrations directly with car dealerships through an electronic system.

Even though the system has been centralized dealers will still be assigned registration numbers that are based on their local area code. So (for instance) in the event that you purchase a new car from a London dealership most likely, you’ll be given a number plate beginning with the letter L.

Different regions in England have their own letter codes. Yorkshire-registered cars are registered at the letter Y. Hampshire-registered cars start with an H and it goes on. If you’re purchasing a brand-new car in Scotland, it will probably begin at an S. For vehicles registered in Wales the letters will begin with a C , which stands for Cymru.

If you carefully examine the list below it will be clear there is no reason why the letters Q, I, and Z are never used in the locations identifier.

The numbers indicate the date the car was first registered

The two numbers are called the ‘age identifier’, which will tell you during which six-month timeframe the vehicle was registered for the first time. It’s initially confusing, however, you soon get your head around it

The numbers change each six months, during the months of September and March. The March codes are simple to remember because they match an annual registration year (so an automobile registered between March and August in 2022 will have the number 22 whereas a car that has been registered during March-August 2005 will have the number 05 and the list goes on. ).

For cars which are registered between November and February it’s slightly more complicated. The numeric code equals the number of years (as in September) plus 50. Thus, a vehicle that was registered in September 2022 through February 2023 will have an id of 72 (= 22 + 50). A car that was registered between September 2006 to February 2007 will have the number 56 (=06 + 50) and so on.

The theory is that this system will be in place until February 2051, unless some future government makes changes before that.

The letters that are the last three are random

The three letters in the middle are considered to be random. In real life, dealerships are assigned batches of registration numbers, which means that your local dealer will probably have a run of consecutive numbers. If they’ve used all the allocated numbers then they’ll be assigned a new batch. Therefore, it’s not necessarily random, but it’s close enough.

It is important to note that the letters Q and I cannot be used because they can be confused with the letters 1 (or 0) or and the DVLA will not allow any combinations that are classified as sweary or offensive – we won’t give you any examples but you can use your imaginations…

The personal number plate is a different subject and aren’t mentioned here, however, the DVLA will censor anything it finds offensive or indecent.

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How can the color green stripe denote on some number plates?

It is possible that certain vehicles now sport green flashes to the left side of the number plate, in the same place where the blue EU identifier was. This is an initiative to promote zero emission cars (which, at the present time, is basically electric cars).

The purpose of”green” flashes is to enable authorities to easily identify electric carsthat may qualify for parking that is cheaper as well as priority parking, use of specific lanes, tax exemptions such as London’s Ulta Low Emission Zone, and so on.

It’s not required to put the “green plates” on your electric car in case you don’t wish to be loud about it, however the demand seems to be increasing as EVs are becoming more sought-after.

Facts about number plates

It’s possible to get an ‘old’ number plate on a new car, because there is a possibility that the DVLA has a number of number plates that it thinks have a high commercial value. So you could use a ’56’ license plate (Sept 2006 to Feb 2007) on a new 2022 car if you like. This is quite common for those who attempt to make words out of their number plate, or with owners who want to conceal how old their car actually is.
But you aren’t able to have any number plate codes that are older than that assigned to the vehicle’s date of registration. Therefore, you can’t get the ’22’ or plate (2022 car) on a 56-reg car (Sept 2006 – February 2007) for example, in the reverse order of the previous example.
If you switch vehicles, you’re allowed to keep your number plate, if you don’t want to remember a brand new number every time you change your vehicle. It’s as simple as providing the DVLA an unnecessarily large sum of money, filling out an unnecessarily large quantity of paperwork, then waiting an unnecessarily long time for them to be able to process it…
The letters I Z, Q and I are used only as a random letter, never in the form of an area code.
It is against the law to use different fonts or space the letters in any other manner than what is shown above even though thousands of car owners do it. It is also unlawful to change the font’s digits or deliberately use mounting screws in order to create the plate appear like they read something different. It is not properly enforced and the fines are minimal.

Why do Britain be so sloppy with its pointlessly complicated registration system for number plates?

Well that’s a different question however, it usually is a follow-up to the initial question of “How does the system work?” Beats me, however, I suppose it gives lots of civil employees working in Swansea (where the DVLA is located) an opportunity to be involved…