Vehicle registration plates of France
Vehicle registration plates are mandatory number plates used to display the registration mark of a vehicle registered in France. They have existed in the country since 1901. It is compulsory for most motor vehicles used on public roads to display them.
In French, license plates are called plaques d'immatriculation or plaques minéralogiques. The latter makes a reference to the national mining administration, which was responsible for delivering the plates in the early 20th century.
Since 1901, various systems have been successively introduced, the most recent dating from 2009. The license plates issued since 2009 use a XX-NNN-ZZ format, composed of a series of 7 alphanumeric characters: 2 letters, 3 numbers, and then 2 letters (e.g. AB-126-FD). This format is monitored nationwide and car plates are permanent and attached to a single vehicle from its first registration to its disposal. As such, car plates do not need to be changed if the car is sold or if the owner moves to another region within France.
Cars bought before 2009 can still bear the old format, dating from 1950, if the owner has not moved to a different départment since then. Unlike the new one, the 1950 format is geographical. Until 2009, car plates had to be changed whenever the owner moved to another département or bought a car from a person living in a different départment. The 1950 format uses a N X NN format, composed of a series of one to four numbers, one to three letters and a two-digit code corresponding to the département where the car is registered.
- 1 Current scheme
- 2 Previous scheme
- 3 Before 1950
- 4 Overseas territories
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Called système d'immatriculation des véhicules ("vehicle registration system"), shortened in SIV, the current scheme was adopted in France in 2009 (15 April for new vehicles; 15 October for second-hand ones). It was inspired by the "AA-111-AA" format that was successfully adopted in Italy in 1994. Under the SIV scheme, car plates are permanent and do not need to be changed if the car owner sell it or move to a different region.
The SIV system was adopted to ease vehicle registration and law enforcement on roads because it is fully monitored by computer and administered nationwide. The SIV database can easily be combined with other computer files. The SIV was also implemented to replace the 1950 format, which was running out of character combinations. Had it been maintained, it would have been completely exhausted by 2025 for Paris, the most populous French département. The SIV scheme started in 2004 for motorcycles with an engine capacity under 50 cc. However, these vehicles carry plates with less characters, such as AA-11-A.
Due to the difficult economic climate, the introduction of the new plates was postponed from 1 January 2009 until 15 April 2009 for all new cars. It was again postponed until 15 October 2009 for all other vehicles due to computer bugs in the SIV system.
Colour and dimensions
Car plates issued after 2009 must be displayed in accordance with the 9 February 2009 Order (Arrêté du 9 février 2009). They must be made of reflex-reflecting material, white at the front and rear, with black non-reflecting characters. Characters may be displayed on one or two lines. The industry standard size number plate is 520 mm × 110 mm or 520 mm × 120 mm if it includes a horizontal cartouche to display information about the car dealer. The left side of the plate must contain a blue band with the letter F for France under the stars of the European flag. A similar band must be present on the right side to display a départment code and the symbol of the region where the départment is located
Position of the characters on the plate is fully regulated but there is no official typeface. The law provides guidelines: characters must be sans serif, monospaced and without any opening on closed characters.
In some cases, colours may vary. Vehicles registered as classic cars can carry black plates with silver or white characters and without the blue bands on the sides. Vehicles in transit on French territory must carry a red plate with white characters. Instead of the regional code, the right hand band displays the expiry date of the plate. Vehicles purchased in the free trade zones of Gex and Savoie also carry red plates, but with the regional code. Diplomatic vehicles carry green plates with orange or white characters. Vehicles owned by the French Forces and Civilian Elements stationed in Germany (FFECSA) carry a pale blue plate with white characters.
Motorcycles and mopeds have to display a rear plate. Motorcycle plates have the same colour and general design as the usual vehicle plates.
Under the SIV system, car plates contain seven alphanumeric characters: two letters, a dash, three numbers, a dash and two letters, such as AA-229-AA. The system is nationwide and chronological. The first car registered in France under the SIV received a AA-001-AA license plate, the second one AA-002-AA, the third AA-003-AA. The system will be exhausted when ZZ-999-ZZ is reached, which is scheduled to occur after 80 years of use.
