How to Read UK Number Plates

Ellie Dyer-Brown, 18 days ago

5 min read

  • Car ownership
  • How to
Mercedes reg plate

WhoCanFixMyCar explains the laws around UK number plates and how to understand them.

The UK’s number plate system is a source of confusion for many motorists who aren’t sure how to read the information hidden in the letters and numbers. That’s where this guide comes in - it explains everything you need to know about vehicle registration numbers.


The UK number plate system

How to read UK number plates

What year is my car by number plate?

Why are number plates white and yellow?

Rules for number plates

National flags on number plates

What does the green strip mean on number plates

When do new number plates come out?

What is a private number plate?


The UK number plate system

Vehicle registration numbers help to identify cars. They are allocated when a vehicle is registered but can be transferred or retained by the registered keeper.

New registrations were introduced annually until 1999, when the UK switched to a twice-yearly system. Then, in 2001, the current format was introduced, consisting of three parts:

  • Local memory tag

  • Age identifier

  • Random letters

How to read UK number plates

There are seven number plate characters: two letters, two numbers, a space, and three more letters.

UK car number plate

Local memory tag

The first two letters of any number plate show where the vehicle was registered. The first represents the region, and the second is used to indicate a local Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) office. 

However, the DVLA closed all its regional offices in 2023, handling registrations directly with dealerships instead. Although the system is centralised, dealers are allocated registration numbers reflecting their region.

So, if you buy a car from Yorkshire, the registration will start with a Y. Cars registered in Scotland have number plates that start with an S, and in Wales, it’s C for Cymru.

RegionCityMemory tag identifier
AngliaPeterboroughAA, AB, AC, AD, AE, AF, AG, AH, AJ, AK, AL, AM, AN
AngliaNorwichAO AP, AR, AS, AT, AU
AngliaIpswichAV, AW, AX, AY
BirminghamBirminghamBA, BC, BD, BE, BF, BG, BH, BJ, BK, BL, BM, BN, BO, BP, BY
CymruCardiffCA, CB, CC, CD, CE, CF, CG, CH, CJ, CK, CL, CM, CN, CO
CymruSwanseaCP, CR, CS, CT, CU, CV
CymruBangorCW, CX, CY
Deeside to ShrewsburyChesterDA, DB, DC, DD, DE, DF, DG, DH, DJ, DK
Deeside to ShrewsburyShrewsburyDL, DM, DN, DO, DP, DR, DS, DT, DU, DV, DW, DX, DY
EssexChelmsfordEA, EB, EC, ED, EE, EF, EG, EH, EJ, EK, EL, EM, EN, EO, EP, ER, ES, ET, EU, EV, EW, EX, EY
Forest & FensNottinghamFA, FB, FC, FD, FE, FF, FG, FH, FJ, FK, FL, FM, FN, FP
Forest & FensLincolnFR, FS, FT, FV, FW, FX, FY
Garden of EnglandMaidstoneGA, GB, GC, GD, GE, GF, GG, GH, GJ, GK, GL, GM, GN, GO
Garden of EnglandBrightonGP, GR, GS, GT, GU, GV, GX, GY
Hampshire & DorsetBournemouthHA, HB, HC, HD, HE, HF, HG, HH, HJ
Hampshire & DorsetPortsmouthHK, HL, HM, HN, HO, HP, HR, HS, HT, HU, HV, HX, HY, HW (used exclusively for Isle of Wight)
-LutonKA, KB, KC, KD, KE, KF, KG, KH, KJ, KK, KL
-NorthamptonKM, KN, KO, KP, KR, KS, KT, KU, KV, KW, KX, KY
LondonWimbledonLA, LB, LC, LD, LE, LF, LG, LH, LJ
LondonStanmoreLK, LL, LM, LN, LO, LP, LR, LS, LT
LondonSidcupLU, LV, LW, LX, LY
Manchester and MerseysideManchesterMA, MB, MC, MD, ME, MF, MG, MH, MJ, MK, ML, MM, MN, MO, MP, MR, MS, MT, MU, MV, MW, MX, MY
NorthNewcastleNA, NB, NC, ND, NE, NF, NG, NH, NJ, NK, NL, NM, NN, NO
NorthStocktonNP, NR, NS, NT, NU, NV, NW, NX, NY
OxfordOxfordOA, OB, OC, OD, OE, OF, OG, OH, OJ, OK, OL, OM, ON, OO, OP, OR, OS, OT, OU, OV, OW, OX, OY
PrestonPrestonPA, PB, PC, PD, PE, PF, PG, PH, PJ, PK, PL, PM, PN, PO, PP, PR, PS, PT
PrestonCarlislePU, PV, PW, PX, PY
ReadingReadingRA, RB, RC, RD, RE, RF, RG, RH, RJ, RK, RL, RM, RN, RO, RP, RR, RS, RT, RU, RV, RW, RX, RY
ScotlandGlasgowSA, SB, SC, SD, SE, SF, SG, SH, SJ
ScotlandEdinburghSK, SL, SM, SN, SO
ScotlandDundeeSP, SR, SS, ST
ScotlandAberdeenSU, SV, SW
ScotlandInvernessSX, SY
Severn ValleyWorcesterVA, VB, VC, VD, VE, VF, VG, VH, VJ, VK, VL, VM, VN, VO, VP, VR, VS, VT, VU, VV, VW, VX, VY
West of EnglandExeterWA, WB, WC, WD, WE, WF, WG, WH, WJ
West of EnglandTruroWK, WL
West of EnglandBristolWM, WN, WO, WP, WR, WS, WT, WU, WV, WW, WX, WY
YorkshireLeedsYA, YB, YC, YD, YE, YF, YG, YH, YJ, YK
YorkshireSheffieldYL, YM, YN, YO, YP, YR, YS, YT, YU
YorkshireBeverleyYV, YW, YX, YY

Age identifier

The next part of the registration plate contains two numbers, which tell you the age of the vehicle within a six-month period: March to August or September to February. The numbers change every six months, in March and September.

