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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Quora.com post, there are over 78 billion possible combinations of specialized license plate messages available in the United States.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.