by Dave McAlister

In England, Scotland, and Wales today, licence plates, or registration index marks as they are more properly called, are usually made up of up to seven characters. Over the years the format of these characters has changed considerably.

From 1904 to 1974, car numbers were issued by County Councils and County Borough Councils but, since 1 October 1974, they have been issued by the Department of Transport’s Vehicle Registration Offices. Originally, the first car number issued might have been A 1; then A 2, A 3, and so on up to A 9999. After that, there could be AA 1 to AA 9999 until these combinations ran out when AB 1 to AB 9999 would be possible. Then, after the two-letter marks ran out, three letter marks were introduced. Eventually, all possible combinations were exhausted so the numbers were put before the letters but no registration mark could be longer than six characters.

Nowadays, some of these early number plates are highly prized and change hands for quite large sums of money. And there are also other unusual number plates which convey some special meaning, such as the name of the owner.

In 1963, some of the Councils around the country where cars were more common, ran out of all possible combinations of three letter marks and numbers. This meant that another system had to be worked out and, in 1965, a new system was adopted throughout the country.

Each year from 1965, the combination of three letters and up to three numbers from 1 to 999 was followed by a letter to indicate the year. Some letters, such as I, O, Q, U, Z, have not been used. Finally, on 1 August 1983, the year letter was placed before the numbers 1 to 999 followed by the three letter combination. For example, X 123 ABC is a vehicle first registered between September 2000 and March 2001 in Leicester.

Table 1–Prefix Letters and Years

Year Prefix Year Prefix
1983 A 1994 M
1984 B 1995 N
1985 C 1996 P
1986 D 1997 R
1987 E 1998 S
1988 F March 1999 T
1989 G September 1999 V
1990 H March 2000 W
1991 J September 2000 X
1992 K March 2001 Y
1993 L

The second two letters of three letter combinations which are issued currently indicate the various Vehicle Registration Offices and Councils to which the numbers have been issued. For example, all registration marks in which the second two letters are AA, such as AAA to HAA, HAA to PAA, and RAA to YAA, have been issued by the Vehicle Registration Office at Bournemouth.

The table below gives all the two-letter combinations available for England, Scotland, and Wales with the Vehicle Registration Office that issue them.

Table 2–Registration Offices And Two-Letter Combinations

Office Combination Office Combination
Aberdeen BS, PS, RS, SA, SE, SO, SS London Central HM, HV, HX, JD, UC, UL, UU, UV, UW, YE, YF, YH, YK, YL, YM, YN, YO, YP, YR, YT, YU, YV, YW, YX, YY
Bangor CC, EY, FF, JC London North East MC, MD, ME, MF, MG, MH, MK, ML, MM, MP, MT, MU, MV, MX, MY
Birmingham DA, JW, OA, OB, OC, OE, OF, OG, OH, OJ, OK, OL, OM, ON, OP, OV, OX, UK, VP London North West BY, LA, LB, LC, LD, LE, LF, LH, LK, LL, LM, LN, LO, LP, LR, LT, LU, LW, LX, LY, OY, RK
Bournemouth AA, CG, EL, FX, HO, JT, LJ, PR, RU London South East GU, GW, GX, GY
Brighton AP, CD, DY, FG, HC, JK, NJ, PN, UF, WV, YJ London South West GC, GF, GH, GJ, GK, GN, GO, GP, GT
Bristol AE, EU, FB, HT, HU, HW, HY, OU, TC, WS Luton BH, BM, GS, KX, MJ, NK, NM, PP, RO, TM, UR, VS
Cardiff AX, BO, DW, HB, KG, NY, TG, TX, UH, WO Maidstone FN, JG, JJ, KE, KJ, KK, KL, KM, KN, KO, KP, KR, KT, VB
Carlisle AO, HH, RM, SM, SW Manchester BA, BN, BU, CB, DB, DK, EN, JA, NA, NB, NC, ND, NE, NF, RJ, TD, TE, VM, VR, VU, WH
Chelmsford AR, EV, HJ, HK, JN, NO, OO, PU, TW, VW, VX, WC Middlesborough AJ, DC, EF, HN, VN, PY
Chester CA, DM, FM, LG, MA, MB, TU Newcastle upon Tyne BB, BR, CN, CU, FT, GR, JR, NL, PT, RG, TN, TY, UP, VK
Coventry AC, DU, HP, KV, RW, VC, WK Northampton BD, NH, NV, RP, VV
Dudley DH, EA, FD, FK, HA, NX, UE, WD Norwich AH, CL, EX, NG, PW, VF, VG
Dundee ES, SL, SN, SP, SR, TS Nottingham AL, AU, CH, NN, NU, RA, RB, RC, RR, TO, TV, VO
Edinburgh FS, KS, LS, MS, SC, SF, SG, SH, SX Oxford BW, FC, JO, UD, WL
Exeter CO, DR, DV, FJ, JY, OD, TA, TK, TT, UN, UO Peterborough AV, CE, EB, EG, ER, EW, FL, JE, VA, VE
Glasgow CS, DS, GA, GB, GD, GE, GG, HS, NS, OS, SB, SD, SJ, SU, US, YS Portsmouth BK, BP, CR, DL, OR, OT, OW, PO, PX, RV, TP, TR
Gloucester AD, CJ, DD, DF, DG, FH, FO, VJ Preston BV, CK, CW, EC, EO, FR, FV, HG, RN
Guildford PA, PB, PC, PD, PE, PF, PG, PH, PJ, PK, PL, PM Reading AN, BL, CF, DP, GM, JB, JH, JM, MO, RD, RX, TF
Haverfordwest BX, DE, EJ Sheffield AK, DT, ET, HE, HL, KU, KW, KY, WA, WB, WE, WF, WG, WJ
Huddersfield CP, CX, HD, JX, VH Shrewsbury AW, NT, UJ, UX
Hull AG, AT, KH, RH Stoke on Trent BF, EH, FA, RE, RF, VT
Inverness AS, JS, SK, ST Swansea CY, EP, TH, WN
Ipswich BJ, DX, GV, PV, RT Swindon AM, HR, MR, MW
Leeds BT, DN, NW, UA, UB, UG, UM, VY, WR, WT, WU, WW, WX, WY, YG Taunton YA, YB, YC, TD
Leicester AY, BC, FP, JF, JU, NR, RY, UT Truro AF, CV, GL, RL
Lincoln BE, CT, DO, EE, FE, FU, FW, JL, JV, TL, VL Worcester AB, NP, UY, WP
Liverpool BG, CM, DJ, ED, EK, EM, FY, HF, JP, KA, KB, KC, KD, KF, LV, TB, TJ, WM

