There’s an awful lot more to number plates than a lot of people would imagine. Many people take them for granted, which is understandable as to some they’re little more than a legal necessity for being allowed to have a vehicle on UK roads. Once you start to delve into number plates – especially personalised number plates – it’s actually pretty amazing how much there is to them.
Here we’re going to give you a comprehensive guide to most of the relevant detail surrounding number plates and answer the big questions you might have if you’re thinking of buying, selling or transferring a private or personalised number plate. In this guide we’re going to cover things like how to buy or sell private registration plates, how to transfer numbers from one vehicle to another, the legalities of number plates, what registration numbers actually mean and plenty more besides.
What are private number plates?
Whether you refer to them as personalised number plates, private number plates, custom number plates, private registration plates or anything else, they’re basically registration numbers that are legal but don’t necessarily refer to the actual date of registration of the vehicle they’re on or the geographical area the vehicle was first registered.
A private plate can represent any registration period as long as doesn’t represent a date that’s later than the date the vehicle it’s on was first registered. For example, a car registered in 2019 can be allocated with a number that was first issued in 1957, but it can’t have a 2021 plate allocated to it or any plate after that.
Although the kind of plate you get issued to a new car automatically when it’s first registered shows the registration date period and an area code for the local registering authority, a private plate doesn’t have to have any relation to the date or location of first registration of the vehicle it’s issued to.
Why Buy a Personalised Number Plate?
There are several reasons why people buy private registration plates and some are more obvious than others, so here are some of the most common reasons for buying a personalised number plate.
1. Disguise a vehicle’s age – This list isn’t going to be in any particular order of importance or popularity, but if it was being compiled in that manner, then this one would definitely be at the top of the list. Using personalised plates to disguise the age of a car used to be almost the only reason why people invested in private plates.
Although you cannot make a vehicle appear younger than it really is with a number plate issued after the vehicle was first registered, you can cover up the real age of a vehicle by using an older plate, or even one that was issued before registration numbers actually had a date element to them at all.
This used to be the reason why the vast majority of people bought personalised plates, but it actually only works in a meaningful way for cars up to a certain age and that’s why there are now many other reasons for buying and displaying personalised plates.
If you have something like a 1989 Ford Escort you’re not going to be able to make anyone think it’s a nearly new car, whatever registration plate you put on it. For a start, Ford discontinued the Escort years and years ago and the design is now so dated that a private reg isn’t going to fool anyone.
On the other hand, if you bought a brand new Ford Focus a year ago and the number plate is just about to change again, you could put a personal reg on it from many years ago and most people who then see your Focus won’t know if it’s brand new or a year or two old unless there’s a new model out as well as a new registration.
2. Display your individuality – You might have splashed out for the upgraded 20-inch alloy wheel option or the expensive pearlescent paint for your new car, but unless you’ve bought something like a limited edition McLaren, you won’t have to go too far until you come across another car with the same options. If you want to truly stamp your individuality on a car without going to some extreme, expensive, and possibly ill-advised lengths of customisation, a personal plate is a great option.
In fact, a private reg is perhaps the only way you can truly make your car one of a kind. Someone can legally copy any extreme bodywork modifications or custom-made alloy wheels you have made but nobody can drive around legally with the same registration plate as you, and the more notable the registration number is the more unique it makes the car look.
3. Express yourself – This is a bit of an extension to the previous point, but this is where perhaps where the terms “personalised plates” or “custom plates” become especially appropriate. While you can make your car look unique and very individual with a plate like “A1” it’s not obvious what else that says about you other than you can afford one of the most expensive number plates that are ever likely to go on sale.
Lots of people these days want their custom number plates to say something about them, such as referring to their name, occupation, interest, or even the brand or model of car the plate is on. For example, the number F1, which last sold for £440,625, would be an obvious plate for someone connected to or interested in Formula One. Likewise, if the car you want a private plate for is a Rolls Royce, how about the number RR1 which last sold for £472,000 at the Goodwood Revival?
On a more affordable level, you could go for a number that represents your birthday or an important anniversary, or one that if you use a bit of imagination and allow for some creative licence, could just about spell a name that means something to you.
