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What do the characters on a number plate really mean and what do they reveal about a car?

IF YOU’VE ever found yourself wondering how anyone came up with the random collection of characters on your car’s number plate, you’re not alone.

But you can put your questions to bed, as we have broken down exactly what each number and letter on your vehicle’s registration stands for.

 You can tell how old a car is and where it was registered using the first four characters of its number plate


You can tell how old a car is and where it was registered using the first four characters of its number plateCredit: Alamy

What do the letters on a licence plate mean?

When the DVLA issues a car registration plate, they actually follow a very distinct system.

The first section of a number plate is the local memory tag – the first two letters of the plate – which identifies where the vehicle was registered.

The first letter stands for the local area, for example E denotes Essex, while L stands for London.

The plate’s second letter then identifies at which DVLA office in that area the registration took place – multiple letters can signify the same DVLA office.

The letters I, Q and Z are not used as local office identifiers, while Z can be used only as a random letter.


A – Anglia

B – Birmingham

C – Cymru

D – Deeside

E – Essex

F – Forest and Fens

G – Garden of England

H – Hampshire and Dorset

K – No official region

L – London

M – Manchester and Merseyside

N – North

O – Oxford

P – Preston

R – Reading

S – Scotland

V – Severn Valley

W – West of England

X – Denotes personal export

Y – Yorkshire

How can you tell how old your car is using your licence plate?

The two numbers in the middle of your plate identify how old the car is.

The DVLA issues two lots of number plate combinations each year, on March 1 and September 1.

All plates issued between March 1 and the end of August will use the same two numbers as the year they are registered.

For example, a car registered in May 2019 would have “19”.

For cars registered between September and the end of February, they use the current “60” format.

Vehicles registered after September 2010 were marked with a 60, where the “0” stands for 2010.

So any motor registered after September in the following years can have its age identified by the second number.

For example, a car registered in November 2019 will use “69”.

From 2020, post-September registrations will use the “70” format.

 Graphic shows what is and isn't legal for a number plate layout


Graphic shows what is and isn’t legal for a number plate layout

Is any of a number plate random?

The final three letters of the number plate tend to be a random combination that make the registration unique.

But it’s not uncommon for cars with neighbouring letter sequences to be from the same manufacturer, due to batch allocation of new registrations to dealers by the DVLA.

The letters “Q” and “I” are excluded from the random sequence, along with any phrases that are deemed offensive.

Using the current scheme, there will be sufficient combinations to last until the end of February 2051.

What about registrations before September 2001?

From 1983 onward, licence plates used a leading letter to represent the year of first registration.

The letter “A” was used at the front of the plate in 1983, progressing through the alphabet, finishing with “Y” at the end of August 2001.

There were hundreds of region codes using a combination of a leading letter and a second to identify where the car was from.

Prior to 1983, the same system was used, but with the year letters at the end of the plate rather than the beginning.

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