The numbering system goes as follows:
- AA-001-AA to AA-999-AA (numbers evolve first);
- AA-001-AB to AA-999-AZ (then the last letter on the right);
- AA-001-BA to AA-999-ZZ (then the first letter on the right);
- AB-001-AA to AZ-999-ZZ (then the last letter on the left);
- BA-001-AA to ZZ-999-ZZ (then the first letter on the left).
The SIV format provides [(23 × 23) - 2] × 999 × [(23 × 23) - 1] = 277,977,744 different combinations. This figure excludes three letters that are not used: I, O and V, as they can be confused with a 1, a 0 and a U, respectively. It also excludes the SS combination because it reminds the Nazi organisation and WW in the first group of letters as it indicates a temporary plate. Other combinations of letters were avoided in the previous system because they sounded vulgar to French speakers, such as KK, PD, PQ, QQ, and WC, but they were kept for the SIV.
The SIV system does not provide special plates for the government, army, police or any other organisation that did have such plates under the previous system. Their vehicles display regular license plates. The only exception concern temporary plates, which start with WW, and demonstration cars at car dealers, whose plates start with W.
As it is nationwide, the SIV system does not use geographical codes as did the previous system. At first, it was not planned to display the départments' codes on the new plates. Because of that, the new format encountered strong opposition. Parliamentarians from both the majority and opposition lobbied at the National Assembly to keep what they saw as a part of national identity. In 2008, several months before the SIV system was implemented, the Minister of the Interior acknowledged the attachment French people had to their départements and decided to add a blue band on the right to display geographical codes.
As it is not used for administrative purposes, car owners can choose the code of the département they want, no matter where they reside. The code must be displayed together with the symbol of the corresponding region. It is forbidden to display the symbol of a region the chosen département does not belong to. The département code may be changed at all times without any change in the registration documents.
The département codes are also used for other purposes, such as statistics and postcodes. They contain two numbers, such as 05 for Hautes-Alpes or 67 for Bas-Rhin. Some exceptions exist however. The two départements of Corsica, Corse-du-Sud and Haute-Corse, use 2A and 2B because they were only created in 1976 when the Corse département (20) was split in two. The overseas départements have three-digit codes, starting with 97, which was originally the single code for them all. For instance, the code for Guadeloupe is 971 and the one for Martinique is 972.
Shortly before the introduction of the system, French regions were asked which symbol they wanted to represent them on car plates. The vast majority chose their logos, except Alsace which opted for its coat of arms and Brittany and Corsica which chose their flags.
Before the introduction of the current format in 2009, French cars were registered under the FNI system (Fichier National des Immatriculations, "National Car Registration Record"). The FNI format was adopted in 1950 and amended several times due to its long operating life.
Vehicle owners had to re-register their vehicle if they relocated permanently to another département. There used to be a once-per year tax on cars, called the vignette, whose rate depended on the department. This tax now exists only for corporate-owned vehicles (and there exist exemptions for small numbers of vehicles); it is thus no longer important to know the department of a car on sight. Furthermore, computerized files allow large national databases to be maintained without the need for them to be split at local level.
A side effect of the vehicle tax system was that many corporations registered their vehicles in departments, such as Oise (60), with lower rates. Regulations aimed at preventing such schemes were passed in 1999.
Colour and dimensions
As with the SIV format, plates issued under the FNI system were closely regulated by law. They had to meet a number of requirements about size, shape, colour, typefront and material. From the adoption of the format in 1950 until its withdrawal in 2009, several laws and orders came to modify regulations on plates. For instance, the blue band with the European stars and the letter F was introduced in 1998 and became compulsory on new plates in 2004.
At the beginning, plates were black with white or silver characters. Reflective plates were introduced in 1963 but only became compulsory on new cars in 1993. The new plates had to be white on the front and yellow on the rear until 2007, when white rear plates were allowed.
The FNI format was chronological, as is the SIV system. It was also regional, which means that it evolved independently in each département. License plates contained from 4 to 8 alphanumeric characters split into three parts by spaces. The first space could be omitted on license plates issued after 1996.
- First part: one to four numbers;
- Second part: one to three letters;
- Third part: the code for départments.
Numbering went as follows: numbers evolved first, starting from 1, until they reached 999. Then letters evolved. The first car registered in Paris had a 1 A 75 car plate, and the second one 2 A 75. Once 999 A 75 had been reached, the following car was registered under 1 B 75. The format would have been exhausted in Paris once 999 ZZZ 75 would have been reached.
