Number plates – how the UK system works

Number plates follow a complex system that came into place back in September 2001. Northern Ireland has its own system, but England, Scotland and Wales all follow the same one.

British number plates are in the format of two letters, two numbers and three letters. But what do these letters and numbers represent?

First two letters

The first two letters of number plates represent the area code. Originally, it represented the DVLA office where the car was first registered. However, since the DVLA closed all its regional offices in 2013, they now allocate registration numbers that reflect their traditional area code.

For example, if you were buying a new car from London the plate will start with an LA. Codes excluded are LI, LQ and LZ as the letters I, Q and Z can easily be confused with other letters and numbers.


The numbers show when the car was first registered and acts as an age identifier. More specifically, it tells you the six month period in which it was registered. Therefore, the numbers change every six months. Now this is where it gets a bit tricky.
The numbers that represent the registration date between March and August follow the exact numbers of the year. So, for number plates registered between March and August in 2018, the numbers will read 18.

However, the numbers that represent the registration date between September and February are more complicated. The numbers equal the year plus 50. So, if a car is registered in September 2018, the number will read 68 and if it’s registered in September 2008, it will read 58.

Last three letters

The DVLA allocates batches of numbers to dealerships. For example, the DVLA will give a dealership a batch of numbers between AAA and AZZ. They will receive another batch when they run out.

The DVLA withholds any combinations that may be considered offensive, you can use your imaginations…

Changing number plates

The DVLA sells number plates that it thinks has a high commercial value. So it is possible to have an ‘old’ plate on a ‘new’ car. You are also able to transfer your current number onto your new car.
However, you can’t have a newer plate code than one allocated for that cars date of registration. Otherwise, people could lie about how old their car really is, especially when selling a vehicle.

Number plates can seem confusing, and the current UK system can be hard to wrap your head around. But it’s set to stay in place until at least February 2051 so it’s worth understanding!

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