It is summer, and many of us will be off on holiday. By request of one equally nerdy reader, how do we tell where fellow holidaymakers are from by their vehicle registration?
Firstly, most European countries now have a blue tag to the left, with a code representing the country. This code always works in French, English or the native language (often two of these, sometimes all three): so, above, F is “France” and NL is “Netherlands”.
It so happens that in the above two cases, we cannot tell anything further about the origin of the vehicle (that is, other than which country it is from).
France recently switched to the LL-DDD-LL system (black on white; where ‘L’ is a letter and ‘D’ a digit) which simply rotates in series (so the later the first two letters, the newer the car, generally). However, owners are allowed to place a further blue tag to the right, marking their preferred department (“00″ above is just an example plate, department numbers in Mainland France run from 01 to 96, in alphabetical order with some minor exceptions). Previous plates in France, which typically had the inverse series of digits and letters (typically DDDDLLDD or occasionally DDDLLLDD) contained this code in the final two digits at the end of the plate and it was compulsory to register the car in the Department of residence – thus 2734TN06 was from 06 (Cote d’Azur; the far south east); 429DRL75 was from 75 (Ile-de-France; Paris, in other words). The older plates are still valid, and are seen in various colours (black, yellow/white or white).
The Netherlands has been through various series, but has never in recent decades distinguished area of origin. Old series such as LL-LL-DD or LL-DD-LL have now finished, and DD-LLL-D is now current (the total is always six digits or letters and two hyphens). Distinct plates are used for trailers. Dutch plates are marked out for their distinctive dark yellow/orange colour.
The only other Continental country notable for yellow plates is Luxembourg (code L), which consist of up to two letters and a short number in series.
Several other countries also do not mark origin and simply run in series:
Italy (code I) uses similar plates to France (in fact it introduced them earlier), and in a similar fashion allows a provincial code to the right (although this option is more rarely taken up in practice). The distinction from France is that the second hyphen is omitted, thus LL-DDDLL (as opposed to LL-DDD-LL), and that the front plate is much narrower. Previous to 1994, it had used the provincial code (two letters – thus MI-Milano; BZ-Bolzano etc) plus six digits or a series of digits and letters. Motorbikes have different plates.
Spain (code E) also has white plates and also switched, in 2000, from provincial codes to no origin. In its case, plates are DDDDLLL; there is no formal regional identifier but some owners, notably in Catalonia and the Basque County, add one. Previously, they contained the provincial code (GR-Granada; B-Barcelona) plus up to four digits and two letters, although the provincial code never changed even if the owner moved or the car was sold to a different province. Codes from the Spanish Islands or North African territories were common because tax rates on cars purchased there were deemed outside the EU, and were thus lower.
Portugal (code P) also uses non-identifiable plates, similar to those of the Netherlands but white with the current series DD-DD-LL, and these are strictly licence plates (marking, in a yellow panel to the right, when the vehicle is licensed until).
Belgium (code B) is distinct in two ways; firstly, the print is red (or black-green on trailers) not black; secondly, until recently the owner was automatically allowed to keep the plate (so the plate went with the owner, not the car). The old system was typically LLL-DDD on American-size plates; European standard plates have now been introduced with a leading digit, typically ‘1’ (though ‘8’ is used for European Union institutions).
Denmark (code DK) also has a red outline, but the print is black; its series is LL-DDDDD and has recently restarted (thus recent vehicles are typically A*, whereas older vehicles are V* etc.); Denmark’s system is confusing as it also allows yellow plates for commercial vehicles and even half-yellow half-white for vehicles used partly for commercial purposes (commercial use attracts less tax, so owners do pursue as much yellow as possible!)
Sweden (code S), Lithuania (code LT) and Hungary (code H) all use the series LLL-DDD, and are extremely hard to tell apart. Sweden’s used to be distinguishable by a tax mark where the hyphen was which changed colour each year, but this has been abandoned. Finland (code now FIN; previously SF) also uses LLL-DDD; these are allocated in such a way to try to avoid any clash with Sweden’s, and are narrower and thus easier to distinguish from the other three.
Estonia (code EST) is just about distinct from the previous four as its plates are DDD-LLL. Latvia (code LV) uses LL-DDDD.
Other countries, however, do further distinguish a place of origin (i.e. beyond just the country itself), most obviously Germany (code D) whose plates are probably the most famous in the world. Here, up to three letters are used to mark the Kreis (district) of registration, then a hyphen (which consists of a licence mark and the badge of the State of residence) and then LDDDD or LLDDD. Until this year, it was compulsory upon selling the car or moving to another district to change the plate; this is now optional, meaning that it is no longer certain the vehicle is currently resident in the district referred to. Codes used for districts are also wildly varying and change when districts merge (with older ones still in use if the vehicle has not moved). There are further subtleties in some cases too; occasionally the same letter is used for a city and for the surrounding area, but you can tell them apart by the exact nature of the second part of the plate (i.e. whether LDDDD or LLDDD). There is also no particular rhyme or reason to the code – sometimes it refers to the district capital (for example Lauenburg/Elbe is RZ for ‘Ratzeburg’) but sometimes to the district name (so V for Vogtlandkreis or MTK for Main-Taunus-Kreis); generally single letters are used for larger cities (B is indeed Berlin) but Dortmund (DO) is bigger than Duesseldorf (D) and the second largest city opted for two letters for historical reasons (HH for Hansestadt Hamburg). There was also a significant re-allocation at unification, as although initially codes had been reserved for cities in the Soviet zone of occupation, they had begun to be re-allocated upon recognition of the East German State in the 1970s. The above plate, for reference, is IN for Ingolstadt, frequently seen on magazine covers as that is the home of ‘Audi’ – notable also are S for Stuttgart (Mercedes-Benz and Porsche); M for Munich/Muenchen (BMW) and WOB for Wolfsburg (Volkswagen).
