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Number Plates Explained

Number plates in the UK have been a compulsory mark on a vehicle from 1904. Since the Motor Vehicle Act launched in 1903, registration plates have been a way to deter and catch criminals as well as identify the millions of vehicles on the road. All registration plates, including private number plates in the UK are legally required to be either rectangle, or in some cases square, a common plate shape designed to be fitted to motorcycles and 4x4’s. All vehicle registration laws are strictly enforced by the DVLA.

The DVLA is the main point of contact for all number plate enquiries, with the DVA holding responsibility for all UK car plates including Northern Ireland registration marks. As of the 21st July 2014, the DVLA will take over ownership of all vehicle number plates as well as those in Northern Ireland, making the private number plate transfer process easier and cheaper for all.

All registration plates must conform to strict rules set by the DVLA. Vehicles registered before 1st January 1973 are excluded from the current standards, being allowed to hold black number plates with silver lettering. Vehicles registered after 1st January 1973 are required to be fitted with reflective white and yellow registration marks containing black lettering.

Although there is no legal size for an acrylic registration plate, the market standard measures 520 mm × 111 mm with the rear plates being the same or 285 mm × 203 mm or 533 mm × 152 mm.

What types of UK registration plates are there?

Great Britain currently holds 5 types of registration plates: suffix, prefix, current, Northern Irish and dateless number plates. All 5 types are legally allowed to be displayed on vehicles throughout the UK and Northern Ireland.

Dateless number plates were issued from 1903 – 1963 when the UK first began issuing registrations to vehicles across the country. Up until 1932, registrations such as LM 0 were used, and the structure made it easier for the DVLA to analyse the first letter (or two) to track where vehicles were first issued. The DVLA used this process until it soon came apparent that they were running out of the 4 numbers after the area code, and the DVLA issued numbers up to 9999 for every area across the UK and Northern Ireland. But even after reversing this dateless strategy and placing numbers at the start, the DVLA was still facing issues.

By August 1962, it had become obvious that the DVLA were due to run out of registrations again. This time the DVLA rolled out a nationwide scheme to resolve the issue furthermore. The DVLA introduced suffix registration plates. Simply by adding a letter at the end of the registration to represent the year a vehicle was first registered, this gave the DVLA millions of number plates to issue.

As of 1982 the DVLA had issued and every alpha letter to represent the registered year of a vehicle, Y – 1983. Towards the end of 1983 the DVLA yet again had to revise their nationwide number plate strategy by reversing the registration plates, and inserting a letter at the beginning of all number plates to represent their registered year. This is known as the prefix style registration plates, a style still widely used today. Prefix style number plates are the most popular private registration mark, with millions being available from as little of £89.

Towards the middle of 1990, discussions from various parties was in full swing as to whether the DVLA should join forces across Europe and follow a European Standard for all EU Countries. This idea was quickly scrapped, as by this time, many UK and Northern Irish citizens loved the number plates assigned by the DVLA and had began purchasing the first personalised number plates.

Car registration plates today

From September 2001, the prefix registration identifier was no more due to registration marks all being taken. After much consideration, the DVLA issued the Current Style registration mark, issuing the age identifier 51 to represent September 01. With 2 registration issues a year (March & September) the DVLA introduced this system to ensure it can cater for years to come. Number plates issued in March would be identified by 02 (March 2002) or 03 (March 2003) depending on the current year, while registration issued later in the year would containing a 5 before the year identifier 52 (September 2002) or 53 (September 2003). As of September 2014, the current style number plates are still being issued.

To avoid any discrepancies, the DVLA have never issued the letters I, O, Q, U and Z, due to these characters easily being misread for other numbers.

Northern Irish registration marks have never changed over the years, and are now used across the UK and Northern Ireland for private number plates. Northern Irish registration marks will always contain I or Z, to represent the area of Northern Ireland in which they were first issued.


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