Everything you need to know about your car number plate

You’ve probably never given much thought to your car’s number plate – unless you’ve splashed the cash on a personalised one!
But that collection of numbers and letters says a lot about your vehicle. And there are certain rules that yours must comply with if you’re to drive legally.
So what do you need to know about number plates? And if you do fall foul of the law, how can convicted driver insurance help get you back on the road? Read on for our guide!

How does the number plate system work?

If you’ve got a car registered in mainland Britain since 2001, its number plate will conform to the following DVLA system.
The first two letters are the DVLA ‘memory tag’, or location signifier. Originally, this indicated the office where your vehicle was registered. DVLA registration has now been centralised, and is largely conducted online, but dealers are usually still allocated codes according to where they’re located.
So if you buy a new car in London, its number plate will almost certainly begin with an L, in Scotland it's an S, and in Wales it’s a C for Cymru. Other place names are more random: V is for Worcester, or Severn Valley.
These two letters are followed without a gap by two numbers: the ‘age identifier’. For cars registered between March and August, this is the year: eg 20 for 2020. For vehicles registered between September and the following February, it’s the year (as of September) plus 50: so 2020/21 is 70.
Then there’s a space, followed by three random letters. Nowhere in a standard number plate in mainland Britain are the letters I and Q. Z is found only as a random letter, not as a memory tag.

What are the exceptions?

Northern Ireland has a modified version of the system used in England, Scotland and Wales, and all cars registered here have an I or a Z in their memory tags.
Different systems are used for vehicles driven by foreign diplomatic staff working in the UK; trade plates used by people in the motor industry; and cars of uncertain age or origin, including kit cars and former military vehicles.
 A number plate with letters spelling law

What about personalised or private number plates?

If you want a registration number that’s fun, is similar to your name, or has meaning to you, you can look for a personalised one. The DVLA auctions registrations at regular intervals, so keep an eye out for one that appeals.
Alternatively, you might have already have a registration on an existing vehicle that you’re keen to switch to a newer model.
Neither personalised nor private number plates have to conform to the above DVLA system. However, they must be unique, and assigned to the right vehicle. Follow the DVLA guide to private registrations to make sure yours is above board.

What are the rules around fonts and colours?

Your number plates must be made from a reflective material, have no background pattern, and display black characters on a white background (for the front) or yellow background (for the rear).
Characters must be in the ‘Charles Wright’ font, and be of a certain size and height. You’re not allowed to alter the spacing, or place the mounting screws in such a way that the plate reads differently.
In September 2021, standards will be tightened further, making number plates both more legible and more durable. One of the key changes is that characters on new plates must be solid black: two-tone or 3D effects will no longer be allowed.
Of course, you do see many creative interpretations of the rules and illegal number plates are one of the most common unlawful vehicle modifications.
Classic cars made before 1980 are still permitted to display traditional plates made of pressed metal, with silver letters on a black background.

What flags and symbols are allowed?

Your number plate can also have a flag and national identifier on the left-hand side, before the registration number.
There are several variations permitted: the Union Flag, the Cross of St George, the Cross of St Andrew or Saltire, or the Red Dragon of Wales. These must be accompanied by relevant letters, eg UK, Eng, Scotland, and Cymru. There’s a complete list of permissible flags and identifiers, plus how they must be displayed, on the government’s website.
If you’re travelling in most European countries and you’ve got the Union flag with the GB identifier, you don’t need to add a GB sticker; otherwise, it’s essential. This sticker will change in September 2021 to ‘UK’.
Since Brexit, new cars in the UK are no longer being registered with Euro flags or identifiers. However, if your older car has this, you don’t need to get it changed.
Since December 2020, you can also get number plates with a green flash on the left-hand side for all-electric vehicles.

What other number plate offences are there?

Your number plate must be visible and legible at all times.
So if it’s obscured by a trailer, or by a bike mounted to the back of your vehicle, you need to secure an extra plate to that load. That number plate must conform to all the above specs – you can’t just scrawl the reg on a piece of card and hope for the best.
And if your plate is so dirty or damaged that it can’t be easily read, you might also get pulled over by police. Last year, Dorset police warned that while number plate offences are only minor, they’re often related to more serious issues. So you could find yourself penalised for other issues, too, possibly racking up the penalty points.
Remember: if you’re convicted of motoring offences, or trying to get back on the road after a driving ban, you might need to look for specialist convicted driver insurance.

How do your plates affect your MOT?

Yes, it’s true – your vehicle could fail its MOT if its number plate is not up to scratch.
Number plates are the first thing to be checked during your vehicle’s MOT. There are extensive rules, most of which we’ve covered above.
Additionally, your MOT inspector will check that your number plate is firmly secured, so it’s not about to fall off. They will want to make sure it’s in good condition, too: not damaged, delaminated or otherwise illegible.
They’ll also check that the number plate lights are working, to ensure that your plate can be seen at night.
Any problems will be classified as a Major Defect, triggering an MOT failure. You’ll have to rectify the problem, or even get a new plate, to be allowed to continue driving your vehicle.

Why do the rules exist?

The rules are aimed at ensuring legibility for both humans and automated systems, so it’s easier to trace a motorist who commits a driving offence.
It’s feared that dangerous drivers can dodge speed and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras by altering, obscuring or even removing their plates. A non-reflective plate, for example, might simply register as black on such cameras, so the characters cannot be read.
Of course, cars made before 1980 are exempt – but these are less likely to be breaking speed limits.
If you’re stopped for dangerous driving or other motoring offences, then you might need insurance for convicted drivers to get you back on the road.
 A speed camera in-front of a tree on a road

What are the penalties for illegal number plates?

Currently, if you’re stopped by the police for number plates that don’t meet the official specs, you face a fixed penalty notice (FPN) with a small fine. You might be given 14 days to rectify the issue. Repeat offenders can face larger fines.
However, you could soon face points on your licence, too. A private member’s bill is currently going through parliament. If passed, it would mean that drivers would face up to three penalty points, plus a fine.
It’s easy to accumulate a few motoring offences over the course of two or three years, and before you know it, the points could add up to a driving ban. You could well find yourself facing the prospect of losing your licence – and that could have severe repercussions for your livelihood, family and leisure time.
If you’re returning to the roads after a driving ban, you may find that many insurance providers won’t cover you. Instead, you’ll need to get specialist convicted driver insurance.
So keep an eye on your number plate – it’s easy to overlook, but could end up causing you a whole lot of bother. And stay safe and seen on the roads!

Get a quote from Insurance Factory today

The world of motoring is a complex one, and many drivers make mistakes. At Insurance Factory, we won’t judge you – we’ll just try to help you get back on the road as quickly as possible by finding you suitable convicted driver insurance.
We arrange cover for drivers with all sorts of convictions, not just motoring offences. So if you’re planning to get back behind the wheel, get in touch.
Get a quick quote for convicted driver insurance today.

Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.