Car number plates

What number plates mean and buying a personalised plate: the full guide

BuyaCar team
Apr 17, 2019

Every new car must be registered before it can be driven on the road. Its details are logged centrally and it's given a unique registration number. This must be displayed on a number plate on the car.

Under the current system, that number is actually a combination of two letters followed by two numbers, then a space and three letters.

The format indicates where and when a car was first registered unless you've chosen to fit your vehicle with a personalised number plate. These are still unique but don't necessarily fit the same format; the most expensive spell out names or words.


What the numbers and letters on a standard number plate mean

Number plate memory tag

The first two letters are the ‘memory tag’ showing where the vehicle was registered by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). The first letter is the region, the second is a DVLA local registration office. The memory tags are listed here. You’ll see, for example, that BD indicates the vehicle was registered in or around Birmingham.

Number plate vehicle age identifier

More important to car buyers are the two digits that follow these letters. They identify a six-month period in which a vehicle was registered.

The periods are always the same, running from March 1 to August 31, then September 1 to February 28/29.

The first of the two digits is currently 1 for the March to August period, followed by a digit for the year (From March 1 2019 it’s 19). For September to the end of the following February, the first digit is 6, followed by the year (from September 2019, for example, the number is 69).

The plate changes mean that March and September are always the biggest month for car sales, as buyers wait to get the latest registration and dealers often offer discounts to secure orders for new-reg cars.

From 2020 to 2029, the first digits will change from 2 to 7.

The last three letters of a number plate

The final three letters that follow the space on the number plate are much easier to explain: they’re entirely random.


Can you choose your number plate?

Your car's initial number plate is automatically assigned, so you don't get to choose your preferred combination of letters and numbers.
You can change this by buying a personalised registration and paying the DVLA to transfer this to their vehicle. Scroll down for further details.


Personalised number plates

You can buy a personalised registration number from independent companies as well as from the DVLA’s Personalised Registrations department.

Some follow the same format as the current standard number plate, but others have a different layout, as they were generated before the current system was introduced. Some will already have been issued, then sold on by their previous owners. Others will have never been used before being auctioned or sold by the DVLA. These can command enormous prices: K1 NGS, VIP 1 and 25 O have all been reported as selling for more than £100,000 each.

The DVLA’s prices start at £250. It also holds regular auctions of numbers and also sells some directly for a fixed price. It claims that over the past 25 years its sales of personalised numbers have raised over £2 billion.
Once you've bought a personalised registration, it can be transferred to any subsequent vehicles, but it's important to follow the right process or you could lose the right to use it.


Why buy a personalised number plate?

For some, it's the novelty of having a plate that includes their initials or, less commonly, their full name, as seen above. Others like to match it to the name of their car (F13 STA might appeal to a Ford Fiesta owner, for example).

Personalised plates can also disguise the age of a car. It's illegal to make a car look newer than it is, so you can't fit a number plate with a 2018 ‘18’ age identifier to a 2016 vehicle. But older formats will mean that no-one will know when your car first hit the road.

For others, there's a commercial value. CH11PPY, F1 PRO and CAB 13IE are some of the plates that have been issued. Pimlico Plumbers, a London-based plumbing firm, has a fleet of vans with personalised registration numbers that reflect its business. They include 1 BOG, C15TERN and TAP 15 ON.


Change number plate spacing

Any tinkering with a car's registration number is an offence, not least because it can make them less easy to read by police number plate recognition cameras. Get caught and you could be fined up to £1000.

This includes adjusting the spacing of digits (eg S4 RAH is more clearly the name ‘Sarah’ when written as S4RAH), other tricks such as placing a screw between the figures ‘11’ to make them resemble an ‘H’ or changing the font from the standard. Changing the font is also not permitted. You can buy number plates with different fonts legally, but these are technically ‘show plates’ and are illegal if you use them while driving on the public highway.


Most expensive number plates

Desirable personalised registration numbers also have real investment value, and prices for the best can be astronomical. For example, 25 O sold for £518,000, while F 1 went for £440,000. S 1, claimed by its seller to be Scotland’s first number plate, went for £404,000, while 1 D sold for £352,000.


Naughty number plates

A special panel of experts meets twice a year at the DVLA to consider the appropriateness of new registration numbers. Those likely to cause general concern, offence or embarrassment, or be politically or racially insensitive, are likely to be withheld.

However, some edgy numbers still get through – these include AFF 41R and BA51 ARD.


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