Everything you need to know about number plates

Over the past few years, the DVLA released several new and important laws regarding UK number plates. The laws covered various long-standing ruling, such as the format of registration platesmaterial used, location identifiers and more.

So to help you stay on the right side of the law, we’ve pulled together everything you need to know about number plates, the new rules and how they could impact you.

What is a registration number?

Registration numbers are allocated to vehicles during the process of registration and taxing. The registration number is given to the vehicle, rather than the registered keeper, and it will usually stay with the vehicle until it is destroyed, broken up or permanently exported out of the country. The registered keeper can however apply to transfer it to another vehicle, or onto a retention certificate (V778). 

What are number plates?

A number plate, also known as a licence plate or a registration plate, is a sign fixed to the front and rear of a vehicle displaying its registration number for identification purposes.

Number plates differ from country to country but they’ve been used in the UK since 1904. They’re also a legal requirement for most motor vehicles which are used on public roads.

The UK uses two numbering and registration systems; one for Great Britain (GB), which is administered by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), and one for Northern Ireland (NI), administered by the Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA). From 28th September 2021, the UK changed its mark from GB to UK, both in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

What were the changes in 2021 and 2022?

Following Brexit in 2021number plates hit the headlines on numerous occasions, with several new designs unveiled as the year progressed. 

From September 2021, it was revealed that number plates had to adhere to the new ‘BS AU 145e’ standard to meet the British Standard for Retroreflective Number Plates. The main benefit of this shift was that plates would be made from tougher material, and therefore be more durable and resistant to wear and tear. On top of this, it was revealed that number plates could only display solid black lettering; two-tone plates that used different shades to create a 3D or 4D effect were banned. The lettering could still be Perspex or acrylic lettering, provided it meets all other requirements. The key reason for this change was to make it easier for Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras to read the plate.

In 2022, the DVLA then announced further changes. New location identifiers were to be included, meaning new number plates would have to feature the supplier’s business name and postcode, along with the name of the number plate manufacturer and the new standard. 

Another big change was that plates would now have the Union Jack on the side instead of the EU flag. They would also read ‘UK’ rather than ‘GB’, to signify the UK’s exit from the European Union. 

Changes in 2023 - 2024

On Friday 1st September 2023, new ‘73’ car registration plates were officially unveiled. These 73-plates replaced the 23-plates that were introduced in March of the same year. On 1st March 2024, the new ‘24’ plates arrived and these new plates will now feature on all brand-new cars until September 2024, where the ‘74’ plates will take over. 

Rules for number plates

Under the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001, all UK registration plates must conform to British Standards. UK registration plates should largely look the same as the Department of Transport regulations cover the typeface, spacing, size, and colouring.

As well as adhering to Department of Transport regulations, your number plate must be: 

  • Positioned correctly with black characters on a white plate at the front of the vehicle and a yellow plate at the back.
  • Illuminated at night and have an unpatterned, reflective background (classic car owners are allowed to retain existing black plates).
  • Contain characters in the correct order and font. Characters must not be removable or reflective. If fitted after 1st September 2021, characters must also be a single shade of black.
  • Clearly seen, with no bolts/fixings or dirt obscuring the characters.
  • Marked to show who supplied the number plate.
  • Marked with a British Standard number – this is ‘BS AU 145e’ for plates fitted after 1st September 2021.

Your number plates can also have:

  • Certain flags - symbols and identifiers. 
  • A green flash - if you have a zero-emission vehicle.

While modified plates displaying alternative designs, including italics, different colours, or even 4D font, might be appealing – these are illegal. You also cannot rearrange letters or numbers, or alter them so they’re hard to read. You could be fined up to £1,000 and your vehicle will fail its MOT test if you drive with incorrectly displayed number plates.

Of course, there are many reasons your vehicle could fail its MOT – and some are more surprising than others. Check out our ultimate MOT checklist and guide.

