License Plate Decoder

Name Phone Number License Plate VIN
Name Phone Number License Plate VIN

A Guide on How to Decode a License Plate

License plates in the United States have long been an important means of identifying vehicles for personal use, law enforcement, city and county government vehicles, state government vehicles, commercial vehicles, and special purpose uses. These plates, sometimes referred to as “tags,” have combinations of letters, numbers that have meaning as unique characters, and registration information. But how much information can you decipher from a license plate? This article explores the intriguing subject of understanding license plates and how to decode them. 

State License Plate Decoder

Every state in the United States runs its vehicle licensing authority, often the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or an equivalent agency. The characters on a license plate generally may seem like they have no hidden meaning or encoded data however, some do. The primary purpose of a personal license plate number is to offer a unique identifier that can be traced back to the vehicle’s registration information within the issuing authority’s database. A vehicle identification number also does the same, however it is not easily visible to onlookers or law enforcement. There are certain elements on license plates that can provide you with some interesting information. 

In California for example, has by far the most registered vehicles and license plates in the nation with nearly 30 million registrations, according to the Federal Highway Administration as of January 2023. It is paramount to have an easy to reference system that is uniform so that the California DMV and law enforcement, auto insurance companies, and other legitimate uses can easily run a California license plate lookup based on the license plate characters. Where most license plates are randomly chosen for privately owned vehicles, there are many other license plate characters and identifiers. Below is a list of some of the common types of California license plates identifiers, many states use similar license plate types.

  1. Standard California Plates: These are the regular white plates with red scripting that are most commonly seen on vehicles throughout the state. 
  2. Specialty Plates: These are plates that often have unique designs or emblems and support a specific cause or organization. For example, the Whale Tail Plate (supporting coastal conservation), the Yosemite Plate, the 1960s Legacy Plate, and the Veterans Plate. 
  3. Personalized Plates: These are plates where you can choose a unique combination of letters and numbers to create a personalized message, subject to availability and DMV approval. 
  4. Digital License Plates: These are plates are digitized plates that can be updated on the fly. For example, when the registration is paid in full the digital license plate will reflect that immediately instead of waiting for a registration sticker.
  5. Disabled Person (DP) Plates: These are issued to persons with a permanent physical disability that impairs their mobility. 
  6. Disabled Veteran (DV) Plates: These are issued to disabled veterans who meet specific service-related disability criteria. 
  7. Environmental (E) Plates: These plates are issued to vehicles that meet specific emission standards and are eligible to use carpool lanes regardless of the number of passengers. 
  8. Exempt Plates: These are issued to certain vehicles owned or operated by the state, city or county, like police cars and fire trucks. 
  9. Commercial Plates: These are issued to trucks or vans used in commerce. 
  10. Trailer Plates: These are issued for use on trailers. 
  11. Motorcycle Plates: These are smaller plates issued specifically for motorcycles. 
  12. Historical Vehicle Plates: These are issued to vehicles that are of historical interest and are more than 25 years old. 
  13. Antique Motorcycle Plates: These plates are issued to motorcycles that are of historical interest and are more than 25 years old. 
  14. Pearl Harbor Survivor Plates: These are issued to military veterans who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. 
  15. Honorary Consul Plates: These plates are issued to honorary consuls of foreign nations. 
  16. Purple Heart Plates: These are issued to recipients of the Purple Heart Medal. 
  17. Legion of Valor Plates: These are issued to recipients of the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, or Air Force Cross. 
  18. Congressional Medal of Honor Plates: These are issued to recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. 
  19. Gold Star Family Plates: These are issued to family members of U.S. military personnel who lost their lives in the line of duty. 
  20. Ex-Prisoner of War Plates: These are issued to veterans who were prisoners of war. 
  21. Press Photographer Plates: These are issued to qualifying press photographers. 
  22. Agricultural Plates (AG Plates): These are issued for use on commercial motor vehicles used exclusively in the production and harvesting of agricultural products. 
  23. Horseless Carriage Plates: These are issued for vehicles that are 16 or more years old and used primarily for participation in club activities, parades, tours, and occasional transportation. 
  24. Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Plates: These are issued to vehicles operated exclusively off public roads and highways. 
  25. Permanent Trailer Identification (PTI) Plates: These are issued for trailers, camper trailers, or fifth-wheel trailers, that are not used commercially. 
  26. Transporter Plates: These are issued to businesses to legally move vehicles without registering them. 
  27. Apportioned Plates: These are issued to commercial vehicles involved in interstate commerce based on the percentage of total miles traveled in each state. 
  28. Dealer Plates: These are issued to vehicle dealers for use on vehicles held for sale in the dealer’s inventory.

Many of these license plate options have descriptions embossed or printed on the plates, other have annotations, and some special characters. Since each state manages their own vehicle license plates and registrations, these may vary slightly and some states may have other options. You can find a full list of what license plate options are available by visiting the relevant state’s motor vehicle department website.

