UK number plate laws explained

It's likely you'll see dozens of number plates every day - on buses, cars, motorbikes, vans and everything in between.

What you might not know is that the UK has set laws governing what constitutes a legal number plate and flouting these laws could lead to a fine of up to £1,000. Whether you have a standard plate or a personalise one, here are the number plate rules and regulations that it’s important to be aware of.

Vehicle registration number format

Since September 2001, all vehicle registration numbers have used the following format:

  • 2-letter DVLA memory tag: This refers to the region in the UK where the vehicle was first registered
  • 2 number age identifier: These identify when the vehicle was issued
  • 3 letters: These are chosen at random

Number plate image

The rules vary for personalised or private number plates and you can find out more about that here.

Number plate design specifications

The number plates on your vehicle need to comply with the following specifications. They must:

  • be made from a reflective material
  • display black characters on a white background (front plate)
  • display black characters on a yellow background (rear plate)
  • not have a background pattern
  • be a single shade of black (if issued after 1 September 2021)
  • include a mark to show who supplied the number plate
  • be marked with a British Standard number (BS AU 145e for plates produced after 1 September 2021)

They can also:

  • include certain flags and symbols
  • display a green line on the left-hand side
  • feature 3D (raised) characters

One key point to be aware of is that number plates can’t include numbers or letters that have been rearranged or misrepresented. For example, it’s illegal to use bolts or screws to alter numbers or letters.

You also can’t use a registration number to make your vehicle appear younger than it actually is.

Font and typography

A standard font has been used on number plates since September 2001, eliminating any of the more difficult-to-read styles that you may have seen in earlier years.

There are now set guidelines on the size of letters, letter spacing, letter thickness and more. For a definitive list, check out the DVLA’s Vehicle registration numbers and number plates.


As mentioned above, certain flags and symbols are allowed on vehicle number plates. Flags should be positioned on the left-hand side and can be one of the following:

  • 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

You can also include a national identifier:

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

The identifier should appear underneath the flag. Neither should be on the margin of the number plate, or more than 50mm wide.

Green number plates

If you drive a zero emission vehicle then you’re eligible to display a number plate with a green border down the left-hand side.

You can find out more about green number plates and how to order one in our Green Number Plates article.


We mentioned it briefly in the introduction, but if you don’t have a legal number plate then you run the risk of being fined up to £1,000. Your car will also fail its MOT test and in some cases, the registration number might be permanently withdrawn.

You can easily avoid this by making sure that your number plate adheres to all the points we’ve listed above.

Buying a number plate

Number plates can only be purchased legally from DVLA certified garages or manufacturers, which can be easily located with the DVLA's helpful online tool.

You can also head to Halfords and purchase both back and front number plates online or instore. We’ll also fit them for you for a small fee, taking all of the hassle out of the process.

For more information about what documents you need to provide to get your number plates made up, please follow click here.

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