UK Registration Plate Systems Explained

There are millions and millions of registration numbers you can search through to find a private plate that works for you, but it will make life a lot easier if you have an idea of what combinations of numbers and letters you can and can’t have. There have been several changes to registration numbers and how they are compiled over the years and you can only have a registration number that conforms to the present or one of the past systems.

A lot of people don’t understand the current system, never mind the previous ones employed in the UK over the decades, so let’s take a look at the history of UK number plates and show you how you can find a number that means something to you.

In the beginning

The very first UK registration plates were introduced as part of the Motor Car Act of 1903 and they started off with one or two letters followed by a random number between 1 and 9999. The one or two letters were area identifiers that showed where that plate was originally issued, but there was one major problem with these plates which soon became apparent.

The problem was that only 9999 different plates to be issued under each regional identifier, so once a 10,000th vehicle needed to be registered there would have to be a new numbering system. The bright idea they came up with to solve the problem of needing more available combinations was to reverse the existing system. Instead of the area identifier followed by a number between 1 and 9999, the new system had a number between 1 and 9999 followed by the area identifier.

You don’t need a Doctorate in applied mathematics to see the obvious flaw in the new system, which was that it would also run out of available numbers before too long. The next solution was to move to three letters and one to three numbers.

The letters used still represented the area identifier, but only the second and third letters were the area identifier. Therefore, if you see a plate that reads ABC 456, BC would be the area identifier and the A would just be an extra random character added to extend the number of available combinations

The letters and numbers were also reversed to create more available combinations, but not every combination was issued while this system was current and many have since been sold on as cherished numbers.

1963 to 1983 numbering systems

In 1963 a new system was introduced, and this one was quite a seismic shift as it would now date the vehicle as well as identifying where it was first registered. The registration number would still have three letters followed by a number between 1 and 999, where the second and third letters would be the area identifier. However, a fourth letter was now added to the end of the registration number, and this number referred to the year of registration.

This is when people first started to get obsessed with having the latest registration number, and this would lead to almost no new vehicle registrations in the weeks leading up to the date when a new plate came into force and a massive flood on the first day of the new plate being issued.

The first of the plates using this new dating system had an A at the end that represented a vehicle being registered in 1963. For the first four years, the A, B, C and D registration plates were issued between January 1st and December 31st of each year, which made perfect sense.

When it came time for E to be used in 1967 it was still issued from January 1st of that year, but it only ran until 31st of July and F was issued from August 1st. The F plates were then issued until 31st July 1968 and were replaced with G on August 1st 1968. This is when August 1st effectively became “New Registration” day here in the UK and it created a sales and delivery bottleneck for new vehicles that was both loved and hated by the motor industry in this country.

Of course, once we reached Y in 1982/83 it all started again, but this time the year letter would feature at the start of the registration number instead of at the end. The first of the new A plates were issued from August 1st 1983 and they continued until we reached Y again in March 2001.

The issuing date period changed again in 1998 with the S plate running from August 1st 1998 until February 28th 1999, and the new T plate being issued from March 1st 1999 until 31st August 2000. It now meant a registration number such as X could either be a 2000 or a 2001 registration, which really only confused matters further.

All change in 2001

In 2001 the UK moved to the current registration number system, which on one hand is a little complicated, but on the other hand, it does allow for a large number of possible combinations.

What we now have is a seven-character registration number with two letters followed by two numbers and then a further three letters. The first two letters are the area identifier, the two numbers represent the date period the plate was issued during, and the last three letters are random to bolster the number of available combinations.

There are two new plates issued each year now, and the first was the 51 plate that was issued from September 1st 2001 until the end of February 2002. The 5 refers to the decade and the 1 refers to the actual year, so 51 plates are issued from September 1st 2001, 61 plates from September 1st 2011, 71 plates issued from September 2021, etc.

Each March 1st now, a new registration plate is issued that’s quite simply the current year and it continues to be issued until August 31st. The first of these was the 02 plate issued from March 1st 2002 until August 31st 2002, which was then replaced by the 52 plates from September 1st 2002.

This system continues to this day and should be good for some decades to come, even if it is more than a little complicated for the average consumer.

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