How Does The Number Plate System Work?

At first glance the UK number plate system is a bit of a mystery but it does have some structure, even if it's impossible to remember it all. Luckily we have a handy guide.

What Do The Letters And Numbers Mean?

GU   67     NBG
A   B     C

Taking the example plate or VRM (Vehicle Registration Mark) above we have three main parts:

A - Local Memory Tag - These two letters show roughly where in the UK the bike was registered e.g. GU would be Brighton. There's a full list here.

B - Age Identifier: These two are perhaps the most interesting and show how old the vehicle is. See below for how to decipher it.

C - Random Letters: These are created randomly to help uniquely identify each bike but some letters aren't used because they look too similar to numbers e.g. I / J (similar to each other and number one), O (similar to zero), Z (similar to two) and U / V (similar to each other).

They are assigned to dealers in batches and applied to the bike when it's registered. There's likely to be over 10,000 possible combinations within each local area and plate though, so more than enough for the number of bikes registered.

Which Plates Belong To Which Years?

Year Jan-Feb Mar-Aug Sep-Dec
2025 74 plate 25 plate 75 plate
2024 73 plate 24 plate 74 plate
2023 72 plate 23 plate 73 plate
2022 71 plate 22 plate 72 plate
2021 70 plate 21 plate 71 plate
2020 69 plate 20 plate 70 plate
2019 68 plate 19 plate 69 plate
2018 67 plate 18 plate 68 plate
2017 66 plate 17 plate 67 plate
2016 65 plate 16 plate 66 plate
2015 64 plate 15 plate 65 plate
2014 63 plate 14 plate 64 plate
2013 62 plate 13 plate 63 plate
2012 61 plate 12 plate 62 plate
2011 60 plate 11 plate 61 plate
2010 59 plate 10 plate 60 plate
2009 58 plate 09 plate 59 plate
2008 57 plate 08 plate 58 plate
2007 56 plate 07 plate 57 plate
2006 55 plate 06 plate 56 plate
2005 54 plate 05 plate 55 plate
2004 53 plate 04 plate 54 plate
2003 52 plate 03 plate 53 plate
2002 51 plate 02 plate 52 plate

This pattern should continue until 2050. The March-August plate is simply the year and the September-February plate is the year plus 50 e.g. a 2019 bike would be a 69 plate (19+50).

How Did The Old Number Plate System Work?

In 1999 the system switched to three plates per year, shortly before the new age identifier system above launched in September 2001.

Year Jan-Feb Mar-Aug Sep-Dec
2001 X plate Y plate 51 plate
2000 V plate W plate X plate
1999 S plate T plate V plate

Before that it was a simple change to the "new plate" in August every year, which caused many buyers to hold fire on their new bike purchases until the new plate was released. It was a prefix, before the rest of the number plate, resulting in number plates like R795 ABA (for a 1997 bike). The final three letters denote where it was registered with the last one being randomly generated.

Year Jan-Jul Aug-Dec
1998 R plate S plate
1997 P plate R plate
1996 N plate P plate
1995 M plate N plate
1994 L plate M plate
1993 K plate L plate
1992 J plate K plate
1991 H plate J plate
1990 G plate H plate
1989 F plate G plate
1988 E plate F plate
1987 D plate E plate
1986 C plate D plate
1985 B plate C plate
1984 A plate B plate

Prior to that the system simply cycled through A-Y as a suffix i.e. after the rest of the number plate:

Year Jan-Jul Aug-Dec
1983 Y plate A plate
1982 X plate Y plate
1981 W plate X plate
1980 V plate W plate
1979 T plate V plate
1978 S plate T plate
1977 R plate S plate
1976 P plate R plate
1975 N plate P plate
1974 M plate N plate
1973 L plate M plate
1972 K plate L plate
1971 J plate K plate
1970 H plate J plate
1969 G plate H plate
1968 F plate G plate
1967 E plate F plate

With the plates running Jan-Dec 1963-1966:

Year Jan-Dec
1966 D plate
1965 C plate
1964 B plate
1963 A plate

General Rules

  1. Road bikes need to have a yellow number plate at the back, with black characters in the standard type face and no measures to obscure them e.g. a fastening bolt strategically placed to make one character look like another.
  2. The material the number plate is made from has to meet certain standards and cannot be modified to obscure the plate e.g. making it hard for a speed camera to read.
  3. A silver and black plate can be displayed on bikes registered before January 1975 and which are taxed as a historic vehicle.
  4. A front plate, also known as a "Pedestrian Slicer", is allowed (but not required) on bikes registered before September 2001.
  5. "Q Plates" are sometimes used on vehicles where the age cannot be determined from the documentation.