Now that you have a basic understanding of vehicle registration numbers in the United Kingdom, you are about to become confused…

On September 1st 2001 the new registration mark format for Great Britain was introduced. The new system replaced the existing one which ended on 31st August when the ‘Y’ prefix expired. The new format is made up of three elements:

AA A two-letter identifier, intended to act as a memory tag and shows where the vehicle was first registered.
51 A two figure age identifier.
AAA Three random letters.

The table below details the new two-letter identifiers and which region the vehicle was first registered.

Table3–New Two-Letter Identifiers and Registration Offices

Local Memory Tag Registration Office Local Identifier
A Peterborough A B C D E F G H J K L M N
Norwich O P R S T U
Ipswich V W X Y
B Birmingham A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T U V W X Y
C Cardiff A B C D E F G H J K L M N O
Swansea P R S T U V
Bangor W X Y
D Chester A B C D E F G H J K
Shrewsbury L M N O P R S T U V W X Y
E Chelmsford A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T U V W X Y
F Nottingham A B C D E F G H J K L M N P
Lincoln R S T V W X Y
G Maidstone A B C D E F G H J K L M N O
Brighton P R S T U V W X Y
H Bournemouth A B C D E F G H J
Portsmouth K L M N O P R S T U V W X Y
K Luton A B C D E F G H J K L
Northampton M N O P R S T U V W X Y
L Wimbledon A B C D E F G H J
Stanmore K L M N O P R S T
Sidcup U V W X Y
M Manchester A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T U V W X Y
N Newcastle A B C D E F G H J K L M N O
Stockton P R S T U V W X Y
O Oxford A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T U V W X Y
P Preston A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T
Carlisle U V W X Y
R Reading A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T U V W X Y
S Glasgow A B C D E F G H J
Edinburgh K L M N O
Dundee P R S T
Aberdeen U V W
Inverness X Y
V Worcester A B C D E F G H J K L M N O P R S T U V W X Y
W Exeter A B C D E F G H J
Truro K L
Bristol M N O P R S T U V W X Y
Y Leeds A B C D E F G H J K
Sheffield L M N O P R S T U
Beverley V W X Y

As people become familiar with the new format they will quickly recognise where a vehicle was first registered through the memory tag. In the example above ‘AA’ represents Peterborough.

The age identifier will continue to change every six months, in September and March.

  • 51 represents September 2001
  • 02 represents March 2002
  • 52 represents September 2003
  • 03 represents March 2003
  • and so on…

This will clearly show the period when the vehicle was first registered.

The new format has been designed to make it easy for witnesses to recall details of the number plate and will help the police in investigating crimes involving the use of motor vehicles.