4. Easy to remember – If you’re one of those people – which many of us are – who struggle to remember their ordinary registration number, a private plate can make life much easier for you. Think about times like when you’re checking-in to a hotel or a conference and you need to sign-in with your name and your registration number so your car doesn’t get a ticket or towed away for being parked where it shouldn’t be. If you recently took delivery of your car and it has a normal plate issued by the DVLA it’s easy to forget what it is and have to go out to look at the car to remind yourself. On the other hand, if you have a private plate such as J5NNY or VIP 1 you’re never going to forget that, are you?
Private plates can also make it easier to locate and identify your car when you’ve parked in one of those giant car parks at an arena or a festival. There might be dozens of silver Nissan Qashqais in the car park, but you’ll soon know which one is yours if it has a plate like S1 LLY on it.
5. An investment – Although it’s never wise to suggest any investment is guaranteed to increase in value or even hold its value, there aren’t too many safer bets than a private number plate. Some of the most eye wateringly expensive plates may be sold at times for grossly inflated prices just because someone with a lot of money absolutely has to have it and is determined to outbid anyone else. In those rare cases, they may pay over the odds and the plate might get sold at a later date for less, but those occasions are few and far between.
Historically, private number plates have always largely gained in value over time and some people now choose to invest in them over more traditional products such as ISAs and bonds. When interest rates are almost at zero you could probably do a lot worse than investing in private number plates, and as long as you don’t post details of your V5C online for fraudsters to see, nobody can actually steal your registration number.
Can private number plates go on any car?
There’s only really one situation where you can’t put your personalised number plate on any car you like, and that’s when the registration number represents a date that’s younger than the vehicle you want to transfer it to. You couldn’t, therefore, put a 21 plate on a car that was first registered in 2016 but you could put a 16 plate on a car first registered in 2021. Of course, you can’t just make up a unique number either. You can only buy numbers that have been previously registered or one offered for sale by the DVLA to be registered for the first time.
There are no rules to prevent putting a plate that was first issued to an HGV on a motorcycle or one first issued to a car onto a tractor, or any other combination of two vehicles your imagination cares to dream up.
The History of Private Registration Plates
It wasn’t until the Motor Car Act 1903 came into force that registration plates became compulsory in the UK. Before that happened it was hard to identify car owners or drivers so the government invented the UK’s first number plate system, and the very first number issued was A1. If you’re interested – which you probably are – the last time that number was sold was in November 2019 and it went for a reputed £1.2 million.
These earliest plates all featured a one or two-letter code which was then followed by a number between 1 and 9999. These are now, understandably, among the most sought-after and expensive private plates around, and if you think demand for the very ‘best’ numbers is a somewhat new phenomenon, then think again.
Even when those very first UK numbers plates were being issued, a gentleman by the name of Earl Russell decided to queue outside the offices of the London Council throughout the night with the intention of securing that A1 plate. By a margin of a reputed five seconds, he managed it and this momentous event was recorded in the publication ‘Car Illustrated’ on 23rd December 1903 as what we now think of as the first instance of a private plate.
The publication reported at the time: “There has been some amount of competition for the securing of the number plate A 1 and this has been acquired by Earl Russell for his Napier car. A Mr. L. H. Oliver of Edgware claims the distinction of personally handing the certificate for A 1 over to Earl Russell.”
A1 wasn’t, of course, a random number or a number requested by the buyer. Even back in the very earliest days of the registration number, a specific system was in place for issuing numbers. The single letter or pair of letters at the front of those earliest plates represented the area where the vehicle was registered, so A was assigned to London, B was for Lancashire, C represented the West Riding of Yorkshire and so on.
These relatively limited combinations available under this system soon began to run out as more and more cities began to request their own registration numbers and area codes. This is the point where a two-letter designation came in at the start of registration numbers, such as AA for Hampshire and AB for Worcester. Certain letters were held back even in those days, although instead of being held back to be sold for profit, the letters G, I, S, V and Z were given to registering authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
By as soon as 1932, the registering authorities were running low of available number and letter combinations again, so they decided to swap things around and put the numbers at the front and the letters afterwards and start all over again. Even still wasn’t enough before too long and ever-increasing demand forced another system to be introduced as soon as the middle of the 20th century.
