How To Read Number Plates in the UK

You see them hundreds of times each day but have you ever stopped to think about what exactly a number plate tells us? In this blog, we’ll take a look at the current and historical reg plate systems and how you can understand the British number plate system.

The history of number plate systems

You may not have noticed by in 2001 the way number plates were generated changed entirely to a new system. Before then, a different system was in place from 1983. 

Number plates were in the format of X111 XXX. The first letter identified the age of the car by referencing a period of time it was produced in. For example, P meant the car was produced between August 1996 – July 1997. The three numbers are randomly assigned and the first two letters told you where the car was registered. The final letter was also random.

This system was in use from 1983 up until 2001. Before then, between 1963 and 1983, a very similar format was in use, the only difference being the age identifier which was at the end of the plate.

How do number plates work now?

The current system rearranged and changed the formatting of the previous leading to the new format of XX11 XXX. Two letters, two numbers and another three letters. From this format, you can work out where a car was initially registered, the year it was registered and more specifically the 6 month period it was registered.

In order to work out the age of the car, you’ll want to pay attention to the two numbers. In a much simpler way than the old system, the number is simply the year it was produced. For example, 12 would be 2012, 04 would be 2004. However, this changes if the car was registered between the 1st of September and the end of February where you will need to subtract 50 from the number. For example, 56 means the car was registered between the 1st of September and the end of February in 2006.

As mentioned, you can also work out the general area a car came from through the first two letters of the registration plate. The first letter represents a region. For example, London is represented by L, Yorkshire is identified by Y (you can find the full list here.) The next letter represents the local DVLA office, to help better pinpoint its registration area.

Finally, the last three letters are randomly generated by the dealership the car came from. This means that every car will be uniquely identifiable.

This system will work until 2050/2051 at which point it will reach XX50 XXX and XX00 XXX.

A few number plate rules

There are a few rules for registration plates to ensure that they can be easily read and understood at a quick glance. They are as follows;

  • The letters I, O and Q cannot be used as they can be easily confused with 1 and 0.
  • Your rear plate must be lit at night and not be obscured by anything, including dirt.
  • Letters must be of a certain size and colour (more on this here.)

Personalised number plates from Reg Plates

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