Whether you are looking to buy a brand new car or are interested in finding out when the DVLA will release their latest batch of private number plates for purchase, then it will be useful to know when number plates change each year.
What the numbers mean
The numbers on the current style of plate denote the year, so plates with a 1 at the start are issued between 1st March and 31st August, while those with a 6 in front date from 1st September to the end of February. From 2020 to 2029, they will start with a 2 or a 7 respectively.
This system came into force after the suffixes and prefixes ran out. Before the current style plates were introduced, you could work out a car’s age from the letter which was placed at the end, or the beginning, of the number plate.
Sales of new cars often spike immediately after the change of number plates as many people wait until this point to purchase a vehicle.
What the letters mean
It’s not only the numbers that change biannually on car registration plates. Each plate now begins with two letters that precede the two-digit number. The letters are an area code that denote where the vehicle was first registered. The first letter applies to all vehicles from a wide area, and the second relates to more specific parts of that broader region.
For example, L stands for London, while E denotes Essex. The second letter then specifies the DVLA office within that area that the registration took place in. Multiple letters can signify the same office. The letters Q, I and Z aren’t used to identify local DVLA offices.
The second section
So first you have the area code, then the numbers that indicate the vehicle’s age. Then there follows a gap, after which there are three seemingly random letters. These are used simply so that enough unique number plates can be produced – apparently there are enough combinations remaining that the current system should last until 2050 or after.
The letters I and O are excluded, as they bear too close a resemblance to a number one or a zero, while Q is set aside for vehicles of undetermined origin. Any combination that spells an offensive word, in any language, is also excluded.
The rationale behind the scheme
There are three main reasons why this particular format was decided upon.
It is easy to tell at a glance the age of a vehicle, which is helpful when buying a used car. This is why you may use a number plate with an older age tag if you want to, but you cannot use one that is newer as this could be misleading.
Witnesses apparently find it easier to remember the two-digit area identifier, which helps in any police investigation involving a vehicle.
Current estimates suggest that there will be enough unique combinations to last until the middle of the 21st century.
Some letters are held back by the DVLA, as they are reserved for special issue. Examples of these include Deeside, where ‘R’ is reserved - the combination spells ‘DR’, which would be a very desirable combination. In the Severn Valley which uses ‘V’, the letter W is reserved - no doubt because it spells a certain, very popular, German car manufacturer’s name.