Number Plates Explained, New and Old

UK number plate question marks

We all see number plates every day, but what do they actually mean?

Current number plates use a system that was introduced in September 2001. This system uses the following format: two letters, then two numbers, followed by three more letters, i.e. XX11XXX. Keep reading for a cogent guide to what these letters and numbers mean.

The first two letters

Number plates begin with two letters known as the “local memory tag.” These denote where the vehicle was registered. The first letter represents the region, and the second letter represents a DVLA local office in that region. 

For example, a vehicle registered in London will have a number plate starting with LA through to LY, with A through Y representing one of the 25 DVLA local offices in London. Take note that ‘Z’ is used as a placeholder in the current system, meaning it never actually represents a local office. Local memory tags are assigned to the car, not the car’s owner. If a car changes hands, it’s memory tag will stay the same, unless the car is destroyed or permanently exported out of the country.

The two numbers

The two numbers in the middle of a number plate indicate a car’s age. Somewhat counterintuitively, these numbers don’t actually correspond with for a specific year, but instead with a specific six-month period.

How does this work? A number beginning with 0 – like “03” – represents the period between March 1st and August 31st of 2003. And a number beginning with 5 – like “53” – represents the period between September 1st, 2003 and the last day of February, 2004. This format continues for number plates after 2010, only that the first digits are one higher. 0 becomes 1, and 5 becomes 6. So, “16” represents March 1st to August 31st 2016, and “66” represents September 1st, 2016 to February 28th, 2017. And similarly, after 2020 March-August will be “20”, and September-February will be “70”.

If this makes your head spin a little, you’re not alone. It’s confusing. This table should help.

The last three letters

The last three letters of a number plate are chosen at random and are unique for each car. These numbers are associated with the individual car and the dealership where it was sold. 

Did you know? Using only the number plate, Gapless can produce a comprehensive report about any car’s history. Sound interesting? Check out the Gapless car history report generator.

How did the previous number plate system work?

Between 1983 and 2001, number plates used this format: X111 XXX. 

The first letter represented the year the car was registered. Originally, this changed each year in August, but from 1999 it was updated every six months until the entire number plate system was revamped in September 2001.

In order to avoid any confusion, the letters I, O, U and Z were never used as year identifiers because of their visual similarities to numbers and other letters.

Much like the last three letters in the new system, the three numbers in the old system are a unique, random tag.

What your number plate can do for you

Number plates are unique identifiers, which is why the government uses them to store information about individual cars. This means a number plate is essentially the key to a car’s past and identity, and that’s exactly what you unlock when you create a Gapless profile.

Using nothing but your car’s number plate, Gapless finds a wide range on information about your car, like it’s make, model, year of manufacture, MOT history, tax status, etc for free. What’s more, Gapless will display and organise all this information on a sleekly designed, intuitive platform that you can access from your smartphone anytime, anywhere.

Gapless is free to download for iOS and Android phones. Just install the app, create and account and enter your number plate to get started!

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