The next time we began to run low of available combinations it would have been simple with hindsight for the authorities to add an additional letter and use four numbers instead of the usual three. Instead of that, in the 1950s they did what they did in the past with the previous system and just swapped the letters and numbers around to create a new set of reversed versions of the current system. Of course, what we now know which they didn’t think of at the time is they were creating a huge number of registration numbers that would eventually become the valuable commodity we now know as private plates.
Even though the authorities never appeared to grasp the fact that even the new reversed system wouldn’t offer as many combinations of numbers and letters that would soon be needed, they did have an idea of what would definitely happen if they weren’t careful about which letter combinations would be allowed to be issued.
Three letters could spell many different words and cause no end of controversy, so three-letter combinations that were unashamedly banned included the likes of ‘GOD’, ‘JEW’, ‘SEX’, ‘SOD’, ‘BUM’ and ‘ARS’. In an amazing example of foresight, someone even realised that ‘DUW’ needed to be put on the banned list as that was the Welsh word for God!
It actually wasn’t until as recently as 1963 that was any form of dating was applied to the issuing of registration numbers. For around 60 years, number plates were actually dateless so nothing about the registration could give away when the vehicle was registered.
It took until 1963 when some local authorities started running out of registration numbers once again that the suffix system was finally introduced. This latest new system added a letter at the end of the plate that referred exclusively to the period when the car was first registered.
These first dating number plates had three letters followed by three numbers and a further letter at the end that signified the year. This meant you could have something like AAA 111A where the A at the end meant the vehicle was registered in 1963. The following year the letter at the end was changed to a B, in 1965 it moved on to C, and so on.
Using a single letter to illustrate the year of registration would inevitably only last for a maximum of 26 years, and in practice, it was even fewer years as letters like Z and O were not to be used. The next solution came in 1983 when the suffix letter for the year was switched to a prefix, so from 1983, we started going through the alphabet once again with an A at the start instead of at the end of the registration number.
You don’t have to be intelligent enough to work for NASA to realise that system had similar time limitations to the previous one, and although some people still struggle to understand our current system, it should last for a longer period this time and it really does make a lot of sense once you get your head around it. Because the registration date numbers now change twice a year there are many, many more combinations now possible.
Of course, a new system brings new combinations and even more possibilities for plates to spell out something significant. It didn’t take long for the DVLA to catch on to this and now it holds back any new combinations that could be valuable. These are then offered for sale by the DVLA at special auctions with the proceeds going to the treasury.
Private plates, cherished numbers, personalised numbers or whatever you want to call them were never actually invented; they just sort of came about. Every number ever issued relates directly to the numbering and geographical identification system of its time, but these days these old numbers are now becoming increasingly desirable and valuable.
How to buy a private number plate
There are several ways you can buy a private number plate and all of them are a lot easier than many people imagine. To be fair, the whole process has been greatly streamlined and simplified by going online, but you can still spend an inordinate amount of time with the postal service instead if you for some reason you prefer that sort of thing.
You can buy a private number plate from a dealer, from a private seller or directly from the DVLA. Sometimes they are sold through auctions, but lots of numbers can be bought through fixed-price sales. If you haven’t seen a specific registration number you want there are online search functions that allow you to put some letters or numbers in that you’re interested in and it will show all the available combinations that relate and how much they cost.
Buying a number couldn’t be any easier, and all it can take is the click of a mouse online. You then input your details and pay the fees and a certificate is then issued to use showing you as the owner of that particular registration number. You don’t even have to be the owner of a vehicle as the certificate is good for as long as ten years without being allocated to a vehicle. You can even buy a number as a gift for someone else.
How personalised number plates work in the UK
As mentioned previously, the only restriction on what numbers you can place on what vehicle is age. As long as the number won’t give the impression the vehicle it’s been issued to is younger than it really is then you’re good to go. It doesn’t matter if the number you’ve bought was originally issued in London but the vehicle you are putting it on was first registered in Aberdeen, and it doesn’t matter if the number was issued under a system of numbering that was dispensed with decades before your vehicle was even built.
You can buy a number and keep it on retention for up to ten years without allocating it to a vehicle, you can resell it, you can put it onto one vehicle and transfer it to another whenever you like, and you can buy a number for someone else.
It is possible for someone to steal your number if you are careless enough to let someone get hold of your details and details of your vehicle. In those circumstances, they can issue a transfer request and then you’ll have a fight on your hands to prove you didn’t allow it. As long as you keep your details safe, however, a private number is a pretty safe investment and it can’t be stolen by someone stealing your physical plates or even your whole vehicle.