If you live in England, Scotland or Wales, you can personalise your number plate to express your national pride with one of the following flags with identifying letters on the left-hand side of the number plate (the flag must be above the identifier):

  • Union flag (also known as the Union Jack)
  • Cross of St George
  • Cross of St Andrew (also known as the saltire)
  • Red Dragon of Wales

The letters, or national identifiers, you can use are:

  • UNITED KINGDOM, United Kingdom or UK
  • GREAT BRITAIN, Great Britain or GB
  • ENGLAND, England, ENG, Eng
  • SCOTLAND, Scotland, SCO or Sco
  • CYMRU, Cymru, CYM or Cym
  • WALES or Wales

If you’re planning to drive in Europe, however, you may want to check out the rules for driving in the EU section below. 

Private (personalised) number plates

Personalised number plates are a way of making your car more individual. Whether you want to incorporate a family name, a nickname or memorable date, there are millions of them gracing the UK’s roads.

You can buy a private (personalised) registration for your vehicle’s number plates from the DVLA or from a private dealer. If you have the right to a private number that is not currently being used, you can apply to assign it to a vehicle.

However, when you want to sell your vehicle, the registration number will stay with it unless you apply to take it off and put it on another vehicle or on to a retention certificate (V778). For more information, go to www.gov.uk/personalised-vehicle-registration-numbers 

Furthermore, if you buy a new car and want to keep your registration plate, then you can transfer it by removing it from its current vehicle and assigning it to a new vehicle online or via post with (form V317). Find out more here. 

For more information, check out our blog: Private (personalised) number plates explained.

Motorbikes and motor tricycles

There are separate provisions for motorcycles and motor tricycles which state that those registered on or after 1st September 2001 must only display a number plate at the rear of the vehicle. If your bike was registered before this date, you may also display a front number plate if you choose to, but this isn’t mandatory.

Unlike the number plates on cars and other larger vehicles, motorcycle and motor tricycle number plates must be displayed over two lines, rather than the one that is usual for a car or van.

Towing a trailer

If you’re heading off on a family holiday and you’re towing a trailer, there are a number of rules to follow. For example, the trailer must display the same number plate as the vehicle you’re towing it with. And if you’re towing more than one trailer, the number plate must be fixed to the trailer at the back. This simple rule could potentially catch out those who share towing responsibility, or even forget to update their plates after buying a new car – so make sure you remember, or you could end up with a hefty fine!

If you’re heading further afield, and your trailer needs to be registered to go abroad, you need to fix the trailer registration plate to the back, as well as the towing vehicle’s number plate. However, fix the trailer registration plate as far away as possible from the towing vehicle’s number plate. If you cannot fix the trailer registration plate on the back of your trailer, fix it to both sides instead, making sure they’re clearly visible.

Green number plates

In 2020, the UK Government approved plates with a green badge at the side of their number plates for use on zero-emission vehicles. These aren’t (yet) required by law, but if you’ve seen them and wondered what the green patch was for, you can find out more on our blog discussing everything you need to know about green number plates.

Rules for driving in the EU

If you’re driving abroad, there are some rules you need to follow. As of 1st January 2021, new UK number plates are no longer permitted to display the GB Euro side badge. However, there is no need to worry if yours was fitted prior to 2021, existing GB Euro plates can be retained.

If your number plate includes the UK identifier with the Union flag, you don’t need a UK sticker. However, you will need to display a UK sticker clearly on the rear of your vehicle if your number plate has any of the following:

  • a GB identifier with the Union flag
  • a Euro symbol
  • a national flag of England, Scotland or Wales
  • numbers and letters only - no flag or identifier

If you're visiting Spain, Cyprus or Malta, you must display a UK sticker no matter what is on your number plate. And if you have a GB sticker, remember to cover or remove it before driving outside the UK.

On the other hand, if you fail to display the letters UK somewhere on your vehicle when abroad, you will be fined, and the penalty will depend on the law of the country you’re in.

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