Vehicle registration plates of the United States

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In the United States, license plates[1] are issued by a department of motor vehicles, an agency of the state or territorial government, or in the case of the District of Columbia, the city government. Some Native American tribes also issue plates.[2] The U.S. federal government issues plates only for its own vehicle fleet and for vehicles owned by foreign diplomats. Until the 1980s, diplomatic plates were issued by the state in which the consulate or embassy was located.

The appearances of plates are frequently chosen to contain symbols, colors, or slogans associated with the issuing jurisdiction. The term license plate is frequently used in statutes, although in some areas tag is informally used. The official three letter ISO international code attributed to the United States is USA.[3]

Designs and serial formats[edit]

Serial formats[edit]

Plate designs often contain symbols, colors, or slogans associated with the issuing jurisdiction. Registration number formats, typically alphanumeric, are designed to provide enough unique numbers for all motor vehicles a jurisdiction expects to register. For example, the small states of Delaware and Rhode Island are able to use formats of 123456, while California uses the seven-character format 1ABC234, and several other populous states use seven-character ABC-1234 or AB-12345 formats. Other formats include those that incorporate a county coding system or a month of expiration into the plate number.

Non-passenger vehicle plates tend to have a separate design, including a special numbering format.

Designs[edit]

In the United States, many states distinguish their license plates through distinctive color schemes and logos, which persist over time. For example, the cowboy logo often associated with the state of Wyoming has appeared on that state's license plates continuously since 1936. Some early Tennessee plates were produced in a parallelogram shape approximating that of the state.

Vermont license plates have frequently featured a green and white color scheme, while Alaska has preferred yellow and blue. Other states and territories, such as California, offer simpler schemes, often with a white background and little decoration.

Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Carolina,[4] and West Virginia have placed the address of the state's official or tourism web site on their general issue plates. Most plates in Washington, D.C. contain the phrase "Taxation without representation" to highlight the District's lack of a voting representative in Congress.

As of May 2016, the three oldest plate designs in use – each with slight to moderate cosmetic changes since inception – are that of Delaware (in production since 1959), Colorado (since 1960, continuously since 1978), and Minnesota (since 1978).[5]

Printing of registration number[edit]

Visualization of the current license plate serial printing formats in the United States as of September 2018.
  States issue plates where the license serial is screened
  States issue plates where most license serials are embossed, but some are screened
  States issue plates where the license serial is embossed
  States issue plates where the license serial is debossed

Typically, the registration number is embossed – or, more rarely, impressed – onto the license plate. Other identifying information, such as the name of the issuing jurisdiction and the vehicle class, can be either surface-printed or embossed; Virginia, for example, does the former for passenger cars and the latter for most non-passenger vehicles. However, it is increasingly common in the U.S. for the registration number to be surface-printed using digital printing technology. Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington do so only for certain types of license plates, such as vanity plates and special issues; Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia have switched to the so-called "flat plate" technology for all their license plates. Nevada formerly issued flat plates but has returned to making embossed plates.[6] Delaware license plates have not been embossed for several decades. Wyoming normally issues flat plates but also issues embossed license plates for an extra fee.

In 2018, California started a pilot program in which the city of Sacramento issued license plates on battery-powered digital displays, for an extra fee. The registration number is displayed on an electronic paper screen that can theoretically update itself to display different messages. The license plate itself is also equipped with a beacon that can be tracked in case the car associated with the plate is stolen.[7]

License plates originally were not embossed, but were merely flat plates in various forms, typically rectangular. In the 1930s the states found that the plates could be easily forged, and subsequently began embossing plates to thwart counterfeiting.[citation needed]

Plate sizes[edit]

In 1956, the U.S. states and Canadian provinces came to an agreement with the Automobile Manufacturers Association that fixed the size of all passenger vehicle plates at 6 by 12 inches (15 by 30 cm), although the dimensions may vary slightly by jurisdiction. In North America, only Saint Pierre and Miquelon has not adopted these standards. Smaller-sized plates are used for motorcycles and, in some jurisdictions, mopeds and certain types of trailers and construction equipment. Furthermore, the US territory of Puerto Rico has a European sized specialty plate.

Showing current registration on plates[edit]

Line for automobile license plates, Los Angeles Department of Motor Vehicles, 1940

Historically, license plates were replaced every year, although the most common practice now is to issue new validation stickers every year or two, to indicate that the vehicle registration is still valid.

