Custom (UK mainland) car number plates

My previous blog on DVLA paperwork sparked an interesting debate, so I though I would say more, summarise some of the issues, and expand on them.

UK car number plates have gone through a lot of changes over the decades, and living in the UK, we mostly know these. Those from other countries may find some of it odd. AFAIK places like the US have different systems. In the UK the plate is UK wide, not state wide or county wide, and managed by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Normally the plate stays with the car, unchanged, forever. There are regional aspects to some of the lettering used in some cases. So a few points on UK plates generally before we start. There are cases that plates can be re-assigned to new vehicles though...

First off, they are in various fixed formats. Unlike some places where you can have almost any word you like, the UK has some fixed formats, but some of these are quite old and can still be used.

Some really old plates were numbers and/or letters. I don't know the exact formats, but a plate of A1 is still valid, and it's a Black Mini, apparently. Wikipedia has a detailed history (here).

To use an old plate it has to have been transferred from the originally assigned car over time to the car it is on now. They are not issued new. It is possible to assign to a "retention certificate" and then back to a car though, within time limits.

Then we have plates of this format, a three letter code, a number from 1 to 999, and a year letter.

Again, these are not issued new, so only exists if transferred from car to car. I passed my test in that one.

The three letters were partly an area or region. The number was arbitrary.

Then we have more modern plates, which are simply the other way around, year letter, number 1-999, and three letters...

That one is white Porsche. I am not surprised. These can be purchased new still as cherished plates. Many nice ones are up for auction.

At this point, or around then, DVLA started to hold on to numbers 1-20, 100, 200, 300, and 111, 222, 333, an so on, as "special" and sell them separately.

The year letter used to change each year and the motor industry managed to push it forward until it was like August, and then complained that all the sales were in that month for the new plates. The fix was two letters a year, which used them up quickly.

Then we have the current format, which is two letters, two digits year code, and three letters. The year is last two digits of year or that plus 50, so two changes of year code a year... E.g. this is 2017.

This was, until a few days ago, a Tesla...

By the way, the font, size, colour, and spacing is now strictly controlled, which never used to be the case, and some really old cars are still allowed to show plates in the old format. There days, front plates are black on white and rear are black on yellow.

So, with this latest format, it is quite hard to make a plate look "custom". Not all letters are allowed. Only year codes that exist so far and that are older or same age as the car, are allowed. So limited. If you can spell something, that is likely a reserved and very expensive plate.

So I went for something simpler for James's Tesla. This is not his plate, but same idea. Why not make something that looks uncommon / unusual and even better if it has some meaning. E.g.

Sadly they don't do "OOO" as the letter codes, and the space is required, but this is "8" in binary, which is what the "B" means. There are actually several ways you could make a plate of this sort of style, and the number of "O"'s and "I"s in it make it look "special" I think. Am I wrong. Does this look like any random plate or something special? That plate is actually still available for £499 if you want it, James has something similar. I think we have achieved the "special" and "obviously custom" with this plate. I hope so.

Printing plates

Now, when James got the paperwork, I blogged how silly it was as he assigned it on line. What was amusing is they sent a PDF with a background image as a certificate to take to the place making the plates. They need this else they could be in trouble.

The issue is that it is just a PDF, could easily be edited to any plate you want.

Also, for no good reason, it had to be used within 3 working days and no duplicates would be issued?!?! Again you could edit the date. But I assume they feel that within 3 working days you'll have a new V5 that you can use to get a new plate anyway.

But go on-line and you can order any plate, valid or not, in a matter of days for the same price as halfwitsHalfords. I think they print in another country to ensure compliance with the law!

I did suggest he had them fit the plate, if only to fuck with the car parking at The Point, in Bracknell, which is all ANPR based there, free for 2 hours. He would arrive with one plate and leave with another, and when he gets a parking fine he has every valid reason to dispute it. He was not that "adventurous" sadly.

Sadly the plastic plates were too thick to fit on the Tesla, so some embossed metal plates are on the way, from the Internet, without seeing the fancy PDF certificate!


