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How the number plate system works

heycar editorial team

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heycar editorial team

Mercedes 2014 plate
  • The UK registration plate system explained
  • How you can work out where a car was first registered
  • How long will the current system last?

Even if personalised number plates aren’t your thing, your registration number will still be one of the few unique things about your car. It’ll tell anyone in the know where your car was first registered. More importantly if you’re buying a car, you’ll be able to see instantly how old it is and whether its condition and mileage match its age.

Number plate years

The most informative part of your car’s number plate is the one that tells you how old it is. This is shown by two numbers in the first four digits on your number plate.

The registration number for new cars changes in March and September. In 2017, cars registered between 1 March and 31 August show the number 17. Those registered from 1 September show 67.

The number 67 was then given to brand new cars until 1 March 2018 when it changed to 18.

A simple way of remembering car number plate years is that from March it is the year the car was registered in. From September it is that year plus 50. If someone asks you what year is a 60 plate, it’s easy to work out that it’s 2010, or possibly early 2011.

Where the car came from

The first two characters are what’s called ‘regional identifiers’. These enable you to pinpoint exactly where the car was first registered in the UK. All cars whose number plates start with BA to BY were registered in Birmingham. HA to HJ is the Bournemouth area while HK to HY is the Portsmouth region of Hampshire and Dorset, and OA to OY is Oxford.

The last three characters are the random section. This is allocated by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) to whichever dealership or car company registered the car. They’re unique to every car.

How long will it last?

The current system can cater for 12.6 million new registrations every year. Usually around two million new cars are registered every year. This is why the DVLA can hold back number plates that are unusual sequences, make up people’s initials or can look like words or names. These can then be sold to people who want private, personalised plates.

The current registration method will work until 2050. It is believed it will then be reversed. That will put the three random letters at the front and the regional identifier as the last two letters.

Car reg numbers by year

Number plates came about with the 1903 Motor Car Act. From 1 January 1904 it became the law for every car to have a registration plate.

Initially number plates were one letter and one number. Then two letters and four numbers. The letters were dependent on the council that issued the number plate, the numbers were random.

In 1932, it was changed to three letters followed by three numbers. When councils started running out of combinations in the 1950s, they simply reversed it so the numbers went first.

By the early 1960s, some councils were running out of number plate combinations again so a new practice was introduced.

What year is an X reg plate?

This system had three letters and three numbers as before but they were followed by a single letter or suffix. The letter A was for 1963, the first year of this; B for 1964 and so on.

In 1967, the system was tweaked so the registration change came in August rather than January. That meant 1967 saw E and F plates being issued, 1968 F and G and so on.

With no I, O, U or Z the 1982 X and Y plates were the last of this system. Q isn’t used either unless it was issued to a car that had been stolen and couldn’t be properly identified.

In 1983, the procedure was reversed so the age identifying letter started the sequence. In this prefix system, the letter is the age identifier and the last two letters show the area of the country the car was registered in. The three numbers and the first of the three letters are random.

In 1999, the registration system was tweaked again. This time rather than August, new registrations were issued in March and September. It also meant that the end of the alphabet with X and Y reg plates was reached in 2001. This neatly dovetailed with the introduction of the current registration method.

Where do personalised plates fit in?

Some personalised registration plates conform to the current practice, some don’t. For example, GLO 555Y belongs to the system in use from 1963 to 1983. But GL 05 SSY is from the current practice.

Even if plates are personalised, they must still use the regulation font, be the correct size and not have character spacing adjusted to make up words. This is so they can be easily read by both humans and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras. You can be fined up to £1000 for an illegal number plate.

The only major change to the look of registration plates came in 1973. From then on, all new cars had to have black lettering on a yellow plate at the rear, black letters on white at the front. Before that, number plates had been white letters on a black background.

Who issues number plates?

Currently car registration plates are issued by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Swansea. This got its name in 1990; it was previously called the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre (DVLC).

The DVLC took over administering registration plates from local councils in 1965. But in that pre-digital age switching the system over was such a massive task, it took nine years and the DVLC wasn’t fully functioning until 1974.

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