Expired vehicle registrations may attract the attention of law enforcement, because indicators of an expired plate, such as an old or invalid sticker, give officers probable cause to lawfully initiate a traffic stop.[8] A delinquent registration tag is often an indicator that the vehicle may be stolen, that the vehicle's owner has failed to comply with the applicable law regarding emission inspection or insurance, or that the vehicle's owner has unpaid traffic or parking tickets.[8] Most states historically required all license plates to be replaced every few years; that practice is being abandoned by many states because of the expense of continually producing large numbers of plates. Washington stopped the practice of mandatory replacement in 2015.[9] Maryland previously mandated that all license plates be replaced every five years (except for apportioned trailers, which were registered on an eight-year schedule), but has not done so since 1986.

In jurisdictions that use validation stickers on the plate, the month and year of expiration may be separated into two decals, or issued in a single sticker. North Carolina previously issued separate month and year decals, but recently switched to a single sticker.[10] In others, the plate's validation is a decal displayed from the inside of the windshield. The color of plate stickers and windshield decals often change annually, to support enforcement of registration laws.

Most validation stickers are either serialized (with the serial number recorded on the registration), or are printed by a special printer at the time of registration or renewal with the vehicle's license plate number on them to discourage fraudulent sticker use, as the sticker will be valid only for the plate for which it was intended. In the District of Columbia, the license plate is validated with a windshield sticker that indicates the expiration date in MM/DD/YY format, the license plate number, the year and make of vehicle, and part of the vehicle identification number, allowing easier fraud detection, in addition to serving as a parking permit for neighborhood residents.[11] In Illinois, the plate stickers have both the plate number and the serial in between the expiration month and year. This state is currently the only one that has this, since 2006

New York, Texas, and the District of Columbia use windshield stickers exclusively, rather than plate stickers, for most vehicle classes. Their registration stickers include the month and year of expiration (and, in the District of Columbia, the day) in large type, so that an expired registration windshield sticker is obvious. In 2015, Texas eliminated the requirement to display a windshield vehicle inspection decal with the registration. Connecticut switched to windshield stickers in September 2006, and in August 2010, eliminated registration stickers completely, primarily to reduce costs.[12] New Jersey required the use of plate decals for a few years, beginning with November 2000 expiration dates, but has not required them on passenger cars since October 1, 2004. New Jersey passenger vehicles do not display any registration information other than the license plate itself.

Pennsylvania issued validation stickers for Philadelphia residents that were displayed in the lower left corner of cars' rear windows for a few years to thwart sticker theft from plates; the practice ended in late 2003 with the last issued stickers bearing January 2005 expirations. As of January 2017, Pennsylvania no longer issues any registration stickers.[13]

In Hawaii, counties compete over the cost of vehicle registration dues. Vehicles are purchased at a discount on Oʻahu compared to the neighboring islands where there is usually only one dealer per vehicle make. Because the outlying counties issue plates starting with M (Maui County), K (Kauaʻi), or H (Big Island of Hawaiʻi), the source of the vehicle can be identified.

Life cycle[edit]

Under U.S. law, when a person moves to a new state with the intent to remain indefinitely, they are required to register personal vehicles in the new state,[14] the new state will then issue a plate or plates that must be attached to the vehicle. One prominent exception is active duty military service members; under federal law, they do not change their legal residence (domicile) upon moving to a new posting and are not obliged to obtain new vehicle registrations. Undergraduate students attending college or university in a state outside their state of legal residence are also typically exempted from transferring their registration, while graduate students are typically not exempt.[15][16][17][18][19] Louisiana does not extend this privilege to leased vehicles used by students, and requires local registration.[20] [21] A few other states, such as New York, allow, although do not require, out-of-state students to register their vehicles in state.[22]

When a vehicle is sold, the disposition of the license plates depends on state law and varies by state. In some states, license plates are transferred with the vehicle to its new owner. In other states, the license plates remain with the seller, who may, for a fee, transfer the license plates and any unused portion of the current registration to a new vehicle. Some states issue a new plate whenever the car is sold.[23]