How to Decode a License PlateDecoding The License Plate State of Origin

One of the most obvious features of a license plate’s origin is the state it’s registered in. Each state has its design and branding, often featuring the state’s slogan, nickname, or state symbol. For most license plates it’s easy enough to tell what state it’s from, by looking at the design, or in most cases the plate will spell out the state somewhere on it that is easily visible. The difficult part of decoding a plate from a different state is what the different identifiers might be, some states use a different annotation or identifier to describe the various options. However, one of the identifiers is universal which is when the license plate says “Exempt” which usually means it is some type of city, county, state, or government vehicle. These vehicles say exempt because they do not need to be registered to an individual, the state takes care of those registrations and they do not need registration stickers. It is also important to note that there are a multitude of free license plate number lookup tools available however, most online resources are limited as to what types of plates can be researched with these tools. 

Specialty and Personalized License Plates 

Many states also offer specialty and personalized plates. Specialty plates are designed to support specific causes or organizations. The design or a specific character string on these plates might indicate that the vehicle’s owner has chosen to support a particular cause, like wildlife conservation, veterans, or universities. 

Personalized plates, also known as vanity plates, are customized by vehicle owners. They can carry almost any combination of letters and numbers, as long as it’s unique within the state and adheres to state regulations, including content appropriateness. Decoding these can sometimes yield insight into the owner’s interests, profession, or humor. 

Witty and Funny License Plates

Here are some of the funniest and most witty license plates that are within the 7 digit character limits for most states. Each specialized license plate must be first approved by the relevant state’s motor vehicle department and not be offensive to anyone. Each specialized plate must also be unique, you cannot copy another person’s plate unless you reside in another state and it is not taken.

  1. “BZZZZZ” – On a car of a beekeeper or a fan of yellow cars. 
  2. “YUNO GAS” – On an electric car, a humorous taunt for non-electric vehicles. 
  3. “H8TRAFC” – Expressing dislike for traffic, which is common for every driver 
  4. “LOL OIL” – Another funny plate for an electric car owner. 
  5. “VAN GOGH” – A funny plate for a painter’s van. 
  6. “LOL MPG” – For gas-guzzling vehicles 
  7. “IM L8” – For someone who is always running late. 
  8. “BYE DEBT” – For someone who paid off their car loan 
  9. “OMW 2GYM” – For fitness-gym enthusiasts. 
  10. “BRB MOM” – Perfect for a teenager’s first car. 
  11. “4EVA L8” – For someone who knows they’re always running late. 
  12. “GOTTA P” – It might make people laugh in traffic, it’s pretty obvious what it means.  
  13. “BCK2BED” – On the car of someone who is not a morning person. 
  14. “WAS HIS” – On a car following a divorce. 
  15. “1MPG LOL” – Another humorous option for a gas-guzzling vehicle. 
  16. “C U L8R” – A clever way to say, “See you later”. 
  17. “2FAB4U” – For a car that stands out. 
  18. “SLO MO” – On a car driven by a cautious driver. 
  19. “CAR DIEM” – A pun on “Carpe Diem”. 
  20. “RD TRIPN” – For the adventurers who love road trips. 
  21. “B3WARE” – A playful warning to fellow drivers. 
  22. “NO CO2 4U” – For someone proud of their eco-friendly vehicle.
  23. “PL8S R US” – A funny plate for a DMV employee. 
  24. “SFTY 1ST” – A clever way to say it’s a safe family vehicle

Most DMV websites offer you the ability to research personalized license plate options so that you can find something clever and unique. Many people pick specialized plates that mean something to them and not necessarily to others on the road. When you decide on a specialized license plate message, also make sure that you can explain what it means as the DMV will ask you to put this in the details to be reviewed before being approved. Once your specialized plate is accepted, you will need to pay an additional fee for this new specialty license plate, and each year that you renew it. According to a recent post, there are over 78 billion possible combinations of specialized license plate messages available in the United States.

License Plate Format

The arrangement and sequence of characters on the license plate, typically a mix of letters and numbers and sometimes special characters, varies from state to state. Some states may use a consistent number-letter format across all plates, while others might have a randomized sequence. Although this sequence doesn’t convey personal data about the license plate owner, recognizing the format can further confirm a plate’s state of origin. For example, beginning in 2009, The standard Texas license plate use a 7-digit alpha-numeric sequence. This sequence is standard for all Texas personal license plates. It goes like this: two letters followed by one number, and then one letter, and then three numbers (Ex. AB1C234). The numbers and letters are random, but the sequence stays the same.

License Plate Special Characters 

Special characters, or symbols, are allowed in some states such as California, but many states do not allow special characters at all such as on Illinois plates or Florida plates. In California you can choose one symbol such as a hand, star, heart or plus sign, however, the list is limited. You will also need to pay an extra fee for a plate with a special character that has these options. Since there are only 7 characters allowed on a standard plate, you will only be able to have a maximum of 6 characters in addition to the symbol for this type of plate. Additionally, you may find it difficult to decode a plate with special characters unless the decoder you are using has the option to use special characters or a wildcard in the search feature.

