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Understanding registration plates on cars

By raccars Published

All cars in the UK are required by law to display registration plates, which can be used to identify both the car and its owner if the vehicle is involved in an accident or any unlawful activity. The number plate has been compulsory in the UK since 1903 but their format has changed on a number of occasions since then.

The car keeps the same registration number throughout its lifespan unless the owner chooses to change to an alternative set of plates. Registration numbers are administered by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), which keeps the details of all British registered vehicles on record.

Decoding the current registration plate format

Registration plates in the UK are obliged to follow set regulations relating to their size and style of font, although certain 4x4s and motorcycles use a different shaped plate. At the front, cars must display a plate with a white background and black text, and on the back the plate background must be yellow and the text black. The standard car typeface is 79mm high, 64mm for motorcycles, and 50mm wide. The font used is 'Charles Wright 2001', a reworking of a 1935 font by Charles Wright.

The current style of registration plates used in the UK was introduced in September 2001, with a three part layout. The first part consists of two letters which indicate an area code to show where the car was first registered. The letters 'LP' identify cars registered in London, for example, while 'MM' is assigned to Manchester and Merseyside. These were initially linked to the locations of local DVLA offices, which have since been closed but the area codes remain in use.

The next part of the system is a two digit number indicating the car's age. The first code in the current series was '51', issued in September 2001, followed by '02' in March 2002. These were followed by 52, then 03, 53, then 04, and are renewed every March and September. March plates use the last two digits of the current year, so cars sold this year until September will use the digits '16'. Plates issued in the September - February period use the current year plus 50, so from September this year until February 2017 will read '66'.

The final part of the plate features three letters in random order, using all letters of the alphabet except I and Q. Potentially offensive letter combinations are also excluded from use.

Owners are permitted to change their registration plates but may not use a plate which gives the impression that a car is younger than its real age, although they may use a plate with a year indicator older than the car's actual age. The current scheme has sufficient number combinations available to keep running until February 2051.

Registration plates and the EU symbol

You may have noticed the blue strip on the left of registration plates in the UK, displaying the EU logo and the country code GB. This is not a mandatory requirement within the UK but drivers travelling abroad using plates without this symbol must affix the traditional white GB identifier sticker to their car. Owners of British registered vehicles can choose instead to display their own UK national emblem for England, Scotland or Wales on the blue strip instead of the Euro and GB symbols, but must still display a GB sticker if travelling abroad.

Crown dependencies

Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man count as Crown dependencies but are not part of the United Kingdom or the European Union and thus use their own registration plate styles in different formats.

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