The following chronology summarises the numbering system. Most of the départements chose to have four numbers on their plates once the letters reached QA, in order to have more combinations available. The "00" at the end stands for the geographical code.
- 1 A 00 to 999 Z 00;
- 1 AA 00 to 999 PZ 00;
- 1 QA 00 to 9999 ZZ 00;
- 11 AAA 00 to 999 ZZZ 00.
Numbers from 1 to 10 and numbers identical to the département code (such as 24 VQ 24) were not used after 1976. As with the SIV system, letters I and O were never used because they could be confused with other characters. U was excluded as well in 1984, but some départements issued license plates containing that letter until 1991. The letter O was exceptionally used on official cars at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. Such cars had license plates with figures between 1 JO 73 and 9999 JO 73. "JO" stands for Jeux olympiques while "73" is the code for Savoie where the games took place. Offensive letter combinations, for instance SS, PD, PQ QQ, KK or WC, were avoided by some départements either because of historical reasons or because they sound vulgar to French sepakers. In the same way, Haute-Garonne did not deliver car plates with "AZF" after the tragic explosion of the AZF factory in Toulouse in 2001. MMM, MMW, MWM and MWW were withdrawn in 1994 because they needed too much space on plates.
Bearing in mind that only 23 letters were used by the format and that most of the départements used four numbers after reaching QA, the number of car plates that the FNI format provides can be estimated at: (999 × 22) + (999 × 14 × 23) + (9988 × 9 × 23) + (988 × 21 × 23 × 23) = 13,386,864. This figure does not take into account avoided letter and number combinations.
Under the FNI system, the code of the département was placed at the right of the license plate. The codes are part of the Community Identification Number known in France as Code officiel géographique and are not only used for car registration but also in postcodes, statistics and for many other purposes.
Each code consists of two digits except for Corse-du-Sud and Haute-Corse (2A and 2B) and the overseas départments where the identifier consists of 3 digits (in the series 971 to 978), the first two digits were often stacked on plates to save space.
Between 1950 and 2009, France experienced some territorial changes which reflected on regional codes. Algeria was part of France until 1962 and French Algeria was also divided into départements. They had their own codes which were used on plates the same way as in the rest of France: Alger 91, Oran 92, Constantine 93 and the Southern Territories 94. Bône was created in 1955 and received 99. Several new départements were created in 1956-1958 as France was struggling with independence movements in the Algerian War. The new départements used codes such as 9A, 9B, 9C, 9D, etc. After the independence of the country, French car plates were no longer used there and Algerian codes became obsolete.
In 1968, two départements in the Paris region were split into smaller ones because of the growing population. 75, which had been the code for Seine, was attributed to Paris and 78 (Seine-et-Oise) to Yvelines. Newly created départements were Essonne (91), Hauts-de-Seine (92), Seine-Saint-Denis (93), Val-de-Marne (94) and Val-d'Oise (95). Most of them received numbers that had previously been allocated to the départements in French Algeria.
Saint Pierre and Miquelon, now a self-governing overseas collectivity with its own car plates, was a proper département between 1976 and 1985. As such, it could have had FNI format car plates but it always kept its own local format.
Permanent special plates
Unlike the SIV system, the FNI comprised many special plates.
The state public services, such as the National Police, had special plates that comprised the département code; a letter to indicate in which area the vehicle was authorised to travel (D for the département, R for the region, N for the national territory, E for the European Union); a dash; four numbers from 1001 to 9999; and a letter.
The French Armed Forces, including the National Gendarmerie had a different plate with: a number to identify the army unit (2 for Gendarmerie, 6 for the French Army, 7 for the Air Force, 7 for the Navy and 8 for the General Services); two digits to identify the year of car registration (01 for 2001); a number to identify the type of vehicle (1 for cars and coaches, 3 for lorries, etc.) and four numbers from 0001 to 9999. License plates bore the symbol of the army unit the vehicle belonged to, for instance a black anchor on a French flag for the Navy.
Paris Fire Brigade, although part of the Armed Forces, had different plates with letters to identify the type of vehicle, for instance PS for first aid, followed by numbers. The Marseille Naval Fire Battalion used regular plates with the Bouches-du-Rhône département code, while the one in Brest used similar plates as the Navy.