OK there are a huge number of issues with "cherished" plates in UK, and my last blog highlighted these a lot. The biggest issue is around the logical "ownership" of a plate. (some of these taken from anonymous poster on my blog).
  • If you buy a plate that is not currently on a vehicle and is held only on a retention certificate then DVLA will not change the name of the owner of the plate. The certificate will still be in the seller's name and you as buyer will just be listed as someone who CAN put it on to a vehicle, but not someone who owns it. Years later, thinking you own the plate, you could go to put it on a vehicle and find that the previous owner re-sold it and DVLA allowed this as you had not yet exercised your right to put it on a vehicle so DVLA still had it down as owned by the person who sold it to you years before.
  • If you want to eliminate that risk then the only way to get your name listed on the DVLA paperwork as the plate owner is to put the plate onto a car and then immediately take it off again whilst specifying on the "take it off again" form who the new plate owner should be. DVLA will then issue a retention certificate in your own name. If neither the seller nor buyer of the plate have such a vehicle available then changing the name of the plate owner can't be done
  • If you put your own plate onto someone else's car (employer's company car / boyfriend's car, etc.) then DVLA consider that the registered keeper of that car now owns that plate and you as true owner lose all rights to that plate from that moment on. DVLA will allow the employer/boyfriend to sell that plate without any reference to you. Never put a plate on a vehicle unless you are the registered keeper of that vehicle.
  • If your car is written off, your insurer will be wise to this and will try to steal the plate using this method as soon as they become the registered keeper - get the plate taken off the car before the agreement to settle the claim and write off is made and before you sign over the car (or it's remains) to the insurer
  • You cannot apply a plate to be assigned to a car that has had any break in vehicle tax or SORN in last five years? The issue is that if you buy a car, how do you know that? It is not, AFAIK, on the paperwork, and also not your fault so why are you penalised by not being allowed to apply your plate to your new car exactly? Indeed, DVLA site says that you need 5 years unbroken tax/SORN so implies cars under 5 years old cannot get a new plate - thankfully the DVLA web site lies on this point. James has his plate assigned to a new(ish) car.
  • If it is deemed that you misrepresented the plate (incorrect font, size, spacing, etc) you can lose it!
  • Occasionally insurance companies (and ANPR based carparks) get confused by a change of plate. It was even suggested insurance companies may charge for change of plate, which is odd, as surely it is a matter of fact of which you are obliged to notify them and under data protection law they are obliged to record a change (for free).
So basically, a mess. A proper "entitlement" to a plate would be a good thing to be able to record and allow to be transferred. It is quite strange that we have this mess.

So there you have it, UK plates, pitfalls and issues...


  1. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but has a completely different (undated) plate scheme, and these are perfectly valid and transferable to rUK cars.

    1. Do they get issued by a different authority - what's the web site?

    2. Yes, DVA NI handles it :

      You can still buy NI plates from DVLA auctions or various 3rd party reseller companies. You can get shorter 5 and 6 digit plates too.


  2. One observation, plates aren't always black on white/black on yellow. If it's 1/1/1975 or earlier and in the right tax class you can use silver on black, as per your pic of A1.

    1. And interestingly, you can now put silver-on-black plates on some cars registered much later than the change over to white/yellow plates, and which would never have been allowed to have them when new.

      White/yellow plates came in in the L suffix year, and most cars with an L suffix would have been require to have them. However, you can now fit them to some cars as late as a P suffix (three years later because there was no O), in order to give your car "historical authenticity" according to the government info page.

  3. Sounds like you're sorted but the best source for metal plates that fit in the Tesla holders is http://www.number1plates.com/

    Or as long as you have a proper proof of entitlement Tesla will print them for you - they have plate printing machines at most of their service centres AFAIK.

    The trick with the Tesla plateholders is to pop the plate out of the clips at one end and then slide the whole thing out sideways. And do the reverse when fitting new ones.

  4. I gave you several of those 'gotcha' points but I did not know the 5-year continuous tax problem. What if the car has been at a dealer for 6 months? Seller has acted legitimately in selling it to the dealer. Dealer has acted legitimately. I have acted legimiately in buying it. So why should I be banned from putting a personal plate on it?