You can also take a private number off a vehicle you own and put it on retention before you allocate it to another vehicle in the future. You might do this if you want to sell the vehicle the plate is currently allocated to, and the vehicle you take the number off will then be issued with a normal registration number. This could be the number it was originally issued with, but if your private plate was its original number, an appropriate number that’s never been used will be issued for it by the DVLA.
What’s the price of a private number plate?
You can buy a registration number for as little or as much as someone wants to charge you for it, but the cost of transferring it is £80. If someone wants to sell you their number for as little as a penny or as much as ten million pounds they can do, but you will still have that fee to pay for the transfer. If you want to buy a number from the DVLA that has never been allocated before, the lowest price will be around £250 and that includes Vat and the transfer fee but not the physical plates.
Dealers also have the ability to sell you those same unallocated numbers for a very similar price, but many will include the appropriate plates for your specified vehicle for a pretty reasonable extra cost.
Numbers that are deemed more desirable can cost considerably more and can very quickly get into four figures and more. It really is worth playing around with the search functions on the website because you might be amazed at how inexpensive some plates turn out to be that are perfect for you but are not considered especially desirable.
You might have a model number of a car or an engine size for a motorcycle that’s three numbers. Put them in with the first letter of the brand or another letter that means something to you and you might find a three-letter combination at the end available that could be the initials of you, a loved one or even your favourite band or football team. A registration number that’s very significant to you might not mean much to anyone else and you could end up with a real bargain.
On the other hand, if you’d like an idea of just how much you could spend on a private registration plate if money is no object, here are 21 of the most expensive plates ever sold here in the UK.
- 25 0 (£518,480) – Last bought at auction by a Ferrari trader who put it on his rare Ferrari 250 SWB that was previously owned by Eric Clapton. So far, this is still the most expensive plate that has ever been sold by the DVLA
- X 1 (£502,500) – This is an example of a plate not retaining its value as the original sale price was a staggering £1million, but it then went for just half that amount when resold in 2012.
- G 1 (£500,000) – This one was sold back in 2011 and was the most expensive plate sold in the UK at that time.
- RR 1 (£472,000) – Sold in 2018, obviously to be allocated to a Rolls Royce, and at the time was described as “one of the most special” registration plates in the world when sold at the Goodwood Revival.
- F 1 (£440,625) – As Formula 1 is the world’s most popular form of motorsport, this plate is unlikely to ever leave the top ten of most expensive plates and it’s rumoured the owner has already turned down bids in the millions of pounds for this one.
- S 1 (£404,063) – The first number plate ever issued in Scotland and bought in 2008 to go on a Skoda, this is one that was 10 times more expensive than the car itself!
- 1 D (£352,411) – If One Direction were still together one of them might be waiting with bated breath for this to go back on sale after originally being bought in 2009 by a property developer.
- 1 S (£340,000) – In 2010 this private reg was bought and allocated to a Rolls Royce Phantom and its value is estimated to have doubled in value since.
- M 1 (£331,500) – A called Mike McComb is said to have snapped this one up back in 2006, supposedly for his son’s 6th birthday, and this is another that’s likely to be worth much more today.
- GB 1 (£325,000) – Sold in 2009 and another one adorning a Rolls Royce, this one unashamedly embraces its British heritage and might be particularly sought-after post-Brexit!
- D 2 (£300,096)
- VIP 1 (£285,000)
- 1 BM (£285,000)
- V 1 (£275,000)
- S 5 (£270,300)
- GN 1 (£260,146)
- GS 1 (£258,775)
- 51 NGH (£254,000)
- 1 RH (£247,952)
- MS 1 (£235,000)
- MG 1 (£235,000)
How do I transfer my private reg to a new car?
You can apply to take a private (personalised) number off a vehicle and transfer it to another vehicle in your name, to another vehicle you’re buying or to a vehicle owned by someone else. The whole process can be completed quickly and cheaply online as long as you have the relevant details and documents in your possession, but it can be done the old-fashioned way through the post if you prefer to do it that way for some reason.
The process costs just £80, you must have the vehicle’s logbook (V5C), but if the vehicle’s not in your name you will have to apply by post. The form used to transfer a vehicle registration number from one vehicle to another is called the V317 and it includes guidance notes and information on where to send it.