Diplomatic cars used green plates with orange or white lettering, depending on the series. Plates comprised one to three numbers identifying the embassy or the international organisation; letters identifying the status (C for consulates, CD for embassies, CMD for diplomatic missions, K for technical staff); and a series of numbers.
Agricultural vehicles had white or yellow plates with black lettering. They contained one to five numbers identifying the farm and the département code. Several vehicles belonging to the same farm could share the same figures.
German military staff in France used black plates with white characters. License plates started with DF followed by a number identifying the headquarters area (0 to 3 for Paris, 4 for Var and 6 to 9 for Strasbourg) and three numbers between 000 and 999.
Vehicles owned by the French Forces and Civilian Elements stationed in Germany (FFECSA) carried a pale blue plate with silver characters. Plates contained a number from 0 to 9; a number identifying the headquarters area (0 for the Comptoir de l'Économat, 1 Baden-Baden, 2 Freiburg im Breisgau, 3 Landau-Pfalz, etc.); a dash; and four numbers between 1001 and 9999.
The President of the Republic could use license plates ending with PR 75, for instance 9999 PR 75.
As with the SIV system, the FNI allowed temporary plates for car dealers and mechanics. They contained one to four numbers, the two letters WW and the département code. Some départements used an extra letter after WW. Monaco could use these plates but with a blue background, white lettering and MC instead of the département code.
Duty-free cars purchased abroad or in the free trade zones of Gex and Savoie used red plates with white or silver characters. They contained one to three numbers; three letters between TAA and TZZ; a département code; and an expiry date. Cars bought outside the European Union and registered in Gex and Savoie had plates with five numbers; TT; and a letter identifying the free zone (Q for Savoie and W for Gex). They did not have an expiry date as they were valid as long as the owner resided in a free zone.
The very first attempt to register vehicles in France date from the 18th century. In 1749, a Marechaussee officer from Paris suggested a system of vehicle identification to Louis XV. His idea only concerned Paris, where criminal offenses were numerous in the streets. No decision was taken until 1783, when Louis XVI forced coachmen to put a metal plate with their name and address on their carriage.
In the 19th century, several French cities implemented local registration systems for carriages. For instance in Lyon, they had to bear a plate with a number to cross the Parc de la Tête d'Or. In 1893, it became mandatory for all cars and carriages in France to have a plate with the name and address of the owner. Registration documents, called carte grise ("grey card"), were created in 1899.
Following the rapid development of the automobile in the end of the 19th century, French authorities adopted a nationwide registration system in 1901. The 11 September 1901 Circular created a regional system and license plates contained three numbers followed by a letter identifying a region. In 1899, the Mining Administration had been chosen to approve car engines, and it logically had to attribute the new plates. The administration decided to use its regional mapping and attributed a letter to each of its district. Each district gathered up to ten départements. They were only used by the Mining Administration and they have nothing to do with present-day French regions.
The system did not offer a wide range of combinations, even if regions could begin a second series of three numbers once they had reached 999 with the first one. The identifying letter had to be doubled to show that a car plate belonged to the second series.
To anticipate any shortage, three regions obtained a second letter in 1904: O for Nancy, K for Poitiers and V for Marseille. Regions were allowed to begin new series of three numbers in 1905. The new ones were distinguished from the original ones by a number between 2 and 9 added after the letter. 1 was probably avoided because it could have been confused with another character such as the I. As Paris was still running up of combinations, four-digit series were allowed locally in 1910.
Temporary license plates for vehicles for sale were created in 1909. They had the letter W instead of the regional code.
|Plate from the Marseille region (before 1905)|
|Plate from the Marseille region (before 1905, second series)|
|Plate from the Toulouse region (after 1905)|
|Geographical codes in use in 1901|
In 1919, regions were reorganised. Some disappeared while other ones were created. After its reversion to France following World War I, Alsace-Lorraine became the Strasbourg region in 1922. Until then, cars in that region had continued to use German plates with the regional code VI.
|Geographical codes in use after 1919-1922|
In 1928, a new system was adopted to replace the first one. It retained its regional characteristic but greatly widened geographic codes. Under the 1928 system, each département obtained their own codes consisting of two letters. The least populated, for instance Cantal and Haute-Loire, received only one code (here CZ and JZ respectively), while most of the départements received several ones. Seine, the most populous one, received several dozen of codes.