There are different schemes for reissuing license plates, a process known as "replating". In some jurisdictions, plates are issued on a permanent basis and are not replaced unless the owner requests a new plate or a remake of the current plate. Other jurisdictions re-plate on a rolling basis, replacing a particular motorist's plate when it reaches a certain age. Still other jurisdictions may recall a particular series of plates for reissuance at regular or irregular intervals. This is particularly common in jurisdictions in which only one license plate series or design is valid at any given time. Optional-issue plates may or may not follow the same rules for replacement as standard-issue plates, depending on the jurisdiction.[24][25]

Mounting[edit]

For passenger vehicle registrations, U.S. states require vehicles to display either one or two license plates (e.g., at the rear of the vehicle only or on the front and rear).[26] In states that require two plates, limited exceptions may exist that allow for only a single plate to be displayed, such as for registration of commercial vehicles, government owned vehicles, dealer owned vehicles, or historic vehicles.[27] In states like Missouri and California, two plate jurisdictions, certain truck registrations actually require a single plate to be displayed, on the front of the vehicle only, leaving the rear with no license plate,[28] while in California vehicles with occupational plates (dealers, dismantlers, etc.) only require one plate on the rear of a vehicle that would otherwise require two plates.[29]

Red states require front & rear plates - Blue states require rear plate only - Pink states require rear plate only (for passenger vehicles)
  State requires both front and rear plates for all passenger vehicles
  State requires only rear plate for passenger vehicles
  State requires both plates for most passenger vehicles, but some passenger vehicles may have rear plates only
Mounting scheme States and territories
Front and rear plates Alaska, American Samoa, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Connecticut, Guam,[30] Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virgin Islands, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin
Rear plates only Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia
Front and rear plates for most vehicles Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Wyoming

Some common exceptions include trailers, which are issued only one plate, even in states that otherwise issue two plates to all passenger vehicles, while certain other non-passenger types, such as apportioned, may be issued in pairs even in states that otherwise issue only rear plates to passenger vehicles. Pennsylvania, for example, requires a front plate for semi-trailer trucks.[31] Some vanity and specialty plates in Arizona and Kansas are issued in pairs, but only the rear plate is required on the vehicle; the front plate is free and fully optional.

In January 2012, the Texas legislature inadvertently removed the penalty for driving without a front license plate. As a result, the law required front and rear license plates on passenger vehicles, but stated no penalty for non compliance. Realizing the mistake, the legislature eventually reinstated the $200 fine in September 2013.[32]

Massachusetts is a unique case for license plate mounting. Before the introduction of the current "Spirit of America" base starting in 1986 for commercial vehicles, as well as vanity plates in 1988 for all other vehicles, the state issued only a single green-on-white plate to be mounted on the rear bumper. With the current-issue base, two plates are issued and are to be mounted on both the front and rear bumpers. Since all license plates issued since 1978 are currently valid, most passenger vehicles registered in Massachusetts display two plates, but those with the older green-on-white plates display only one.

In Nevada, all motor vehicles, with the exception of motorcycles and trailers, are issued two license plates. According to state law, most standard passenger vehicles issued two plates are required to display them on both the front and rear bumpers of the vehicle. Display of the front license plate, however, is optional for vehicles that either were not designed to have a front plate, or the manufacturer did not provide a plate bracket or other means for front display of a license plate.[33] As a result, the law to display both the front and rear plates is rarely enforced, and it is not uncommon for owners of vehicles with Nevada license plates to remove the manufacturer-supplied front license plate brackets from their vehicles and display only the rear plate.[34] In 2015, Wyoming passed a law, similar to Nevada, that does not require a front license plate on vehicles that either are not specifically designed to have a front plate, or the manufacturer did not provide a plate bracket or other means for front display of a license plate.[35] Nebraska passed an identical law in 2016.[36] In 2017, Montana also passed a similar law, exempting such passenger vehicles from displaying a front plate but requiring motorists to first obtain approval from the Montana Highway Patrol.[37]

South Dakota will issue passenger vehicles a single rear plate for a $25 fee, but only if the vehicle will be driven less than 6,000 miles (9,700 km) every year.[38]

In 2016, Iowa attempted to pass a law that exempts "vintage" vehicles and two-seat, low-profile sports cars, like Corvettes, from the front license plate requirement. Originally, the bill was meant to repeal the front license plate requirement for all vehicles, but was amended as a compromise.[39] The bill was later withdrawn.[40]

Temporary and transit registrations[edit]

A temporary 30-day license plate on a motorcycle in North Carolina

When a person buys a vehicle from a dealer, the dealer is typically authorized to issue a temporary registration to allow the buyer to drive the vehicle until the government agency in charge of vehicle registration processes the registration forms.

