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Understanding UK number plates

December 12, 2023

Number plates are essential for every vehicle in the United Kingdom and driving without a number plate is illegal. They are the unique identifier that links a vehicle to its owner and allows for identification by the authorities or in the event of a car accident.

However, the UK's number plate system is not as simple as just assigning a random string of characters to a car. This blog will delve into the structure, history, and regulations surrounding UK number plates. Also find out what number plate faults will result in an MOT failure.

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What are number plates

Number plates, also referred to as licence plates or registration plates, are identifiers affixed to the front and back of a vehicle. These plates prominently display the Vehicle's Registration Number (VRN), enabling easy identification.

In the past, Great Britain and Northern Ireland had two different number plate systems in place. As of September 28, 2021, the UK shifted its identifier from GB to UK, applicable both in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The UK number plate system has been in place since 1903, introduced by the Motor Car Act. Since then, it has evolved through various systems, including the suffix and prefix systems, and the current system in place - the 'current style' system, which was introduced in 2001.

Different number plate formats and where the age identifier sits

The structure of UK number plates

The UK number plate is made up of seven characters, divided into two sections. The first section comprises the local memory tag and age identifier. The second section is a string of random letters.

UK number plate structure and what the different sections mean

Local memory tag

The first two letters show where the vehicle was registered. The first letter represents the region (for example ‘L’ for London), and the second corresponds to a DVLA local office.

We’ve attached a full list of local memory tags at the end of this blog, scroll down to view!

Age identifier

The two numbers following the local memory tag indicate the vehicle’s age, which is the six-month period in which the vehicle was first registered. New vehicles are registered every year in March, and September.

Random letters

The last three letters are random and provide a unique identifier for the vehicle.

An example would be ‘LA07 ABC’ where ‘LA’ denotes the car was registered in London, ‘07’ indicates the car was registered between March and August 2007, and ‘ABC’ is the unique identifier.

The legalities of UK number plates

All number plates must be made from a reflective material and display black characters on a white background (front) or yellow background (rear). They must also follow the Charles Wright 2001 font, without any changes to the spacing between characters.

As of 2021, new cars are issued number plates that include a mandatory green flash to indicate that the vehicle is zero-emission. The green flash is not required on vehicles registered before this date even if they are zero-emission.

It is illegal to alter, rearrange, or misrepresent the characters on a number plate to form names or words, and you can face a fine of up to £1,000 if caught.

Personalised number plates

You can purchase personalised number plates either from the DVLA or from a private dealer. However, there are certain rules and regulations that drivers must follow.

Taking a private number off your vehicle, but keeping it (retention)

If you don’t want to use your private number anymore, you will need to apply to take it off your vehicle via the DVLA website.

You’ll then get a V778 retention document that proves you still have the right to use the personalised number.

Selling a personalised number plate

If you don’t wish to use your private number plate anymore, you can sell it online.

Remember, do not share a photograph or scan of the V778 document with anyone but the buyer. Someone else can get a hold of this and use it on another vehicle.

Transferring a personalised plate from one vehicle to another

If you already own a personalised plate but want to put it on another vehicle, you will need to apply to take it off the original vehicle and fill another form to assign it to the new vehicle.

Buying a personalised number plate

From the DVLA

The DVLA hosts number plate auctions about 5 times a year. The DVLA auctions 1,000 number plates on each day and drivers can bid in person, on the phone, in writing or online.

The next 3 auctions taking place this year fall on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd of June in Chesterfield – save these dates if you’re looking to purchase some new number plates!

From a private dealer

If you’re buying personalised plates from a private dealer, most will transfer the number plate to you.

If you want to keep or assign the number yourself, ask the dealer for the V778 form.

Taking off a personalised number plate

You will need to apply to take off your number plate if you want to:

  • Keep the number plate to use later
  • Assign it to another vehicle

When you take off a personalised number plate, the original reg plate is automatically assigned to your vehicle.

To take off your personalised number plate, your vehicle must be:

  • registered with the DVLA
  • able to move on its own power
  • a type that needs an MOT
  • available for inspection
  • taxed or have a SORN in place

It costs £80 to apply, and can be either done online or by post. If the vehicle is not in your name, you will only be able to apply by post.

When you take off your personalised plate:

After you apply to take off the number plate, you will receive:

  • A new V5C showing the vehicle’s replacement registration
  • A V778 retention document if the personalised number plate is in your name

If you are selling the private number plate, the V778 document will be sent to the new owner.

Can number plates cause MOT failure

Yes. The first thing MOT testers perform during an MOT is a reg plate check. Research conducted by the BNMA found that nearly 4% of all vehicles fail an MOT due to faulty number plates.

Here’s a list of 7 reasons that could cause an MOT failure due to a number plate:

  1. Cracked or smashed reg plate
  2. Dirty reg plate that obscures the vehicle registration number
  3. Rear reg plate light is damaged or not working
  4. Coloured reg plate lights
  5. Missing reg plate
  6. Loose or stuck on reg plates
  7. Incorrect registration

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In conclusion, number plates in the UK are more than just random combinations of letters and numbers. They hold significant information about the vehicle's registration and are governed by specific rules to maintain order and standardisation.

Remember, if you are considering purchasing a personalised number plate, ensure that it adheres to DVLA regulations to avoid any unwanted penalties.

Local memory tag identifiers:

Full list of all local memory tag identifiers

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