Number Plates > Blog > October 2009

European Union and number plates

In the European Union, white or yellow number plates of a common format and size are issued throughout, although they are still optional in some member states. Nevertheless, some individual member states still use differing non-EU formats - Belgium, for example, still permits vehicles to display the older small white number plates with red lettering. Italy still permits smaller plates to be attached to the front of a vehicle, while the rear plate complies to the usual EU format. The common design consists of a blue strip on the left of the plate, which has the EU motif (12 yellow stars), along with the country code of the member state in which the vehicle was registered.

Lettering on the plate must be black on a white or yellow reflective background. With this EU format, vehicles are no longer required to carry an international code plate or sticker for travelling between member states. The non-EU states of Switzerland and Norway also recognise the blue strip instead of the traditional white oval with the country code in black.

Germany has selected a typeface which is called fälschungserschwerende Schrift (abbr.: FE-Schrift), meaning "falsification-hindering script". It is designed so that, for example, the O cannot be adjusted to look like a Q, or vice versa; nor can the P be painted to resemble an R, amongst other changes. This typeface can more easily be read by radar or visual number plate reading machines, but can be harder to read with the naked eye, especially when the maximum allowed number of 8 characters in "Engschrift" (narrower script used when available space is limited) are printed on the plate.

History of Number Plates

Number plates have been around almost as long as cars, appearing in the earliest period of the transition from the horse, 1890 to 1910. The Netherlands were the first to introduce a national number plate, first called a "driving permit", in 1898. The first licences were simply plates with a number, starting at 1. By August 8th of 1899 the counter was at 168. When the Dutch chose a different way to number the plates on January 15th 1906 the last issued plate was 2065.

In the U.S., where each state issues number plates, New York State has required number plates since 1901. At first, number plates were not government issued in most jurisdictions and motorists were obliged to make their own. Massachusetts and West Virginia were the first states to issue number plates, in 1903.

The earliest number plates were made out of porcelain baked onto iron, or simple ceramic with no backing, which made them extremely fragile and impractical. Few examples of these earliest number plates survive. Later experimental materials include cardboard, leather, plastic and during wartime shortages copper and pressed soybeans.

Earlier number plates varied in size and shape from one jurisdiction to the next, such that if one moved, new holes would be needed drilled into the bumper to support the new plate. Standardization of number plates came in 1957, when motor manufacturers came to agreement with governments and international standards organizations. While peculiar local variants still exist, there are three basic standards worldwide.

  • 12 by 6 inches (300 mm by 150 mm) - Used in the majority of the Americas.
  • 20.5 by 4.5 inches (520 mm by either 110 or 120 mm) - Used in the bulk of the European countries and many of their former overseas territories.
  • 14.5 by 5.3 inches (372 mm by 135 mm) - Used in Australia and some other Pacific Rim countries, about halfway between the dimensions of the other two standards, longer than Western Hemisphere plates but taller than European ones

Number Plates - the regulations

All vehicles manufactured after 1.1.1973 must display number plates of reflex-reflecting material, white at the front and yellow at the rear, the characters must be black. In addition, the characters on number plates purchased from 1.9.2001 will need to conform to the following specifications.

Character height 79 mm
Character width (except the figure 1 or letter I) Y541 BCY 50 mm
Character stroke 14 mm
Space between characters 11 mm
Space between groups AB51 33 mm
Top, bottom and side margins (minimum) 11 mm
Space between vertical lines 19 mm

Motorcycles and Tricycles

There are separate provisions for motorcycles and tricycles. Basically motorcycles registered after 1.9.2001 must only display a number plate at the rear of the vehicle. Motorcycles registered before 1.9.2001 can display a number plate at the front but are not required to.

Tricycles derived from four wheeled bodies i.e. saloon cars must meet the normal requirements above whereas tricycles derived from motorcycles must meet the requirements for motorcycles.

Character height 64 mm
Character width (except the figure 1 or letter I) 44 mm
Character stroke 10 mm
Space between characters 10 mm
Space between groups 30 mm
Top, bottom and side margins (minimum) 11 mm
Space between vertical lines 13 mm

Number plates fitted before 1 September 2001

Number plates fitted before 1.9.2001 must display characters that meet the dimensions shown in one of the two groups below:

  Group 1 Group 2
Character height 89 mm 79 mm
Character width (except the figure 1 or letter I) 64 mm 57 mm
Character stroke 16 mm 14 mm
Space between characters 13 mm 11 mm
Space between groups 38 mm 33 mm
Side margins (minimum) 13 mm 11 mm
Top and bottom margins (minimum) 13 mm 11 mm
Space between vertical lines 19 mm 19 mm

The Euro-symbol

Motorists may, if they wish, display the Euro symbol and GB national identifier on the number plate. This will dispense with the need for a separate GB sticker when travelling within the EU.

The symbol must conform to the EC Council Regulation 2411/98 which states the height must be a minimum of 98mm the width must be a minimum of 40mm, maximum of 50mm. The background must be of retro-reflecting blue with 12 retro-reflecting yellow stars at the top and the distinguishing sign of the Member State (GB) in retro-reflecting white or yellow. An example is shown below:

Euro Number Plate

The Mandatory Typeface

All number plates made after 31.8.2001 must be displayed in the mandatory typeface (font). Number plates made prior to this date must be substantially the same. An example of the typeface is shown below.

Mandatory typeface

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