How does the UK licence plate system work?

Posted by on August 17th, 2017

Alert: Some on the information on this page may no longer be relevant post-Brexit. For the most up to date information, please visit GOV.UK

Car registration plates are such a mundane part of life that you very rarely notice them unless you’ve had a run in with somebody else on the road and you’ve needed to note them down.

However, when the current UK vehicle licencing system came into service in 2001 it was big news.

It replaced a system that had been in use for almost 20 years and, having reached the end of its useful life, had to be replaced as there were no new variations possible.

While cars with old style registrations can occasionally be spotted on UK roads, they’re a dying breed and it’s the new style licence plate that rules the roost.

So how do UK licence plates work and what does a registration plate tell you?

The UK vehicle licence plate system

UK licence plates consist of seven characters, here’s what they mean:

The first two characters

The first two letters are local memory tags. They indicate where the vehicle was registered. For example, LA licence plates are registered in London.

You can find out where your vehicle was first registered here.

The numbers in your licence plate

The numbers on your vehicle’s registration plate indicate the age of your vehicle.

These numbers are changed every six months on 1 March and 1 September.

The first new style registration plates were introduced in September 2001 and used the number 51. In March 2002 they changed to 02 and in September they went to 52.

Since then, the numbers have gone up by single figures respectively, changing to 50 in September 2010 and 10 in the same year.

So, if your car has 09 in its registration, it was registered in 2009 and if you have a 64 in your registration, it was registered in 2014.

Here’s a full list of standard licence plate numbers and the year and month they were introduced.


The last three characters

The last three letters of your vehicle’s registration plate are the only ones that don’t mean anything. They’re randomly generated.

The last three letters are the only place you’ll find a ‘Z’ in a registration plate too; ‘Z’ is never used in local memory tags.

What can you find out from a vehicle’s registration?

As well as determining a vehicle’s age and place of registration, you can find out more details about a vehicle using the registration plate through the DVLA’s vehicle enquiry service.

You can see engine size, CO2 emissions and fuel type, as well as other key details like vehicle tax and MOT status.

Can you keep an old registration plate?

If you need to scrap an old vehicle you can keep the registration plate but if it’s a standard plate you can’t use it on your next vehicle.

If you own a private number plate you can transfer it to your new vehicle online or by post through the DVLA, and it’s free.

Other related articles you may be interested in

What happens when new registration plates are released?
Registration plates and your car insurance