Similarly, when a person buys a vehicle outside his or her state or province of residence, he or she can usually obtain a "transit registration" from the authorities of the state or province where the purchase took place. This transit registration will allow the new owner to drive the vehicle and to properly register and obtain license plates for the vehicle from his or her state or province of residence.

The physical indicia of such temporary or transit registrations can take a variety of forms, such as:

  • a paper, cardboard, or lightweight plastic license plate, to be removed at the end of the temporary registration period (typically a set number of days, e.g., 15, 30, or 45 days);
  • a standard metal license plate with temporary validation, in which case the government agency needs to issue only a validation sticker rather than a license plate; or
  • a form or decal to be applied to a window of the vehicle.

California[edit]

California, the largest state by population and number of registered vehicles, is unusual among the states in not requiring any form of temporary license plate. Newly purchased vehicles typically drive around for a month or more with nothing but a dealer's advertisement or logo on a paper plate insert where the license plate would go; some drivers keep this and some remove it. This makes the new vehicle essentially "untraceable," both by plain visual observation by persons, and by automated means such as license-plate reading systems, red light cameras, and automatic number plate recognition. This has led to an epidemic of drivers of newly purchased vehicles cheating tolls on bridges and toll roads where a transponder system is used instead of toll booths, causing the state to lose $15–19 million per year. Because of this, new state legislation was adopted in 2016 that will require temporary license plates in California beginning in 2019.[41][42] This law was inspired by the hit-and-run death of a pedestrian who was struck by a car with dealer paper inserts and because it had no temporary plates, it was impossible to trace the suspect.[43] California's lack of a temporary plate requirement has been jokingly known as the "Steve Jobs loophole" due to the former Apple CEO's habit of keeping rolling six-month leases on a series of Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMGs specifically to avoid having to put license plates on the cars.[44] California's unusual lack of temporary plates is also taken advantage of by criminals, who know that a car driving with a dealer ad paper insert is both untraceable and will not raise suspicion.[45]

Plates for various types of vehicles and groups[edit]

In the United States, there are numerous types of license plates that are issued to special passenger, non-passenger, and non-private vehicles. Depending on the jurisdiction, such types may include:

Vanity and specialty plates[edit]

Vanity plates[edit]

An ABNORML license plate in Delaware

In each of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, motorists are given the option of extra-cost vanity plates (also known as "personalized" or "prestige" plates), which are license plates with a custom serial (sequence of letters and/or numbers). Generally, vanity plates may not contain profane or obscene messages, although standards as to what constitutes an unacceptable message vary widely among issuing jurisdictions. In California, motorists may order symbols—a heart, hand, plus sign, or star—on one type of specialty plate. Other states, such as New Hampshire and North Carolina, also permit the use of certain punctuation symbols. The state of Virginia offers more than 200 unique designs for license plates.[46] A tenth of all U.S. vanity plates are in Virginia (which has 1.6 million vanity plate registrations), giving it the highest concentration of vanity plates issued by a state.[47]

Certain classes of vanity plates may require proof of authorization, such as a person obtaining an amateur radio plate with their call sign must show their amateur radio license. Persons obtaining disabled veteran or Medal of Honor or Purple Heart medal recipients must show proof of their disability and military service or their award of the specific medal, respectively.

Vanity plates sometimes cause unexpected difficulties for their owners. In 1979, a Los Angeles resident received 2,500 parking citations from throughout the state because the DMV's computers matched his plate, "NO PLATE", with citations for cars without license plates. Other such cases have been reported for plates that say "MISSING", "NOTAG", "VOID", "NONE" and "XXXXXXX".[48]

Low-digit plates[edit]

Delaware's three-digit plates can now bring $50,000 and two-digit plates can bring $200,000. One expert broker has estimated that a single-digit Delaware license plate can now bring $400,000 at auction.[49][50]

Specialty plates[edit]

Grand Canyon University specialty plate issued by the U.S. state of Arizona

In some jurisdictions, vehicle owners may also pay extra for specialty plates. With these, the plate serial is chosen by the licensing agency—as with regular plates—but the owners select a plate design that is different from the normal license plate. For example, an alumnus or student of an area university might purchase a plate with the school's logo, or an outdoorsman might decide to pay extra for a plate depicting a nature scene. A portion of the extra cost of these license plates often ends up as a donation for a related school or non-profit organization.

