The Secret Meanings Behind Number Plates

You see them every day, to the point where they are almost background noise. There is a purpose to how they’re selected, though, and they could tell you something new about the vehicle they’re attached to.

We’ll walk you through the secret meanings behind number plates. The current style of plate – introduced in September of 2001 – has a surprising amount of information hidden within its seemingly-random string of letters and numbers. It might also help explain the buzz that happens every March and September – new reg number seasons. Let’s take a look at what’s hidden in those seven little digits…

First Two Letters
To begin things, these two characters refer to where the car was registered with the DVLA. Each letter actually refers to separate locations: the first to the wider region of the country, and the second to the specific DVLA office that handled the car’s registration. By reading these two letters you can essentially see the part of the country where the car originally came from.

It’s not always a precise process, though. Plates that begin with a B will always hail from Birmingham, but W refers to the entirety of the west of England, C to the whole of Wales (for Cymru) and S for Scotland. It’s the second letter that gives some clarity to actual location: for Wales, CA-CO are Cardiff registrations, CP-CV are from Swansea and CW-CY are from Bangor. In typical bureaucratical fashion, it’s not exactly the most simple or intuitive thing to follow.

Here’s a fun fact about the number plate font: none of the location codes use the letters I, O, Q and Z, since they look to similar to the numbers 1, 0 and 2.

Middle Numbers
The only numbers on a standard registration plate tell you when the car was registered. That might sound odd if you have one with a number in the 50s, 60s or 70s, but there’s a reason for this.

Low numbers (1 to 21) refer to cars that were registered between March and August of the corresponding year, e.g. a number plate with 13 was registered sometime between March and August of 2013. For cars registered September to February, they use the year that the September falls in plus 50; 2005 being 55, 06 being 56, all the way up to the current year, which would now be 71. It can be a little confusing: a 67 plate could be from 2018 if it was registered in January or February.

So from a glance you can have a rough idea of the age of the car, just from its number plate. And you’ll be able to tell for a while yet, since the current way of numbering years can last until the year 2051. At this point the DVLA will be forced to rethink the numbering system, for whatever self-driving flying cars or interstellar craft might exist then.

Last Letters
No secret messages or underlying reasoning here – these are three random letters, to differentiate it from cars whose first four characters might be the same. As with the first letters, the letters I and O cannot be used, although Z and Q can.

This doesn’t mean you might see any combination of these numbers and letters on a number plate. There are such things as banned number plates; combinations of all seven characters that looks like potentially rude or offensive words or phrases.

There’s a few extra things you might find on a number plate besides just numbers and letters, though. Don’t forget that plates can feature flags and country codes for UK countries. Front plates can also sport a green stripe if it’s registered to an electric vehicle. To “raise the profile of battery-powered cars.”

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