Similar to Germany is Austria (code A), although the red outer lines appear on its plates (similar to Denmark’s) and generally the second part of the plate (after the hyphen) is inverted; most of its nine provinces have DDLL or DDDLL; Vienna (whose own code is W for Wien) usually has DDDDDL.
Slovenia (code SLO) has almost identical plates to Austria (even the font is the same) but the outer lines are green, not red, and the hyphen tends to be an actual hyphen (as opposed to a provincial badge).
Norway (code N) has a similar arrangement to Denmark (i.e. LL-DDDDD), but in its case the letters do mark the county of registration. However, they do so in random series, so in reality this is only helpful if you happen to have the list to hand. Of course, Norway is outside the EU, so no EU stars (even though the blue tag is now typical).
Also outside the EU is Switzerland (whose Latin-based code CH tends not to appear on the plates themselves), which has retained the old Italian system of two letters for the canton of origin (there are in effect 26 of these) and a number of up to six digits – above, BE is Bern(e). The numbers have run out now in some larger cantons, which are introducing a final letter to compensate. Notable also is the Swiss preference for square plates on the back (but these revert to the European standard on the front), with in each case a badge for the confederation (i.e. Switzerland itself) to the left and for the canton to the right.
Some interesting further notes on Swiss plates in comments below.
Not to be confused with Switzerland is the Czech Republic (code CZ), whose initial digit does give the region of origin, although the system is now very complex. The system of DLL-DDDD is broadly retained from the old Czechoslovakia.
Slovakia (code SK) itself retained the same plates for a long time after separation, but now has big bolder font and a simplified regional identifier of two letters which in fact makes the overall plate look very similar to modern Italian plates (thus LL-DDDLL where the first ‘LL’ is the regional identifier, e.g. BA is ‘Bratislava’, and the hyphen is now usually the national badge).
Very similar to Slovakia is Croatia (code HR ‘Hrvatska‘), distinguished only by its second hyphen and of course the different national badge (the red and white checks familiar to football fans at least). Again, the first two letters are a regional identifier (ST is ‘Split’).
Poland (code PL) used to have distinctive black plates but switched to white soon after the end of Communism. The plates do contain regional identifiers at the start, but exactly how they do this is really anyone’s guess – there are two or three letters before the hyphen as regional identifiers, and then various combinations allowable in series after it.
Across Europe there are of course smaller countries too, which tend to have smaller plates: Monaco (MC), San Marino (RSM) and Andorra (AND) all have small white plates with only a number or a single letter followed by a number; Liechtenstein (FL) has distinctive black plates but designed similarly to Switzerland’s, all carrying the code FL.
As a quick reminder, closer to home Great Britain (code GB often unmarked on the plate itself) specifically now has LLDD LLL where the first two letters are a regional identifier (although these never change) and the two digits mark the half-year of registration. Thus, above, LK is ‘London-Stanmore’ (the ‘L’ tells you ‘London'; the ‘K’ randomly specifies ‘Stanmore’); and ’53’ is the period from September 2003 to February 2004 (preceded by ’03’, succeeded by ’04’, then ’54’, then ’05’, then ’55’ etc; changing each 1 March and 1 September). The first letter of the regional identifiers are usually fairly obvious (B is Birmingham, S is Scotland, etc). Before late 2001, Great Britain had a system LDDD LLL where the initial ‘L’ marked the year (from 1963; or, from 1999, half-year) of registration, and the last two letters marked the county or city of registration (there was a system, but it was complex and the letters were as good as random). Previous systems, such as LLL DDDL or even LLL DDD or DDD LLL and such like remain in use on personalised plates.
Northern Ireland in effect retains the pre-2001 Great Britain system but without the year identifier, simply LLL DDDD where the last two letters mark the county or city or registration (the latest for Belfast is ‘FZ‘, for Antrim is ‘RZ‘, for Down ‘JZ‘ and so on); this identifier code typically ends in ‘Z‘ but in some smaller counties and cities contains instead an ‘I‘ (originally marking ‘Ireland’).
Among UK territories, Gibraltar (GBZ), Jersey (GBJ) and Alderney (GBA) all have yellow back and white front plates UK-style with their initial letter plus a long number or a number plus single letter; Guernsey (GBG) has only a number, no initial letter, and now seems to prefer black plates). The Isle of Man (GBM) has what looks like UK-style plates though often with a different Irish-style font, typically LLL-DDD-L with the combination ‘MN’ or ‘MAN’ somewhere present.
UK plates are in general distinguished by their colour (yellow back and white front) and the fact the plate is printed differently (with the letters/digits already on, as opposed to stamped on as is the case typically in Continental Europe).
Of all the countries in Europe, only one exceeds eight digits/letters collectively on the plate, and that is Ireland (IRL) – otherwise, now, only Germany even exceeds seven (and even then only rarely). It broke from the old UK system in 1987 with a straightforward two-digit year marker, plus a code for city (one letter) or county (two letters; typically first and last except where there is a clash) and then a serial number. In 2013, it added a further digit to the initial cluster, a ‘1’ for the first six months of the year, and a ‘2’ for the second six months; a re-organisation of local government also saw Tipperary violate convention and take the single-letter code ‘T‘; above, KE is ‘Kildare’.
So, short of seeing a van from South Africa (code, ahem, ZA) or a truck from Turkmenistan (er, TM I think), you’re all set… although that does happen, you know…