NB: This article is summarised in bullet points at the foot of the page.
When the new registration format was introduced in 2001, regulations governing the construction and display of car number plates were revised. These revised regulations apply to the number plates on any and all vehicles registered on or after 1st September 2001. They also apply to all replacement plates made and mounted on vehicles on or after the same date.
Number plates must now use one specific, mandatory typeface – a very simple sans serif typeface intended to make the numbers easy to read by both humans and automatic recognition systems, which are increasingly being used by the police and other agencies. All hard-to-read variants, such as multiple stroke and italic fonts, are now prohibited. The one decorative variation still permitted is a 3D effect version of the mandatory typeface.
The size and spacing of number plate characters is specified in the regulations, as follows:
Each character must be 79mm high and 50mm wide (except the number 1 or the letter I). The width of each character stroke must be 14mm. There must be a space of 11mm between characters within the same group, and character groups must be 33mm apart. For the purposes of measurement, each character (again, excepting the number 1 or the letter I), regardless of its shape, is treated as a rectangular block of dimensions 79mm x 50mm
Optionally, number plates may display one of the following national emblems: British Union Flag with “GB”, English Flag (St George Cross) with “ENG”, Scottish Flag (St Andrew Cross) with “SCO”, Welsh Flag (red dragon on green/white field) with “Wales” and “Cymru” or Euro Flag (circle of stars) with “GB”. If the Euro/GB configuration is displayed, then the bearer vehicle need not display a separate “GB” emblem when driving within the EU.
The colours and reflectivity of number plates are also specified in the regulations, and there is a British Standard (BS AU 145d) which describes the physical characteristics of number plates, including: visibility, strength and reflectivity. Front plates must have black characters on a white background, while rear plates must have black characters on a yellow background. The British Standard also requires that a number plate must be marked with the following information: the British Standard Number, the name, trade mark, or other means of identification of the manufacturer or component supplier, the name and postcode of the supplying outlet. A non-reflective border is optional. There may be no other markings or material contained on the number plate.
SUMMARY: What is required and permitted on UK road-legal number plates
White front plate (to British Standard BS AU 145d)
Yellow rear plate (to British Standard BS AU 145d)
The registration number of the bearer vehicle in the mandatory font (black ‘Charles Wright 2001’)
Spacing of characters and character groups in accordance with the measurements specified in the regulations. Variation is not permitted
Permitted but not required:
3D variation of the mandatory ‘Charles Wright 2001’ font
Coloured, non-reflective border
National emblem: English St George Cross with “ENG” legend, Scottish St Andrew Cross with “SCO” legend, Welsh Dragon with “WALES” and “CYMRU” legend, British Union Flag with “GB” legend) or Euro Stars symbol with “GB” legend.
No additions or variations are permitted. Common illegal variations are:
Fancy or decorative typefaces
Bolts placed in such a way as to alter the appearance of characters
Adjusted spacing between characters or character groups
Additional logos or symbols, such as sporting emblems and religious symbols.
There are concessions for older and vintage cars. “Historic vehicles”, i.e. those built prior to 1973, are permitted to bear the old-style black plates of either plastic or traditional metal construction.
To quote the DVLA: “Vehicles constructed before 1.1.73 may display traditional style ‘black and white’ number plates i.e. white, silver or grey characters on a black plate.”