Understanding UK Vehicle Number Plates Format

The current number plate format in the United Kingdom was introduced in September 2001 as the previous format, introduced in 1983, had nearly exhausted its available sequence. The new number format, designed by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA, for England, Scotland and Wales), and Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA, for Northern Ireland), is comprised of eight characters divided into four categories. We’ll explain the format using the sample number of AB12 CDE.

  1. Local Memory Tag: The first two characters, AB, originally referred to DVLA’s local offices where the registration took place. However, following the closure of DVLA’s 39 offices, the memory tag now refers to the location of the car dealer where the car was purchased.

  2. Age Identifier: The third and fourth characters, 12, show the registration year of the vehicle. For registrations made between March and August, the year of registration is used. For instance, 17 for 2017, 15 for 2015 and 12 for 2012. For registrations made between September and February, the number 50 is added to the year. For instance, 67 for 2017, 65 for 2015, and 62 for 2012. Please note that for registrations made in January and February, the preceding year is used as a baseline. Ergo, vehicles registered on January 2017 will use 66 (16, for 2016, plus 50).

  3. Space: The fifth character is an empty space.

  4. Random Letters: The sixth to eight characters are unique letter sequences selected randomly. All letters of the alphabet, with the exception of ‘I’ and ‘Q’, are used here.

Using the information above, we can now quickly surmise that the sample plate number AAB12 CDE belongs to a vehicle purchased between March and August 2012 in Peterborough.

DVLA claims that this format will comfortably fulfil requirements until 2050. So if you are not too keen on the present format and would like to wait for a new one, you’ll only have to wait until 2051.

Previous Number Plate Systems

Since 1903, the country has used six different number plate systems.

  1. 1903 – 1932: A regional prefix comprising of either one or two letters followed by a space and a sequential number between 1 and 9999 (e.g., AB 1234)

  2. 1933 - 1950s: A three-letter regional prefix, followed by a space and a sequential number between 1 and 999 (e.g., ABC 123)

  3. 1950s – 1962: The explosion in car ownership in the post-World War II era took the government by surprise. As such, a quick solution to a lack of new registration numbers was to simply turn the previous format around, i.e., the number sequence is placed in front of the regional prefix (e.g., 123 ABC)

  4. Suffix system (1963 - 1983): The plate format underwent a massive change in 1963. The format was divided into three parts: a year of production (A is 1963, B is 1964 and so forth), a random three-digit number between 1 and 999, and a three-letter local office tag (e.g., A 123 BCD)

  5. Prefix system (1983 – 2000): It’s another flip. The format now places the year of registration at the end (e.g., 123 BCD A)

  6. Present system (2001 – 2050, estimate)