UK Number Plates Explained: The Complete Guide to Understanding Number Plate System

When it comes to cars in the United Kingdom, the number plates hold significant importance. Not only do they provide a unique identification for each vehicle, but they also reveal important information such as the age of the car and its place of registration. Understanding the UK number plate system is essential for all car owners and enthusiasts. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the intricacies of the number plate system, explain the different formats, discuss the rules and regulations, and explore the fascinating world of personalized and banned number plates.

How Do UK Number Plates Work?

To understand the UK number plate system, it is important to dissect the different components that make up a standard number plate. The current number plate format consists of two letters that represent the region of registration, followed by two numbers that indicate the year of registration, and finally, a set of three randomly generated letters. For example, a number plate might read AB12 CDE, where “AB” represents the region, “12” denotes the year, and “CDE” is the randomly generated set of letters.

The year of registration is denoted by the third and fourth characters on the number plate. From March to September, the plates reflect the year of registration, while from September to March, they represent the year plus 50. For instance, the current number plate is ’73’, which was released in September 2023 and will be in use until March 2024. From March 2024, the number plates will change to ’24’.

To provide a clearer understanding, refer to the table below:

Year of Car RegistrationPlate from March-onwardsPlate from September-onwards

Rules and Regulations for Number Plates

The UK has strict rules and regulations regarding number plates to ensure consistency, readability, and compliance. Familiarizing yourself with these rules is essential to avoid fines and penalties. Let’s dive into the specifications for number plates:

Fonts, Layouts, and Colors

Number plates must adhere to specific guidelines regarding fonts, layouts, and colors. The font used in the number plate system since 2001 is called the Charles Wright font. The characters on a number plate must be 79mm tall and 50mm wide, except for the number ‘1’ or the letter ‘I’. The stroke thickness of the characters must be 14mm, and the spacing between characters should be 11mm. The margins at the top, bottom, and sides of the plate must be 11mm as well.

The number plate must have a white background at the front and a yellow background at the rear for vehicles registered after 1 January 1973. This distinction helps law enforcement officers easily identify the front and rear plates.

Placement of Number Plates

The placement of number plates is another important aspect to consider. The front number plate should be securely attached to the vehicle, preferably using the designated fixing points provided by the manufacturer. It must be positioned in a visible location, parallel to the ground, and not obscured by any other objects such as grilles or bumper bars.

The rear number plate should also be securely attached and positioned in a vertical orientation. It must be easily readable and not obstructed by any accessories or modifications to the vehicle.

Green Number Plates

As of 8th December 2020, a new addition to the number plate system is the introduction of green number plates. Green number plates are available for new fully electric cars or vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. These plates feature a green flash on the left-hand side, indicating the vehicle’s zero tailpipe emissions.

While the green number plates are currently more of a cosmetic addition and do not provide any specific privileges, they serve as a visual symbol of a vehicle’s eco-friendliness. It is worth noting that it is illegal to put green number plates on petrol or diesel cars, as they are reserved for zero-emission vehicles only.

Private Number Plates: Personalize Your Vehicle

Personalized number plates, also known as private, cherished, or vanity plates, offer a unique way to customize your vehicle. These plates contain specific characters chosen by the owner, representing names, meaningful dates, or any desired word or combination (as long as it is not offensive). Personalized plates can be purchased directly from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) or acquired from auctions, traders, or private individuals.

When purchasing a personalized number plate, it is important to remember that altering the spacing of the characters is illegal. Even plates with fewer than seven characters must adhere to strict spacing and font rules. Additionally, adding colored screws or modifying the appearance of letters or numbers is also against the law. Violating these rules can result in a fine of £1,000 and the possibility of having the personalized plate rescinded by the DVLA.

It is crucial to note that while personalized plates can give the impression that a car is older than it actually is, it is not permissible to have a personalized plate that suggests the vehicle is newer than its actual registration date.

Banned Number Plates

To prevent offensive or inappropriate combinations, the DVLA holds meetings when new age identifiers are released every March and September. The goal of these meetings is to identify and ban any number plate combinations that could potentially resemble offensive words or phrases.

Any references to violence, sex, or discrimination are automatically banned. Even plates that slip through the initial screening can be rescinded if they are found to be offensive at a later date. The DVLA staff takes this responsibility seriously, ensuring that unsuitable combinations do not fall into the hands of unsuspecting motorists.

Number Plate Formats for Cars Registered Before 2001

Prior to the current number plate system, several different formats were used for cars registered before 2001. The age identifier for these plates varied depending on the period of registration.

Between 1983 and 2001, number plates changed once a year, with the age identifier consisting of a single letter at the beginning of the plate. For example, a car with a plate starting with ‘A’ was registered between August 1983 and July 1984, while an ‘M’ plate indicated registration between August 1994 and July 1995.

From 1963 to 1982, the age identifier was the last character on the number plate. This system offered a simpler format compared to the current one.


Understanding the UK number plate system is crucial for all car owners and enthusiasts. By decoding the different components and regulations, you can decipher the age and registration details of any vehicle. Additionally, personalized number plates offer a unique way to add a personal touch to your car, while banned number plates ensure offensive combinations are avoided. So, the next time you see a number plate on the road, remember that it holds a wealth of information about the car’s registration and history.

Please note that the information provided in this article is accurate as of the time of writing, and it is always recommended to refer to official sources such as the DVLA for the most up-to-date regulations and guidelines.

Leave a Comment