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Registration plates explained: what do all those letters and numbers mean?

Registration plates explained: what do all those letters and numbers mean?


To an untrained eye, a registration plate may seem like nothing more than a random combination of characters, but there is in fact logic and reasoning to its format.

Over the years the format of the registration plate has changed and altered to accommodate the number of vehicles being registered, we’re looking into the history of number plates and the meaning behind the current format.

The first registration plate:

In 1903 The Motor Car Act was introduced, stating that from the 1st January 1904 all motor cars must be registered with the county council in which the driver was a resident. Each driver would be issued a unique number that must be displayed on their vehicle.

The first number plate issued was simply formatted as ‘A1’. 

Unlike today’s number plates, between 1903 and 1963 there was no indication to what year the vehicle was registered. The format for these number plates simply followed the format of three letters followed by three random numbers.



As you can imagine, there are only so many combinations available using this format, and with cars becoming more popular, by the time the early 1950’s came around it was time for a small change. The order of the letters and numbers were reversed leaving drivers of newly registered vehicles with registrations reading 123 ABC.


1963 -1983

Once again, changes had to be made to the registration plate due to a limited number of options available. 1963 saw the first number plates that denoted the year in which the vehicle was registered, this was due to the introduction of the Suffix system. Following a similar format to the original number plates, the Suffix system added a letter to the end of each registration, and this would indicate the year of registration. For example, ‘A’ indicated the year 1963, ‘B’ indicated 1964 and so on. Meaning that number plates generated during this time period would consist of three letters, three numbers followed by another letter to signify the year.

In 1973, new rules came into place regarding the look of registration plates, these rules were the foundation for the number plates that we see today. All newly registered vehicles must have a number plate on the front of the vehicle that has black letters on a white background, and for the rear of the vehicle it must have a yellow background. Both number plates must have a reflective background.

1983 – 2001

To extend the lifespan of this style of number plate, the Prefix system was introduced in 1983, this is where the letter indicating the year of registration was display at the start of the number plate. This wasn’t the only change made to the format when compared to the previous style, it became possible to also determine which region the vehicle was registered in, and this was indicated by the final two letters of the plate.

Meaning that registration plates during this period would follow the below format.

The middle 4 characters (3 numbers and 1 letter) are purely for unique identification purposes and have no deeper meaning to them.

2001 – Present

Fast forward to the present day and you are probably much more familiar with the workings of a registration plate, however since its introduction in 2001 there have been minor changes made to the registration format.  Below we break down exactly what the letters and numbers now mean.

Made up of seven characters split into two sections (expect for NI), the UK registration plate is relatively simple to follow.  Two letters start the registration, immediately followed by two numbers with a space separating this sequence from the final three characters.


What do the first two letters mean?

The two letters at the start of a current number plate indicate where in the UK a car is first registered. The first letter denotes the region – for example Y represents Yorkshire, L represents London and S represents Scotland. Following that, the second letter indicates which DVLA office within the region the registration was made

As for the numbers?

Up next, the numbers on a registration plate identify when the car is first registered, this identifier changes every six months.

Cars registered between March and August use the last two digits of the year itself. For example a 21 plate car will have first come onto UK roads in that period in 2021. When it comes to new cars registered between September and February, 50 is added to the value proceeding it – meaning that a car coming onto the roads in that period for 2021/22 would be designated with a 72 plate.

What about the final three letters?

Whilst there is logic to the first four characters on a licence plate, the final three letters are selected at random. This is to distinguish cars from those registered in the same time period at the same DVLA office and they can be any combination of letters from 24 of the alphabet’s 26 – both I and Q are excluded.

Some combinations are also manually prevented from circulation in order to prevent any that may appear as offensive.


Are your number plates compliant with the rules?

It may seem strange for there to be rules surrounding how your number plate looks, but it’s important that it can be identified if necessary, check out the current rules below.

  • Made from reflective material
  • Front plate must have black characters on a white background.
  • Rear plate must have black characters on a yellow background.
  • Must not have a background pattern
  • Identify who supplied the number plate.
  • Be marked with a British Standard number.
  • Characters cannot be removable.
  • Characters cannot be reflective.
  • If they were fitted after 1st September 2021, the characters must be a single shade of black.

Whilst there are lots of rules to comply to, there are some things you can do to personalise the look of your number plate.

  • Have 3D/raise characters.
  • Display certain flags and symbols
  • If you have a zero-emissions vehicle you can display a green flash.

Upcoming Name Plates

Check out the plate numbers that will available in the UK on the following dates:

 Plate Number

 Date Range of Plate

22 Plate

 March 2022 to August 2022

72 Plate

 September 2022 to Feb 2023

23 plate

 March 2023 to August 2023

73 plate

 September 2023 to Feb 2024

24 plate

 March 2024 to August 2024

74 plate

 September 2022 to Feb 2023