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Posted by Sean Cooper

It could come as a bit of a shock to some people who are immersed in the UK motor industry that the majority of the British public are not really sure how the current number plate system works, and many won’t have any idea what the new number plates will be in 2021. Here we’re going to look at how the current number plate system works and what number plates are going to change to in 2021.

How it used to be

It used to be a lot simpler of course, and most people used to know that the new registration plate would be when they changed on August 1st each year. Until 2001, the first letter of number plates in England, Wales and Scotland represented the year of registration, and the last one to be used was “Y”. This system was in place for many years and replaced an almost identical system where the letter denoting the year was at the end of the registration number.

Although that system appeared simpler because there was only one change each year, it actually resulted in one letter covering two years. For example, a car with a registration plate that started with an F could have been registered anytime between August 1st, 1988 and July 31st, 1989. It could therefore be a 1988 F or a 1989 F, and this would have an effect on the resale value.

There was another problem with the system employed before September 1st, 2021, which is that it concentrated the sale and registration of new cars to the first week in August as people held off from buying new cars in the months leading up to August 1st to get the new plate and enhance the resale value of their new vehicle. This led to very few sales in May, June and July and an absolute avalanche of cars being registered and sold on August 1st.

The new system was designed to spread the sale of new cars more evenly across the year to make life easier for dealers, manufacturers and the DVLA and customers, so let’s look at the current system and how it works.

How current registration numbers work

The change to the new system happened on September 1st, 2001 with the introduction of the “51” plate. The two-digit number represents the date range of the registration and follows two letters that denote the geographical area where the vehicle was registered, so a number plate that starts YY51 would have been registered in East Yorkshire between 1/9/2001 and 28/2/2002.

Perhaps the biggest change was the fact there would now be two plate changes each year instead of just the one, but this is also probably why a lot of the public still don’t understand the system even 20 years on. Number plate changes now happen on September 1st and March 1st, and the plate that comes into use in March of each year uses the last two numbers of that year.

For example, following the 51 plates that were issued between September 1st and the end of February 2002, the next plate to be issued was 02. In 2003 the plates from March 1st would be 03, in 2004 they would be 04, and so on.

The problem for most people when it comes to understanding which plates are from when is the second number of each year. In September 2002, the 02 plates issued from March 1st changed to 52 on September 1st.

Where the confusion continues

Although the second number of the two-digit numbers issued from September 1st each year still relates to the date of registration (52=2002, 53=2003, 53=2004, etc.), the first number has begun to confuse people as the years have passed. Through the 2000s we had 5, during the 2010s we had 6, and now we’re in the 2020s we have 7. It sounds straightforward when it’s put like that, but when the average person who changes their car every three or four years or so sees something like a 66 plate on a used car they’re interested in, it might not be obvious to them at first what year that denotes.

If you’re in the car industry or the number plate business for that matter, it might all appear blindingly obvious. Ask anyone who works in a car dealership, however, and they’ll soon tell you that many, many customers have no idea at all how the current number plate system works or what year a car is by looking at the registration plate.

Registration numbers for 2021

As 2021 gets underway a lot of people will have many things on their minds other than what the registration numbers are for the current year, so let’s take a look at what they will be. If you are registering a new vehicle in 2021 before March 1st the registration number will be a 70 plate, which came into force on September 1st, 2020.

Once we get to March 1st, 2021 the plate will change to 21, which is pretty straightforward. That plate will continue to be used until September 1st, 2021, and that’s the date when the plate will change to 71. In practice then, a vehicle registered in 2021 could be a 70, 21 or 71, depending on which date of the year it was registered.

This current system was partly brought in to stop the mad August rush where most new cars sales were concentrated into a ridiculously short period because of the plate change, but it has actually made it even harder to date a vehicle without knowing the registration date as there are now effectively three different registration plate numbers for each year.

Making life simple

The best way to avoid all this confusion would be to adopt a vehicle registration system that doesn’t have anything to do with the date of registration as they have in the United States. The problem is the motor industry doesn’t want that as it believes it would reduce the incentive for buyers to change their vehicle if their number plate didn’t give away the age of their car.

Of course, you can already go down that route to some extent here in the UK with a private plate that doesn’t give away the age of your vehicle at all. You can put any plate you like on your vehicle as long as the plate didn’t come into use after your vehicle was first registered. If you buy a new vehicle in 2021 and you put a 1988 (F) plate on it, nobody will know the date of registration next year as it will be clear your car isn’t 30-odd years old. There are plenty of even older plates for sale that don’t give away the year at all, so if you want to jump out of the registration number date rat-race then all you have to do is replace the plate you were issued with a private plate that can be bought and assigned to your vehicle quickly, easily and affordably online.

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