If the number is being transferred to someone else’s vehicle, then both registered keepers are required to complete the application. As well as the V317 you’ll also need to have the registration certificate or new keeper supplement with a completed form V62, which is the application form for a vehicle registration certificate if you don’t have the V5C, and of course, the £80 transfer fee.
If either vehicle requires taxing and isn’t declared SORN (Statutory Off Road Notice), a V10 form and the correct amount of payment will be needed as well as a valid MOT if the vehicle is more than three years old.
When you take a number off a vehicle without transferring it you’ll be issued with a retention certificate with a unique certification number that lets you transfer it to a vehicle of your choice at a later date. This can be done online in seconds and a new V5C will be sent out to you in the post and you’ll get immediate online confirmation of the transfer as well.
If you take a number off a vehicle you don’t have to wait for a retention certificate to arrive in the post before you can allocate the number to another vehicle. As soon as you take a number off a car or buy a new number online you’ll be emailed a retention certificate with the number you need to do a transfer online or through the post if you prefer.
Quick-fire private number plate FAQ’s
How quickly can I get a private number plate?
You can literally buy a private number plate online in a couple of minutes and it won’t take any longer than that to assign it to a vehicle as long as you have the relevant details at hand. Once you have completed the purchase of the number online you will then be issued with an electronic document that allows you to use the number how you like.
Sometimes you can have custom number plates made at the same time as you buy the number by the website that you are buying the number from, but obviously, you’ll then have to wait for the physical plates to arrive in the post. Alternatively, you can use the document you have been sent for your personalised reg to go to a local approved number plate supplier to have a set of private registration plates made up for your vehicle.
Are short number plates legal in the UK?
Although short number plates are not strictly illegal, they still have to follow all the relevant guidelines for registration plates in the UK that cover the size and shape of the actual characters.
What are the rules for private number plates?
All characters used must be 79mm tall
Characters (apart from the number 1 or the letter I) have to be 50mm wide
The character stroke, which is the thickness of the black print, must be 14mm
The space between each character has to be 11mm
The space between the age identifier and the three random letters needs to be 33mm
The margins from the characters to the top, bottom and side of the plate must be 11mm
For square plates, the space between the age identifier and three letters must be 19mm
How much does it cost to transfer a number plate?
Whether you’re putting a number onto a retention certificate or transferring it to another vehicle, the price is currently £80.
Why is VAT only applicable to some plates?
VAT is applicable if the number plate is owned by a dealer, if it’s a government issue number plate or if it’s being sold on behalf of third-party vendors who are VAT registered. VAT is not applicable on a number plate sale if the private number is sold on behalf of a third-party vendor who is not VAT registered such as a private individual.
Do you have to pay to keep your private number plates if you’re not bothered?
If you’re selling your vehicle and you’re not interested in paying to put the number on retention and you don’t want to transfer it to another vehicle you can just leave it on the vehicle like you would with any other registration number.
Can you have any number you want if you have the money?
No. You can only have a number that has previously been issued or that hasn’t yet been issued but still conforms to one of the numbering systems used currently or in the past. Even if a number has been issued in the past it might already be owned by someone else and they might not be interested in selling.
Can a personalised number plate be lost or stolen?
You can’t lose your private reg by someone stealing the plates off the front and back of your car, but there are other ways you can lose your number. The first is if you let someone see the details of your V5C, such as posting images of it online when advertising our vehicle for sale. A fraudster can use these details to do an online transfer so never give anyone those details unless you are completing a sale or transfer.
It’s also possible to lose a private plate if you have a vehicle written off through a crash or being stolen and unrecovered. If there isn’t a mention of the private plate in your insurance agreement and you don’t have an agreement that the plate should remain your property in those situations, you could end up having to ask the insurance company nicely or even have to buy it back from them.
Can I buy a private plate for someone else?
Yes, you can certainly buy a personal registration plate for someone else. You can buy one online in their name and you pay for it, or you can do the whole thing in your name and then transfer it to their vehicle. Private plates make superb gifts and you can buy them right at the last moment online if you’ve forgotten the birthday, anniversary or other occasion or a present you’ve ordered to be delivered doesn’t turn up on time.