Some jurisdictions allow for some or all of their specialty plates to also be vanity plates, usually for an additional fee on top of the cost of the plate.

States may also provide commemorative plates as a standard issue for example for a states anniversary .

Types[edit]

Normally such specialty plates can be purchased without proof of any particular status or affiliation, exceptions being plates which indicate membership or abilities of use in an emergency (e.g., firefighter, police, EMT, amateur radio operator). Also, some states require that the university plates be ordered through alumni associations. Other specialty plates include those for motorists with specific accomplishments or backgrounds; for example, a veteran who was a prisoner of war or a Purple Heart recipient may obtain a POW or Purple Heart specialty plate, respectively, after presenting documentation of his or her status to the registrar. In many jurisdictions, there is no charge (or at least no extra charge) for such a plate, in recognition of the veteran's service.

Because specialty plates are government issued, they are required under First Amendment issues to be issued as a type to any group or organization that qualifies under the same terms as any other group to be issued a type of plate. The State of Maryland was going to revoke permission for use of the Confederate flag from a certain plate by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but a court ruled that the only way the state could do that was to revoke permission on all specialty plates. All U.S. states offer specialized license plates for licensed amateur radio operators, in many cases at no extra charge or at a discount compared to standard vanity plates. In some states statutes regarding amateur radio plates where enacted decades prior to vanity plate programs[51]. Among the stated reasons in various state statutes for providing special amateur radio plates are to recognize amateur radio operators for their service[52], and to enhance visibility of amateur radio operators in an emergency.[53] The owner's radio call sign is used instead of a standard-issue serial. Texas allows radio amateurs to have their call sign on the license plates of multiple vehicles that they own, in effect allowing more than one vehicle to share the same license plate number.[54]. As Amateur Radio call signs are standardized under the FCC and internationally under the ITU, it is highly plausible such registrations would not just be unique in the issuing state, but rather the entire country and internationally (a possible example of a de facto national license plate).

Examples[edit]

One example of a specialty license plate was a plate issued in 1987 by the state of Florida to commemorate the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Proceeds benefit the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, and funded the construction and maintenance of the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Merritt Island, Florida. The current version of the plate, and the second revision since its inception, introduced in 2004, commemorates both Challenger and Columbia. It remained the most popular of all of Florida's specialty plates until it was overtaken by a plate to support the critically endangered Florida panther. In 2006, it was outsold by a plate for the University of Florida. Florida currently offers 122 specialty plates, more than any other state, while other states offer only a few.

There also exist standard-issue specialty plates. For instance, a number of states issued plates recognizing the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. Several states have also issued plates commemorating milestones in their own state, such as when, in 1998, Alaska celebrated the Centennial of the Klondike Gold Rush with new license plates showing prospectors on the trail to the Yukon. Tennessee commemorated its 1996 bicentennial celebration by issuing standard plates labeled "BicenTENNial" in the place of the state's name; these plates remained standard issue until 2001, five years after the celebration had ended. States often issue plates with their motto or slogan, such as North Carolina's "First in Flight" and Ohio's "Birthplace of Aviation". These are arguably also general commemoratives. By law, all plates issued in Alabama must contain the words "Heart of Dixie" inside a small heart symbol. Over the years, due to sensitivities over the word "Dixie", the symbol (which currently resides in white letters inside a red heart) has been shrunken to the minimum size. In protest, proponents of the "Heart of Dixie" slogan often buy third-party decals with the slogan in much larger text, placing them over the current "Stars Fell On" slogan at the top of the plates.[55]

New Jersey offers an optional "animal friendly" license plate. The second generation of this plate was first issued in 2001 and features characters from the comic strip Mutts by Patrick McDonnell. A portion of the revenue from the plates goes to the New Jersey State Department of Health's Animal Population Control Program.[56] Some states where stock car racing is popular issue special NASCAR-themed plates; a NASCAR fan can purchase a plate with the name and car number of his or her favorite driver, along with the state-issued alphanumeric sequence. Here, a portion of the extra cost goes to NASCAR as compensation for licensing its trademarks. States offering NASCAR plates featuring designs for different drivers are Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and West Virginia; Florida issues one NASCAR-themed plate.

