What do the numbers and letters mean?

When you look at a car’s registration plate, you’ll see a combination of letters and numbers that’s split into three parts – two letters, two numbers and then three more letters. The first two letters represent where the car was registered and is known as the plate’s ‘memory tag’. A number plate with the letters ‘OA’ would indicate the car was first registered in Oxford.

After the letters, you’ll see two numbers – this refers to the year and six-month period the car was first registered. This is called the ‘age identifier’ and every year has two. The last three numbers that complete the registration plate are random letters.

Which region does each letter stand for?

Fortunately, the DVLA follows a system when it comes to the region so there’s little room for confusion. While the first letter identifies the region, the second letter pinpoints the local DVLA office.

First letter
A – Anglia M – Manchester and Merseyside
B – Birmingham N – North
C – Cymru O – Oxford
D – Deeside P – Preston
E – Essex R – Reading
F – Forest and Fens S – Scotland
G – Garden of England (Maidstone and Brighton) V – Severn Valley
H – Hampshire and Dorset W – West of England
K – no official region X – indicates personal export
L – London Y – Yorkshire

 

You may have noticed that Z, Q and I aren’t included in the list – this is because they can be mistaken for numbers, so aren’t used.

When do new number plates come out?

In the UK, license plates change twice a year in March and September and the age identifier number changes to reflect this. Plates that are released from 1st March will take the number of the last two digits of the year so this year cars will have 21 from 2021. Those cars that are registered from the 1st of September will have 71.

Previous number plates

These plates were released between 1st September 2001 and 1st 2020.

2001 – 2010

Plate number Date released Plate number Date released
51 1st September 2001
02 1st March 2002 52 1st September 2002
03 1st March 2003 53 1st September 2003
04 1st March 2004 54 1st September 2004
05 1st March 2005 55 1st September 2005
06 1st March 2006 56 1st September 2006
07 1st March 2007 57 1st September 2007
08 1st March 2008 58 1st September 2008
09 1st March 2009 59 1st September 2009
10 1st March 2010 60 1st September 2010

2011 – 2020

Plate number Date released Plate number Date released
11 1st March 2011 61 1st September 2011
12 1st March 2012 62 1st September 2012
13 1st March 2013 63 1st September 2013
14 1st March 2014 64 1st September 2014
15 1st March 2015 65 1st September 2015
16 1st March 2016 66 1st September 2016
17 1st March 2017 67 1st September 2017
18 1st March 2018 6 1st September 2018
19 1st March 2019 69 1st September 2019
20 1st March 2020 70 1st September 2020
21 1st March 2021 71 1st September 2021

Upcoming number plates

These plate numbers will be available from the following dates:

Plate number Date released Plate number Date released
23 1st March 2023 73 1st September 2023
24 1st March 2024 74 1st September 2024
25 1st March 2025 75 1st September 2025
26 1st March 2026 76 1st September 2026
27 1st March 2027 77 1st September 2027

How can I tell how old a car is by using the license plate?

The quickest way to figure out how old a car is by checking the number plate – the numbers will give you an indication of when the car was first registered. Although it doesn’t provide the exact date, the number tells you roughly when then car was registered for the first time.

If you want to find out exactly when a car was first registered, you can do this by entering a car’s registration number into the Vehicle Enquiry Service on Gov.uk. It’s simple. Enter the number, click continue and confirm the results are correct and you’ll find loads of information about the car, including when it was first registered.

National flags, colours and other symbols

You might have noticed different flags, colours and other slightly strange numbers plates and wondered if they’re legal. It’s highly likely they are.

Introduced in the autumn of 2020, electric cars now have special registration plates with a green rectangle to highlight their green credentials. Since this was only recently introduced, it might be a while before you see one on the road.

In 2009, new rules were introduced to allow drivers in Wales, Scotland and England to display the Union flag, Red Dragon of Wales, Saltire and Cross of St George on their number plate. No other symbols or flags can be displayed on license plates.

The EU flag with GB in the circle of starts will no longer be fitted to cars from the 1st of January 2021. You won’t have to change your plates if you currently have this on them, but should they be replaced you won’t be able to have it included.

What about personalised plates?

If you want a personalised number plate, you’ll have to buy it from the DVLA or a private dealer. They range in price from a few hundred pounds to several hundred thousand pounds, especially if the letters and numbers come close to spellings an actual name.

As expected, there are some rules about what you can and can’t put on your number plate. If the plates look offensive or vulgar it won’t be issued, and if the registration plate makes it look like your car is younger than it is then it won’t be allowed. For instance, if your name is Meg and you have a car that was first registered in 2008, you wouldn’t be able to have ME09 XYZ because that would make the car look like a 2009.

Can I get new plates made for my car?

You might find you need to replace your number plates because they’ve been damaged or stolen. Before you set off to replace them, you need to be aware of a few things. For starters, you can only use a registered number plate supplier. Plus, there are number plate rules that will need to be followed to ensure the new plates are legal.

Any vehicle manufactured after 1973 must display a number plate that is:

  • Made of a reflective material
  • Is white for the front of the car and yellow for the back
  • Has black letters and numbers

This shouldn’t be much of a surprise since this is what the majority of cars on the road will have. Number plate regulations were updated on 1st September 2001 to standardise the font to ensure they were easier to read. The new legislation goes further to specify the way the letters and numbers are displayed:

  • Characters must be 79mm tall
  • Characters, except for the number 1 and letter I must be 50mm wide
  • The thickness of the stroke must be 14mm
  • The space between the letters and numbers must be 11mm
  • The space between the age identifier and the random letters must be 33mm
  • The margins at the top, bottom and sides of the plate must be 11mm

Unfortunately, you’re no longer allowed to have special fonts for your number plate.

Earlier number plate formats

Number plates have been around pretty much as long as cars have been, but it wasn’t until 1904 and the introduction of the Motor Car Act that the UK decided to make them a legal requirement. Various systems were used over the years but kept running out of numbers quickly until 1963 when the suffix system was put in place.

The suffix system used a letter at the end of the number to designate the year of registration. This continued up until 1983 when the prefix system was introduced, as you might have guessed, the letter at the start of the number signals the year of registration and this was in place until 1st September 2001.

Suffix system: 1963-1983 Prefix system: 1983-2001
1963 A 1983 Y/A
1964 B 1984 A/B
1965 C 1985 B/C
1966 D 1986 C/D
1967 E/F 1987 D/E
1968 F/G 1988 E/F
1969 G/H 1989 F/G
1970 H/J 1990 G/H
1971 J/K 1991 H/J
1972 K/L 1992 J/K
1973 L/M 1993 K/L
1974 M/N 1994 L/M
1975 N/P 1995 M/N
1976 P/R 1996 N/P
1977 R/S 1997 P/R
1978 S/T 1998 R/S
1979 T/V 1999 S/T/V
1980 V/W 2000 V/W/X
1981 W/X 2001 X/Y/51
1982 X/Y
1983 Y/A

Once you understand how a number plate is put together, it’s easy to figure out where a car is from and when it was registered. Check out our Car Buying Guide for more information on buying a car.