Cars made between March and August are easy to identify because they follow the registration year. For example, a car made in March 2024 would have 24 in the registration.

It’s more complicated for vehicles made between September and February. The numbers in the registration are determined by the year (as of September) with 50 added on. A car made in November 2021 would have 71 as the number plate’s numeric code (21+50=71).

Because of this system, a car registered in 2023 could have 23, 73 or 72 as the age identifier. 

Random letters

The final three letters are randomly assigned. They give your car a unique identity. Dealerships are often allocated batches of registration numbers. I and Q are not used because they could be misread as one and zero, but the letter Z is used in this part of the plate.

The DVLA withholds letter combinations that include swear words or could otherwise be offensive.

What year is my car by number plate?

As mentioned above, for cars registered between September and February, the age identifier is determined by the year (as of September) plus 50.

YearMarch to AugustSeptember to February

Why are number plates white and yellow?

Legal car number plates must be made of a white reflective material at the front and a yellow reflective material at the back, both with black letters. These combinations were chosen because they are the easiest to read. 

Yellow number plate

But why use different colours? According to the DVLA, UK number plates are designed to make it as easy as possible for drivers to tell whether they are looking at the front or back of a vehicle. It’s also illegal to show a white light at the rear of your car, so using white reflective material at the back could cause confusion.

Rules for number plates

There are strict rules that determine how the numbers and letters on your car’s registration plate look. These include:

  • The font used in the number plate has been used since 2001 and is called the Charles Wright font.

  • Characters must be 79mm and 50mm wide (except the number 1 or letter I).

  • The thickness of the character stroke must be 14mm.

  • The space between characters must be 11mm.

  • The vertical space between the age identifier and the random numbers must be 19mm.

  • The space between the age identifier and the random letters must be 33mm.

  • The margins at the top, bottom and side must be 11mm.

National flags on number plates

You can choose to display a GB national flag with the letters ‘GB’ on the far side of your number plate. The flags you can choose from are:

  • Union Jack

  • Scottish saltire

  • Red Dragon of Wales

  • St George’s cross

Union Jack on car number plate

You can also choose from the following letters:

  • United Kingdom or UK

  • Great Britain or GB

  • ENGLAND, England, Eng or ENG

  • CYMRU, Cymru, Cym or CYM

  • SCOTLAND, Scotland, Sco or SCO

  • WALES or Wales

Number plates displaying these flags and letters are legal when travelling outside the UK. However, they cannot all be used for identification purposes. Instead, to meet international requirements, you need to display the oval UK sticker if your number plate has any of the following:

  • a GB identifier with the Union flag

  • a Euro symbol

  • a national flag of England, Scotland or Wales

  • numbers and letters only – no flag or identifier

If your number plate features the UK identifier with the Union Jack, there’s no need to use a UK sticker.

What does the green strip mean on number plates?

Electric cars have a green strip on their number plates to indicate that they produce zero emissions. This feature was introduced in December 2020 as part of the government’s initiative to make all new cars EVs by 2035. It also applies to vans and motorbikes.

EV Fiat 500

Introducing a green strip allows authorities to more easily identify electric vehicles, which is helpful when creating benefit schemes that encourage drivers to go green.

When do new number plates come out?

New registration plates come out twice a year, in March and September. When they enter the market, they can affect the price of your car.

What is a private number plate?

Private number plates - also known as personalised number plates - are bought based on their characters. You can buy them through the DVLA or, if they’re already in circulation, from a private individual, auction or trader.

Private number plate

Private plates might represent a driver’s name, an important date or anything else, as long as it isn’t deemed offensive. The letters and numbers on private plates aren’t governed by the same rules as standard plates - they don’t have to follow a particular date format - but they must use the same font, colours and spacing. You can’t use a private plate to make your car look newer than it is, though you are allowed to make it look older.

Frequently asked questions

What does a UK number plate tell you?

A UK number plate tells you the age of a car and where it was registered.

Can I find someone’s name by their licence plate UK?

In most cases, finding someone’s name using their licence plate is not possible. The DVLA has this information but doesn’t give it to the public except when it believes the person making the request has ‘reasonable cause’. For example, this might include matters relating to road safety.

If you believe you have reasonable cause to request another driver’s details, you should fill in a V888 form and post it to the following address, along with a cheque or postal order for £2.50 made payable to ‘DVLA, Swansea’:

Vehicle Record Enquiries, DVLA, Swansea, SA99 1AJ.

Do you need a front number plate in the UK?

It is a legal requirement for all cars to have a front and rear number plate.

Why does my car have a number plate?

Number plates are used for several reasons:

  • To give each vehicle a unique identification

  • To link a vehicle to its registered keeper

  • To show that a vehicle is road legal

How much is my number plate worth?

The most expensive plates usually have very few letters or numbers and often represent rare cars. These can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

As of April 2024, the most expensive private plate ever sold in the UK was ‘25 0’, bought for £518,480 by classic car dealer and collector John Collins in 2014. It refers to one of the most expensive classic cars ever made, the Ferrari 250 TR and Ferrari 250 GTO.

However, standard number plates are typically only worth something if they have a special meaning to someone, which is unlikely for non-private plates.

Looking for affordable car repairs or maintenance? Whatever you need, WhoCanFixMyCar can help you find the right garage at the right price.

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