Number Plate System Explained

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Car number plates for 2020 have now arrived, but what will they look like? And how does the number plate system work? Also, what discounts are available for vehicles with the soon-to-be old 69 plates?

Read on to find out the answers to all these questions and what the new number plate means for those of you looking for a private reg.

When are the new number plates released?

Each year new registration plates are released, once in March and again in September.

From 1st September 2019 all new cars registered in UK had the first two numbers 69. This will cease to be on new vehicles as of March 2020, where the first two numbers will change to 20.

This may seem insignificant, but the implications it has on vehicle sales is huge. Not only do car buyers flock to get hold of a model which has been christened with the updated reg. Manufacturers realise the opportunity to get some good business, with dealerships and providers offering 0% APR finance and no-deposit options.

In the same breath, pre-registered vehicles with the old plate present themselves as a great option to get a new car with few or no miles, for a fraction of the price. This is because forecourts will need clearing of these vehicles to make way for an influx of the latest models with the number plate to match.

What do the numbers and letters mean?

Number plate

For those of you who don’t know, there’s a whole system around today’s number plates, with a meaning behind every number and letter.

  • The first two letters are known as ‘regional identifiers’ and are designed to help authorities easily recognise a vehicle.
  • Each registration consists of alphanumeric characters which tell you where the car was first registered and the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) office for that specific area – e.g. BA-BY covers Birmingham and MA-MY is Manchester.
  • There are also three final letters that are used to differentiate a vehicle from others registered in the same year and same place.
  • The two numbers after the regional identifier tell you the car’s age – e.g. 02/52 is the number for vehicles registered in 2002 – the former combination starting in March and lasting until September, when the 52 was used for new car registrations.

Working out a car’s age with a number plate

Knowing how to work out a car’s age by looking at its number plate is a good skill to have. It allows you to assess its condition and could indicate how many previous owners it’s had, as well as the miles it’s covered.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Look at the third and fourth digits on the number plate.
  2. In March, the digits will be the same as the last two digits of the year it was registered. In September, the digits will be the same as the last two in the year, plus 50.
  3. For example, the plate of a Manchester car registered between March and September of 2019 could read as MA19. From September 2019 until March 2020, a car registered in Manchester would begin MA69.

Will the update affect private plates?

There are restrictions in place on what you can put on a private registration plate, depending on its age. Something you should be aware of if you’re considering a new 20 plate.

The law states that you can only use a plate which is equal to or older than the vehicle itself. So, you won’t be able to slap one of the new ones on your car if it was registered before March 2020. However, you can still buy the designs online and be issued with a certificate of entitlement. This will cost £80, payable to the DVLA, which lets you assign registration to a car for the next 10 years.

Some private plates won’t have an age identifier, instead beginning with a personalised letter, such as an initial, for example. In this case, the old prefix number plate system would apply so that the authorities and potential buyers can identify a vehicle’s age.

What is the old prefix number plate system?

The old prefix system began with a single letter which showed the year of registration. It began in August 1983 and ended 18 years, ending in August 2001.

The following table explains how this lettering system works.

Should I wait until March or September to get a new car?

The new 20-plate can look good on the front of your car – it tells others that it’s a brand-new vehicle which can certainly help when it comes to selling up later down the line. Even though there’ll be newer reg numbers by this point, the impact this will have on the re-sale value won’t be noticeable for quite a few years.

Here are our top three tips for getting a good deal this year in line with the new registration plate releases.

1. Visit or call your local dealerships

A dealership will be able to give you an idea of what stock they have for older pre-registered models.

In the two weeks leading up to March, when the new 20-plates arrive, it’s a good idea to call into your local independent and franchised dealerships. They will tend to cut prices on any vehicles that feature the old 69-plate, which they will want to replace with new stock that has the latest reg when the change happens.

If you haven’t got your heart set on a particular spec of car, this can be a great way to save money on a new set of wheels. The chances are that they will have a few miles from test drives, but it will be nowhere near the second-hand status mark.

2. Check online or at auctions for private plates

To save having to fork out for an entirely new car just for its reg plate, you can get just as good a deal on a cherished plate for a motor you already have.

There’s an entire industry behind the purchase and selling of personalised number plates. Online retailers and physical or web auctions for these registration items mean you can now invest in ‘timeless’ plates that don’t have an age identifier.

These can be as cheap as £40 or as expensive as £2,000. However, there are finance options available for them that can help you acquire them without a huge upfront spend. What’s more is that it can be a good way of solving the issue of not wanting your car to appear old and will could have a lot of sentimental value to the owner.

For more information on the rules and regulations on private number plates, see our handy guide to them here.

3. Consider a new 20-plate vehicle just before September

As of September, the new plate will be 70, not 20. Just like we recommended in the first tip, you could get your hands on a reg which uses the current year’s final two figures in August at a discounted rate.

Doing this will help you save thousands on a new car which will remain ‘current’ until 2021.

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