  5. In Jersey, it's just J followed by a number, which I believe is just sequential. My Dad bought a car with J42, which we had for a short time but eventually had to give back to the previous owner. Another time, he had to get a brand new plate and managed to get J67890 purely by chance.

  6. Interesting point you raise there at the end.
    It's always frustrated me that stuff you legally have to tell your insurers about (else they void your policy) such as a change of plate, or a change of address etc, always attracts an admin charge

  7. The rules say 5 years tax OR SORN. I know that when my own cars aren't on the road I'm obliged to SORN them so expect a motor trader has to do the same. Or maybe since sale to a motor trader is treated specially (it doesn't count as a change of keeper) then there is some sort of implied SORN.

    My experience was that the online system wouldn't accept an assignment when we bought the car from a dealer because it hadn't been continuously taxed, but a DVLA operator looked into it and the transfer went through without issue.

    I think the rule is there to stop you taking plates off of wrecks that have lain in peoples sheds for years. Same reason the donor car needs to be capable of being MOT'd. Which is itself somewhat inconsistent since historic cars are now MOT exempt.

    1. Dealers can't tax cars whilst they are 'in the trade' They must be driven on trade plates for business use only (e.g. repairs, test drives etc.). They must register the car in their name if they wish to tax it.

    2. I caught out a b**ls*****ng dealer on this once. It would be in appropriate to mention their name but it starts with B and ends with W and has a letter inbetween.

      Was looking at spending north of £60k. Dealer refused a proper test drive in a demo car (by which I mean 7 days unlimited mileage to see if the car's really any good).

      When I pushed them they claimed that the only reaosn it could not be done as their most suitable demo vehicle had no tax disc otherwise they would be perfectly happy for me to try the vehicle for a week. But without a tax disc the best they could offer is 5 miles round the block accompanied by a sales goon.

      "No problem", says I. "I'll drop £200+ in your bank, right now, you tax it either online or at a Post Office and you drop the car at my house this afternoon. I'll run your man back to the railway station. I don't need a refund of the 51 weeks of tax disc that I will not have used. You can reclaim that and keep it. Easy. Problem solved."

      "Err, no, we lied about the tax disc excuse. You caught us out."


  8. In the prefix and suffix formats the first of the 3 letters is a serial number. The next two letters identify the DVLA local office, often with a bit of a mnemonic, MR was Manchester, GA Glasgow.

    I remember once in the south of France my Dad bizarrely stopping to talk to the driver of a car coming the other way. It was because he initially recognised the number plate as being a 'local' one and it turned out the occupants were friends of ours.

  9. I used to have the registration USO 8X on the car I owned when I first passed my test. I'd often see people looking at the plate, silently mouthing the letters trying to work out what it meant. Sometimes they'd come up and ask, "what *does* your plate mean?"

    "Means it was registered in late 1981 in Aberdeen..."

    1. I'll remember that! I bought a random 3x3 plate off eBay because it was good value and relatively generic (proceeds of crime seizure sale), and I expect to get that question!

  10. I was amused when the current format of plates were launched because the authorities explained in a press release that the final three letters of each plate would be "random". The press all faithfully repeated this nonsense. Clearly what they meant to say was, "carry no meaning".

    It would have been fun if they actually were random, not least because there would very quickly have been multiple cars with the same registration number.

  11. "I did suggest he had them fit the plate, if only to fuck with the car parking at The Point, in Bracknell, which is all ANPR based there, free for 2 hours. He would arrive with one plate and leave with another, and when he gets a parking fine he has every valid reason to dispute it. He was not that "adventurous" sadly."

    My late wife had a private plate on her cars which she changed regularly. Our local Halfrauds was in a retail park that had a 2 hour limit car park etc, she must have had half a dozen "fines" through the post for 12 months parking...she enjoyed the sport.

  12. Those willing to get a personalised number plate on their cars must read a post at
    https://www.carreg.co.uk/number-plates/personalised-number-plates/ to get fully informed about them beforehand.


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