In Indiana, a pilot program allows large fleet vehicle operators to customize an Indiana license plate specific to their organization. The United Parcel Service is the first such fleet operator to take advantage of this offering.[57] This kind of specialty plate can only be purchased by the owner of the fleet and is not considered a general issue plate.

Because of the ubiquitousness of license plates, special plates - or even regular ones - can raise controversy. The state of Colorado, in recognition of the Columbine High School massacre, released a license plate with the picture of the eponymous state flower, the Columbine, with the words "Choose Life" in a crayon-line scrawl. Some people complained that they felt the "Choose Life" saying was intended to be an anti-abortion message.[58] Sometimes even ordinary plates can spark controversy. For instance, George Maynard did not like the state motto on his New Hampshire license plate, "Live free or die" and chose to cover it with tape. He was prosecuted and convicted for defacing a license plate. The United States Supreme Court ruled in Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977), that since one is compelled to have a license plate on one's vehicle, they are permitted not to have to show a message from the state to which they have a moral objection, and overturned his conviction.

Confederate States of America–affinity plates[edit]

Nine U.S. states have issued commemorative or affinity license plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) as a result of a national campaign for approval of plates commemorating the Confederate States of America. Starting in the late 1990s, the SCV took various states to court and each time won the right to issue plates and include their Confederate Battle Flag based logo on the basis it was a free speech issue[59] however the 2015 US Supreme Court Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans allowed states to remove the Confederate flag from plates finding that the plates were speech by the state. The use of the Confederate Battle Flag and other Confederate symbols on the plates has stirred controversy but Jay Barringer, commander of the Maryland Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans countered "We're trying to divest ourselves of the negative associations" with the Confederate flag.[59] In some states revenues are shared with the SCV organization.

  • Alabama: Sons of Confederate Veterans Commemorative License Plate (2013–current)[60][61]
  • Georgia: Sons of Confederate Veterans Commemorative License Plate (2014–current)[61] The plate was condemned as racist by critics.[62][63] In 2015 the state suspended sales after the South Carolina church shooting but resumed sales after a redesign removed a Confederate Battle Flag from across the background, but left the small flag in the SCV logo.[64][65]
  • Louisiana: Sons of Confederate Veterans Commemorative License Plate. (1999–current) Prior to 2016 between zero and 14 plates were issued each year. In fiscal 2016, 61 plates were issued after it became an election issue.[66]
  • Maryland: Sons of Confederate Veterans Commemorative License Plate (????–current) 18 years after a court decision finding the plates were protected as free speech, in November 2015 Maryland recalled the plates with the Confederate Battle flag and replaced them with a version without the offending flag, following the US Supreme Court ruling in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans[67][68] There were 178 plates in 2015.[69]
  • Mississippi: Sons of Confederate Veterans Commemorative License Plate (2003–current) featuring the Confederate Battle Flag in the organization logo[70][61] Revised in 2011 for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. A proposal to put General Forrest on the plates created controversy.[71]
  • North Carolina: Sons of Confederate Veterans Commemorative License Plate (1998–current)[72][61]
  • South Carolina: Sons of Confederate Veterans Commemorative License Plate (????–current) a 2015 report found that 1,020 plates generated about $20,000 every two years for SCV under a revenue sharing deal with the state.[69]
  • Tennessee:
    • Sons of Confederate Veterans Commemorative License Plate (1999–current)[73] In 2015 a little over 3,000 plates showed the SCV logo.[74]
    • United Daughters of the Confederacy (1998–????)[73]
    • Tennessee Historical Commission (1998–????) included Confederate imagery[73]
  • Virginia:
    • Robert E. Lee Commemorative License Plate (????–current) which gives his birth and death dates and the words "Southern Gentleman"
    • Sons of Confederate Veterans Commemorative License Plate (????–current).[75] In 2015 the state banned plates with the Confederate Battle Flag, following a federal court ruling.[68] There were 1,677 SCV plates in 2015 and no revenue sharing arrangement with the SCV.[69]
  • Texas: refused to issue SCV plates in 2011,[59] which the SCV took to the US Supreme Court, and lost in June 2015. Texas then banned plates with the Confederate Battle Flag.[68] The organization vowed to continue fighting for the issuance of plates by submitting alternative designs.[76]

Restrictions[edit]

Sample version of Ohio's DUI plate mandated on DUI offenders with limited driving rights.