The new codes did not use the letters I and O because they could be confused with other letters, and W which was only used on provisional plates. Double letters and letters that designated countries such as GB for Great-Britain were also avoided. Codes were attributed following the alphabetical order of the départements names. The first département, Ain, received AB, AC, AD and AE, and the last one, Yonne, received ZU, ZV and ZY.
License plates issued after 1928 were similar to the older ones, with one to four numbers followed by the two-letter code. This code could be in turn followed by a number from 1 to 9 for the same purpose as in the 1901 system. The first car registered in Paris obtained 1 RB, and when 999 RB had been reached the following car obtained 1 RB1.
Temporary license plates for vehicles in transit on the French territory were created in 1933. They used TT instead of the geographical code. Diplomatic plates were first issued in 1936. They were in dark yellow with white lettering.
Initially planned to last 75 years, the system was withdrawn in 1950. The following format kept the geographical structure but identified départements with numbers rather than letters, allowing a greater range of combinations.
|Plate from Aveyron|
|Plate from Isère|
|Plate from Vaucluse|
|Geographical codes in use between 1928 and 1950|
Overseas territories of France do not have the same system as continental France, unlike the overseas départements. Overseas territories have diverse statuses and enjoy a large autonomy. They are French Polynesia, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Wallis and Futuna, Saint Martin, Saint Barthélemy, New Caledonia, the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF) and Clipperton Island.
- Saint Pierre and Miquelon: white front plate and white or yellow rear plate with black lettering. Contains SPM followed by one to three digits and a letter.
SPM 999 A
- Saint Barthélemy: white front plate and white or yellow rear plate with black lettering. Contains one to three digits and a letter.
- Saint Martin: white front and rear plates. Contains four digits, a dash and three letters.
9999 - AAA
- New Caledonia: white front plate and yellow black plate or black plates with silver lettering. Contains one to six digits followed by NC.
- French Polynesia: white front plate and yellow black plate or black plates with silver lettering. One to six digits followed by P.
- French Southern and Antarctic Lands: two digits indicating the year the car was built followed by the four last digits of the serial number of the car. License plates are only in use on Kerguelen Islands and are imported from Réunion. They are regular French plates, white with the European strip and the number and symbol of Réunion
- Wallis and Futuna: white front plate and yellow black plate or black plates with silver lettering. Contains one to four digits followed by WF.
- Legifrance (9 February 2009). "Arrêté du 9 février 2009 fixant les caractéristiques et le mode de pose des plaques d'immatriculation des véhicules" (PDF).
- Jérôme Bouin (28 October 2008). "Immatriculations : le numéro de département sauvé". Le Figaro.
- Journal officiel de la République française, arrêté du 9 février 2009, art. 9.
- Arrêté du 27 avril 2007 modifiant l'arrêté du 1er juillet 1996 relatif aux plaques d'immatriculation des véhicules.
- Circulaire n° 84-84 du 24 décembre 1984 portant application de l’arrêté en date du 5 novembre 1984 relatif à l’immatriculation des véhicules.
- Immatriculation des bus de la RATP
- "Privilèges - Les véhicules". Ministère des Affaires étrangères.
- Catalogue de l'exposition Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, New York, Paris, 2007-2008, texte de Kim de Beaumont, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin revisté : le contexte biographique de ses œuvres parisiennes, note 51 page 46.
- Recueil général des anciennes lois françaises : depuis l'an 420 ..., Volume 27, par Athanase-Jean-Léger Jourdan, Decrusy, François-André Isambert.
- "3 articles sur le Système d'immatriculation Français de 1901 à 1928". Francoplaque.
- "Une petite histoire des plaques d’immatriculation en France" (PDF). Francoplaque.
- "Le Système d'immatriculation Français de 1928 à 1950". Francoplaque.
- "Indices départementaux avant et après 1950". Histo Bus Dauphinois.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to License plates of France.|
- Site on French registration plates
- Feature about the shake-up in the car registration system in 2009 - Radio France International
- A French game of numbers, From Our Own Correspondent, BBC News, 22 December 2005.
- Photos of license plates of France