Deciphering Number Plates: United Kingdom

Deciphering Number Plates: United Kingdom

Wondering how car registration numbers are generated and what you can glean from them in different countries? Why are number plates in the UK white at the front and yellow at the back? How much will the most expensive British registration number set you back? Our article reveals all.

15. 2. 2019 Models

The second part of our “Deciphering Number Plates” series takes us to  the UK, the home of James Bond, Mr Bean and many other legendary characters and their iconic cars. What is instantly noticeable about British number plates is their colour scheme: black on a white background at the front, black on a yellow background at the back. This colour combination was legislated in 1973 (previously UK plates were white or silver lettering on a black background). Ever wondered about the thinking behind this? A perfunctory search will give you several more or less credible explanations – for example, so that other drivers know which direction the car is travelling in even when it does not have its lights on. Then there’s the idea that this stops the number plate from dazzling the drivers behind a vehicle.


The truth, though, lies somewhere else – a law from 1927 saying that the rear lights of cars must not be white, and a reflector is also deemed to be a light. As British number plates are required to be reflective, they are therefore also regarded as a light by that law and cannot be white at the back of a car. Intriguingly, when cars with white reversing lights started to be sold at the turn of the 1950s, their use in the UK was actually illegal precisely because of this law. It was not until a few years later that the British Parliament made an exception for reversing lights. However, this exception did not extend to number plates, so they had to be in a different colour. Yellow was the colour of choice because, after white, it contrasts most with the black lettering, making the registration number as readable as possible.


The current system of British registration numbers, in force since 2001, is made up of seven characters. The first two characters are letters indicating the area code – the place where the vehicle was registered. For these purposes, the territory of the UK is divided into 20 areas, with the first letter of the registration number designating one of them. Each of these areas is broken down into sub-regions, with the second letter of the registration number identifying a sub-region within the area defined by the first letter. For example, if you see SA, that means that the car was registered in Scotland (S), and specifically in Glasgow (A). Likewise, LA denotes London (L), and specifically Wimbledon (A). Those first two letters are followed b  two digits, indicating when the vehicle was registered. Each of these two-digit numbers denotes a six-month period. The system was launched in September 2001 and the first number was 51, indicating that the registration number was issued between September 2001 and February 2002. The second number in sequence was 02, showing that the registration number was issued between March 2002 and August 2002. This was followed by the number 52, and then 03, and so on and so forth. The last three digits are the serial number.

What is in a number plate?

As in other EU countries, there is a blue strip on British number plates, but this is not compulsory and may take on many different forms. Frankly, trying to figure out the total number of possible combinations is mind-boggling. Judge for yourselves: in the upper part of the strip you can have the EU flag, the Union Jack, a St George’s Cross (the flag of England), a St Andrew's Cross, otherwise known as the Saltire (the flag of Scotland), or the flag of Wales, featuring a red dragon. At the bottom of the strip, there might be the abbreviation GB (Great Britain), UK (United Kingdom), CYM (Wales, Cymru), ENG (England), or SCO (Scotland). And if that weren’t enough, each sign may be white or yellow.

See the bigger picture

Another peculiarity of the British system is vanity plates. Obviously, you can find these in all manner of countries, but British customised plates have a specific look and, above all, are big business. The thing is, motorists cannot simply think up a registration number. What they can do, however, is choose from all the registration numbers that have been created over more than a hundred years in the UK number plate system. Old registration numbers are not retired, but sold. Unassigned numbers are sold by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency at a fixed price. Assigned registration numbers are sold by their owners at auction. Ordinary registrations cost a few hundred pounds, but the prices of more sought-after numbers can rise to thousands of pounds, with the most coveted sometimes fetching prices higher than the car itself.

Find the best angle

The most expensive registration number sold so far is “25 O”, which was auctioned in 2014 for almost £520,000 (over 15 million crowns). One number, however, has the potential to beat that record in style. We're talking about F1, which has a history worthy of its own chapter. F1, more than a century old, was purchased from Essex County Council in 2008 for £440,000 by the car designer Afzal Kahn. Since then, the price has rocketed – Kahn has even rejected an offer of £6 million. At the moment, Kahn uses the F1 number plate on his Bugatti Veyron and is asking £10 million (almost CZK 300 million) for it. This may seem like an astronomical sum but, as they say, whatever the price, there’s always a buyer.

Interview with Graeme Lambert, Product Affairs Manager, ŠKODA UK

What is ŠKODA’s current status on the British market?

In 2018, ŠKODA took a 3.16% share of the entire UK market (up from 3.14% in 2017). By model, the CITIGO occupies 3.5% and FABIA 3.7% of their respective segment in the market. The OCTAVIA and RAPID account for 5.2% of compact cars, the KODIAQ and KAROQ take up 5.3% of the SUV segment, and the SUPERB sits at 5.5% in the mid-sized car segment.

ŠKODA Model Range 2018

Which models sell best on the British market and how do they fare against competitors in their class?

The OCTAVIA is our best seller, though this year we saw strong growth in the SUV segment and the KAROQ and KODIAQ did well. This was against a market that was almost 7% down. However, in terms of media coverage our cars win many group tests and have received many awards. The OCTAVIA is praised for its practicality, connectivity, comfort, build quality, value for money and wide choice of trims/engines. The same could be said for the KODIAQ, which is praised in particular for its interior quality and the practicality of its seven seats – almost all of our KODIAQs are ordered with seven seats and in the higher trims we don’t offer a five-seat option.

Is there anything specific to your market or your country?

When it comes to the vRS models (RS in Europe), almost 20% of all OCTAVIAs are ordered in this trim. It’s worth noting that we call them vRS, not RS, and I think we are the only country to do so. As for KODIAQs, a high proportion are SE L or Edition models (equivalent to Ambition and Style). British emergency services use lots of ŠKODA vehicles, and 80% of all fast-response ambulance cars in the UK are ŠKODAs. Overall ŠKODA has a 4.5% market share of the UK emergency services vehicle market.