In New Jersey, people convicted of drunk driving can be banned from using vanity plates. In Ohio, convicted drunk drivers are mandated to drive with special red-on-yellow license plates in exchange for limited driving privileges such as work. In Georgia and Minnesota, drunk drivers may be ordered to display a plate with a special numbering system indicating restricted driving privileges.[77]

Professional and governmental plates[edit]

Many states issue license plates to members of certain professions who require some sort of special privileges, such as parking or going behind police lines. Examples include plates for members of the press, doctors, nurses, EMTs, paramedics, volunteer firemen, judges, medical examiners, and elected officials.[78]

Department-specific examples[edit]

2015 US Government license plate
1950 US Government license plate

Vehicles owned by a branch of the U.S. military may have a license plate issued by that branch of the military, although some utility vehicles will have no license plate at all, only an identification number applied directly to the body. The United States Postal Service adopts the same practice, especially for its delivery trucks. Vehicles owned by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) will have plates issued by the GSA in standard format. U.S. Government plates starting with "P" are USPS vehicles.

In the United States, all states issue some special sort of license plate for vehicles which are owned by state and local governments, and the federal government issues plates for vehicles it owns, except for many belonging to the United States Postal Service, many of which use no plates. For the most part, the plates are similar to the regular passenger plates, except with a separate numbering sequence and/or with a message such as "government", "official", "state owned", "municipal", or "exempt" (from registration fees) replacing the slogan.

State-specific examples[edit]

Some states use a distinctive color scheme to differentiate the plates from the regular issue. For example, in Virginia, state government license plates use the format "12-345S" and have a light blue background, while local government license plates use the format "123-456L" and have a tan background. The standard issue has a white background and a different numbering scheme. In Vermont, municipal government plates have a red background instead of the usual green background; State Police plates are green with yellow lettering instead of white, matching the color scheme of VSP patrol vehicles.

In Florida, government vehicles have a black-on-yellow scheme.

California Exempt plate
California diamond Exempt plate
California octagon Exempt plate

Old California government plates have the letter "E" inside of either an octagon or a diamond, which are no longer issued, but still valid. Old government vehicles will either have a diamond or octagon before 6 random digits while newer government vehicles say ¨CA EXEMPT" at the top of the license plate in red instead of the regular ¨California¨ in red cursive and will have 7 random digits.[79]

In Colorado, government vehicles affix a "GVT" code vertically before the plate number.

Governmental vehicles in North Carolina are issued permanent black-on-yellow (state-owned) or black-on-orange/aluminum (all other governmental) license plates, however vehicles belonging to the State Highway Patrol are sometimes registered with normal passenger car plates or with special vanity plates (with stamped years instead of stickers) similar to normal plates, with the prefix SHP before a unique number. Government vehicles with black-on-orange/aluminum are the police (including sheriff and undercover police vehicles), school buses, public transportation buses, postal services, and county vehicles.

Pennsylvania issues a white on blue (blue on white on earlier plates, some still in use) plate for state-owned vehicles (PA prefix/suffix which carry the OFFICIAL USE legend), municipal (MG prefix or suffix) and vehicles that are owned by Penn State, which carry the STATE UNIVERSITY legend. State-owned and Penn State-owned vehicles are also issued front plates, as are press photographers, however, the press photographer plates are issued on the standard base and carry a PP prefix inside a large keystone.

Government vehicles in Georgia are issued a plate in the standard design but a numbering series prefixed by "GV" and a decal on the left side of the plate indicating what type of government the plate is issued to (authority, (school) board, city, county, or state). Also, Georgia State Patrol vehicles have special-issue plates they are required to display on both the front and rear of the vehicle – most other vehicles in Georgia only have rear plates – that have an image of the GSP's patch and the trooper's badge number.

Most Washington State Patrol vehicles use the same format as passenger cars, with the exception that the letters are all "WSP". For example: 123 WSP. The format "1234 SP" may also be seen on WSP vehicles but not as common. In this format only the numbers change, with the SP (State Patrol) designation remaining constant.