Diplomatic License Plates

Certain plates immediately identify vehicles of specific types or purposes such as for diplomatic vehicles, making them identifiable. Similarly, diplomatic plates denote vehicles used by foreign diplomats and can be identified by a unique format, typically starting with the letter ‘D’ or it may spell out ‘Diplomat’ on the plate somewhere. There are also subcategories of diplomatic plates that represent other titles such as Consul ‘C’ or Staff ‘S’. The designated letter is typically stamped on the left side of the plate. Diplomat plates may vary slightly but they should be obvious and can be issued on both a federal or state level.

Car Owner Search

License Plate Readers 

Law enforcement agencies now use Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR), which are high-speed cameras combined with optical character recognition (OCR) technology. These ALPR can read license plates and check them against a database for stolen or wanted vehicles, vehicles involved in crimes, or vehicles associated with unpaid fines. While this doesn’t decode information from the plate number itself, it highlights how the unique characters can be used to quickly access a wealth of data. The National Conference of State Legislatures released a statement, in February 2023, discussing the state’s responsibilities for using and storing ALPR data and usage. Most states are only store this data for a short period of time as it can infringe on people’s privacy and cannot be shared with other law enforcement agencies unless there is an ongoing investigation. Each state has a variation of this acceptable storage time frame and usage, as this collected information is managed on a state level.

Cracking the Code of License Plate Characters

While the string of characters on a U.S. license plate may seem random at times, they certainly carry more meaning than meets the eye. The characters are a unique identifier linking to a specific vehicle and owner, and also tell a story about the vehicle history and can be linked to an owner’s criminal history and driving record. However, it’s essential to remember that privacy laws tightly regulate the access to and use of the data associated with license plates, and each state varies on what is allowed for public access and legitimate business use. Always respect these laws and the privacy of individuals when considering license plate information. Decoding a license plate can be fun as long as you respect the privacy guidelines set by federal and state legislation.

License Plate Decoder

Decoding License Plates FAQs

What is license plate decoding?

License plate decoding is the process of understanding the vehicle information contained in a license plate number. This might include state of registration, vehicle type, year of manufacture, and more depending on the country or state's coding system.

Is there a free license plate decoder?

Yes, there are many free vehicle related websites that offer free decoding of the license plate characters and VIN number. However, many of the free resources will have somewhat limited information and will charge a fee for premium vehicle information.

Can a license plate reveal the make and model of a vehicle?

Yes, but a standard license plate doesn't give information about the make and model of a vehicle. It mostly provides information about the state and the year the vehicle, but you can find the VIN from a license plate search and decode all the juicy details of a vehicle with the VIN number.

What does the first character of a license plate mean?

Sometimes nothing at all but sometimes it could the first character could represent if it is a government vehicle, a commercial vehicle, or a state owned vehicle that is exempt from registration.

What is the best license plate decoder?

There are a many license plate decoders available online however not all of them are the same. it's important to find a reliable resource which can be found be looking at the website reviews and how long they have been around for. You should also make sure that you are using a reputable resource which can be easily vetted by looking at what other people say about their service

Why do some license plates have vertical letters?

Vertical letters on a license plate might indicate a special type of registration, such as for a government vehicle, diplomat vehicle, or other specific designations. The meaning of these letters varies from state to state.

What is a personalized license plate?

Personalized license plates, also known as vanity plates, are specialty license plates where the owner chooses the sequence of letters and/or numbers, which spell out words or phrases, to make a personal statement. These personalized plates also cost more to register and must first go through an approval process by the DMV.

What do the small letters on a license plate mean?

The small letters, or numbers, on a license plate often represent specific uses as determined by the state. These might be county codes, special vehicle type codes, commercial vehicle codes, or exempt vehicles that are registered to the state, county or city governments.

Is license plate decoding legal?

License plate decoding is legal but there are privacy restrictions on what information can be found. Using someone's license plate information to invade their privacy, harass them, or for any illicit purpose is definitely illegal and punishable by law.

Leave Reply - See responses below:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Last Updated: 2023-06-15

Please be advised that the information accessed through searches may not always be accurate or current, as we neither generate nor authenticate the data provided via our service. The reliability and precision of information are primarily contingent upon diverse public sources from which data is compiled. By utilizing, you acknowledge your acceptance of the terms delineated in the terms of service and our privacy policies. Information acquired via must not be utilized for unlawful purposes such as stalking or harassing individuals, or scrutinizing public figures or celebrities. Individuals who contravene these directives may be subject to both civil and criminal legal proceedings and sanctions. It is explicitly stated that does not function as a "consumer reporting agency" as defined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act ("FCRA"), and therefore, does not furnish "consumer reports" pursuant to the FCRA. strictly prohibits the utilization of information garnered from search results (a) for discriminatory practices against any consumer; (b) for assessing a consumer's eligibility for personal credit, insurance, employment, housing, or government licenses or benefits; or (c) in any other manner that may impact a consumer's economic or financial status or standing.