Every year, new number plates are launched in spring and autumn, with 2020 heralding the release of the new 70 plate. As new cars roll off the production line and into showrooms across the country, they feature a fresh number plate that provides us with information about its production details.

But what exactly do these characters mean? If you've ever looked at your car and wondered what's on its number plate, then we're here to help. In this guide, we'll explain how to read a number plate, and provide helpful information and advice on private reg plates.

A brief history of Britain's number plates

The UK is one of the few countries to use age-related registration numbers on its plates, which began back in 1963. The early system denoted vehicle age by a letter from A to X found either at the beginning or end of the registration plate, which meant knowing what each letter meant to understand the year it was made.

This outdated approach was nixed in September 2001, with the introduction of the system that we currently use – a format that consists of two letters, followed by two numbers, followed by three more letters e.g. XX11 XXX.

Number plates and legal requirements

Obviously, it's a legal requirement to display number plates, and has been since 1903. While there are several different types of number plates for SUVs, lorries, motorbikes and cars, there are strict rules governing what a number plate must contain, which we'll go into further below.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) administers and records all UK number plates, which must be white on the car's front, yellow at its rear, and contain black lettering using a font called "Charles Wright, 2001".

What do number plates mean?

The first two letters of a number plate, called the memory tag, show where the vehicle was registered. For example, a number plate that starts with "LA" denotes the car was first registered in London, with the "L" indicating London, while the "A" specifies the particular area of London, in this case, the Wimbledon area.

The third and fourth digits, known as the age identifier, signify the year in which the car was made. For example, a car made this year will have 20 in its number plate, but if it's registered in the September plate change, it's the same year plus an extra 50, which is why cars registered in this season will have 70 plates.

This is standard across all cars registered since 2001, so you can work out the age of a vehicle if you are looking to purchase a used car – important when assessing quality and how much insurance you are going to need to pay for it.​

The car registration guidelines

The last three letters, meanwhile, are random letters assigned to a car that give the vehicle a unique identity.

This current system is able to run up to February 2051, with the last age identifier being "00". At this point, the DVLA will review and update the number plate system going forward.

How does this affect personalised number plates?

Personalised plates are undeniably a show of prestige, and can be highly sought after by motorists. Before 1989, personalised plates didn’t exist, but the DVLA soon noticed that there was a market for them and began to release plates which individuals could customise. Now, it's possible to get a personalised plate that spells out your initials relatively cheaply, but the closer a plate is to spelling an actual word, the more expensive it'll be.

Depending on the age of your vehicle, there may be restrictions on the registration that can appear on your number plate. It's important to take note of these limitations before making your decision.​

Where the personalised registration number has an age identifier (i.e. the two numbers in the first section of your number plate), you can only put that number onto a vehicle of equal age or newer. For example, if your personalised number plate features the numbers 08 or 58 in it, then the car will have to have been registered in 2008 or after.

Keep in mind that these restrictions still apply for older cars too. Perhaps you want to start your personalised registration plate with a singular letter? In this case, you must check the old number plate system to see if it is suitable for your car. If you choose a ‘W’ for instance, then you must ensure that your car was made in or after the year 2000.

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