The District of Columbia issues special license plates to vehicles owned by the D.C. government and the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. While ambulances and other support vehicles of the District of Columbia Fire Department have special red and white plates, fire engines are not issued license plates. Vehicles belonging to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority display standard DC license plates appropriate to the class of vehicle, with special validation stickers. The transit authority police cars are issued ordinary District of Columbia passenger license plates, but the authority replaces them with self-issued number plates indicating the vehicle is with the transit police.

In Honolulu, Hawaii, the license plates on TheBus matches the fleet number of the bus they are assigned to, using a BUS-123 format. Similarly, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston, Massachusetts, places license plates on their buses featuring the agency's logo (a "T" inside a circle) followed by the bus number.

Government vehicle license plate used in Ohio
Government vehicle
State vehicle license plate used in Ohio
State vehicle

Ohio's government-owned vehicles use red on white plates with the legend "City", "County", and "Government" with a special format of ABC123, and they use the legend "State Vehicle" with the format 12 3456.

Michigan uses a unique "123X456" format for municipal vehicles (including municipal transit buses, public school buses owned and operated by the school district, and police vehicles), "123G456" for "in-transit repair" vehicles, "12D345" for dealer vehicles, "123M456" for vehicles owned by manufacturers of cars, "123T456" for transporter vehicles[80] and "123Y456" for vehicles owned by non-profit agencies, such as church buses, buses of private schools, and chapters of the American Red Cross. Michigan State Police plates have the State Police shield on the left side, followed by a four-digit fleet number. The first two digits of this fleet number indicate the State Police post number where the vehicle is assigned. County sheriff plates follow the 12*345 format (the asterisk representing a six-pointed star), but feature a black background and white letters; the left two digits represent the number of the county in alphabetical order. Vehicles owned by the State of Michigan can also have a plate using the format of "MSG 1234" (where MSG stands for Michigan State Government) or a plate with the format of "X12345" with the caption "STATE GOVT" under.[80]

In New York State, local police vehicles are not issued license plates. In some cases, such as New York City, the fleet number of the vehicle is put on a flat license plate using heat transferred letters. In Yonkers, there is a special plate that appears similar to the specialized optional plates with the Yonkers Police logo and the fleet number. Other communities in the state have a license plate that looks like the regular issue vanity plate, but with the word "POLICE" on it. New York formerly indicated rental cars with the sequence beginning with "0", but that apparently encouraged targeting by car thieves.[81]

General registration license plates[edit]

Many states issue special plates to automobile dealers, auto repair shops, farms, and construction contractors, which are not tied to any particular vehicle. These users typically have many more vehicles on the premises than on the public streets, and it would not be practical to register and insure each individual vehicle. So, they hold a number of "floating" registrations for however many vehicles they plan to use on the public streets simultaneously. States typically have rules about who is eligible and how the plates may be used, and may impose record keeping and audit requirements.

Diplomatic license plates[edit]

Diplomatic license plates are issued by the United States Department of State to accredited diplomats. This is an exception to the general rule in the U.S. that license plates are issued by states, and not the federal government. However, prior to the 1980s, diplomatic plates were issued by states, with New York issuing the most, followed by the District of Columbia.

Until 2007,[citation needed] plates issued to cars based in the District of Columbia follow the pattern of a letter identify the status of the owner, followed by the two-letter country code, followed by a four-digit number (S LL NNNN). For member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS), a subset of that numbering pattern is allotted to vehicles based at those countries' missions to the OAS. Plates issued to cars based at the United Nations in New York City are reversed, with the four-digit number first, followed by the two-letter country code, followed by the status code (NNNN LL S). This is because representatives of certain countries are limited to travel to certain radii from their base, and the system allows the city of assignment to be identified easily.

The status codes used until 2007 were "C" for foreign consul; "D" for diplomat; "S" for non-diplomatic staff; and "A" for a UN employee. The status code indicates the type of diplomatic, consular, or other immunity enjoyed by the vehicle's registrant.[citation needed]

The country codes are unique to each particular country, but do not correlate to ISO Country Codes or other standards format. For example, in the old system used until 2007, France is "DJ" not "F" and Australia is "XZ" not "AUS". This is to prevent the general public from targeting diplomats from particular countries.[82]

Certain U.S. states issue honorary consul plates to U.S. citizens who have been appointed to that office and perform consular functions on a part-time basis.

For a list of serial formats of diplomatic plates, see the article about United States license plate designs and serial formats.

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External links[edit]