At a glance

  • If you’re buying a used car, did you know that checking its number plate can actually help you find out the vehicles history?
  • Fancy upgrading your plates? Learn what you’ll need to do in order to do this, and the rules you’ll need to adhere to
  • Discover what number plates are used for and what all those numbers and letters actually mean. For example, the first two letters represent where the car is registered to 
  • Use your newfound knowledge to aid you in your quest in finding the perfect used car on!


Ever wondered what the letters and numbers of a registration plate mean? You’re not alone –  it’s a question we’re often asked at Motors. And, if you’re buying a used car, it’s useful to know about some of the rules for number plates.

In this article, you’ll find out what the characters on a number plate mean, the new number plate rules, and how to check car number plates. We’ve also covered personalised number plate rules

Table of contents

Why might you want to check car number plates for used vehicles?

If you’re buying a used vehicle, taking the time to check the car’s number plates is a smart move. Unfortunately, some used cars have a chequered history, and sellers might have changed the number plates for reasons such as:

  • The car was written off, and they’re trying to disguise this
  • The car was stolen, so they’ve changed the number plates to avoid detection

You can very quickly check car number plates and everything else you might want to know about the car on the government’s Vehicle Enquiry Service website

If the car’s number plate has been changed, this isn’t always a problem. In most instances, a previous owner might have decided to create personalised number plates. If your checks show the plates have been changed, you can ask the seller the reasons why. If anything seems fishy, ask an expert or walk away. 

What do the numbers and letters in a number plate mean?

When you look at a car’s registration plate, you’ll see a combination of letters and numbers that are split into three parts – two letters, two numbers and then three more letters. 

Here’s an example: OA66 EBJ

OA = First registered in Oxford

66 = The plates were registered on 1st September 2016

EBJ = Randomly assigned letters

  • The first two letters represent where the car was registered and the local DVLA office and is known as the plate’s ‘memory tag’. 
  • After the letters, you’ll see two numbers known as the ‘age identifier’. They refer to the year and six-month period the car was first registered. Each year, there are two dates when number plates are released – 1st March and 1st September.
  • Those released on 1st March correspond with the year (e.g., on 1st March 2022 the figure will show ‘22’), while those released in September have the year number PLUS 50 (e.g. on 1st September 2022, the figure will be ‘72’).
  • The last three numbers that complete the registration plate are random letters.

Which region does each letter stand for?

The DVLA has developed rules for number plates that help you track down where a car was first registered. The first letter identifies the region, the second letter pinpoints the local DVLA office (note that Northern Ireland has a different system for number plates).

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.

What years do the numbers relate to?

The table below will help you check number plates for all cars registered since 2001. Prior to that, there was a different system in effect. 

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
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
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

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 they kept running out of numbers  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, when new number plate rules came into effect.

Here’s a table to show you what we mean:

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

When do new number plates come out?

New number plates come out on two dates: 1st March and 1st September each year. This is the current plan until the year 2050 – after that, the timings and frequency may change. 

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

The quickest way to figure out a car’s age is to check the number plate – the numbers will give you an indication of when the car was first registered (see the table above). Although it doesn’t provide the exact date, the number tells you roughly when the 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 government Vehicle Enquiry Service. Simply enter the number plate, click continue and confirm the results are correct and you’ll find loads of information about the car, including when it was first registered.

New number plate rules

The UK introduced a set of new number plate rules in January 2021, and they became mandatory on 1st September of that year. All number plates from that date must now follow British Standard BS AU 145e. It applies to regular car number plates, as well as personalised number plate rules

The new number plate rules were intended to do a few different things:

  • Make number plates easier to read
  • Make number plates more durable
  • Help Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology to read number plates more easily

To find out exactly what number plates are legal as of 1st Sept 2021, check the BNMA website. But the key points are as follows:

  • Number plates must now be more durable to weathering, impact, dirt and abrasion
  • They must be reflective and have near-infrared contrast to help ANPR read the plates
  • They must only use solid black characters and have a specific amount of space around the registration number

If you’re buying a used car from before September 2021, it doesn’t have to meet the new number plate rules

National flags, colours and other symbols on number plates

You might have noticed different flags, colours and other symbols and wondered if they actually follow the rules for number plates. Often these extra features are permitted. 

Since the autumn of 2020, electric cars now have special registration plates with a green rectangle to highlight their green credentials.

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

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

Personalised number plates

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

As you might expect, 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 either. 

For example, 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 model.

Here’s a summary of key things you need to know about creating personalised number plates (for more, check out our personalised number plates guide).

Can you create your own number plate?

Yes, you are allowed to create your own number plate in the UK. People do this for different reasons – to personalise their car, for a bit of fun, for ‘luck’, as a gift, to promote a brand, or for many other reasons. If you’re going to do it, just be sure it’s something you’re sure you’re happy with, as you’ll be driving around with it day to day.

How to get a personalised number plate

There are a few ways to get a personalised number plate. You can:

  • Buy one from the DVLA on their website 
  • Buy one at a DVLA auction
  • Buy one from a private number plate dealer (search online to find the many companies which do this)

Once you’ve bought a number plate you like, you then need to assign it to your vehicle. You do this with the DVLA, and can apply online or by post using the vehicle’s log book (also known as the V5C). 

You don’t immediately have to assign your number to a vehicle – you have a right to retain it for up to 10 years without using it. If you’re thinking about how to put a number plate on retention, there’s not actually much you need to do. Once you’ve paid for the registration, it is yours for 10 years and is registered with the DVLA, so you won’t have to do anything to hold onto it. 

Personalised number plate rules

The new number plate rules (see above) also apply to private number plates too. This means they must be durable, reflective and only use solid black characters. On top of these basics, there are several other personalised number plate rules:

  • They cannot include stylised letters (e.g. italics) or fonts
  • Characters much be a set height, width, and spacing
  • They cannot use the letters Z, I or Q
  • They cannot use letters that make the car look a different age
  • They can’t include offensive terms (or be perceived as such)

How do you remove a private number plate?

If you’ve bought a used car that has a personalised number plate, chances are you won’t want it for yourself! The process is fairly straightforward and can be done online using the DVLA’s website. You will need to have a copy of the car’s V5C logbook, and pay an £80 fee. Usually, the vehicle’s original registration plate will be returned to it (this can take some time to arrive, so you might want to use temporary plates in the meantime – if so, tell your insurer). 

Evidently, removing a private number plate is a bit of a faff and costs money. So if you’re trying to sell a car and it’s got a personalised number plate, this might count against it. You might make a quicker sell by doing this process yourself. 

Can you get new plates made for your 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 rules for number plates

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

Another thing to bear in mind, is that you are no longer allowed to have special fonts for your number plate.

By learning about number plates, what the characters mean, and how they work, you can learn more about the used vehicles you’re interested in, and feel more confident finding your dream car. 

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