Vehicle registration number

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A license plate number (Germany), an official registration number (Austria) and a control plate ( Switzerland and Liechtenstein ; colloquially car number ) is one of the Motor Vehicle Registration Authority assigned individual numerical or alphanumeric registration term for motor vehicles (Switzerland: motor vehicles), in the vehicle documents, on appears on the plates of the license plates. Vehicle license plates are basically used to identify the vehicle owner. In this article, the vehicle registration number is understood to mean the allocation of a “registration” of a vehicle for the admission of vehicles to road traffic .

Designation of license plates and license plates

Different terms are used in German-speaking countries for both the license plate and the associated signs, depending on national legal provisions. In colloquial language , additional synonyms are used and the two terms are mixed together.

In Austria, the license plate is officially called "Official license plate", and the associated sign is called "License plate". In Germany it is called "license plate", previously also "official license plate" or "police license plate". The sign is called "license plate". In Switzerland and Liechtenstein there is no separate term for the license plate, instead reference is made to the plate. The sign is known as a "license plate".

In colloquial language in Germany and Austria it is also called "number plate" or "number plate", in Switzerland "car number ".

Purpose and function of the label

The license plate is used to assign a number - usually unambiguous - to all motor vehicles that require a license plate in the respective jurisdictions, but to a vehicle owner in Switzerland , although the license plate requirement is not uniformly regulated in the various countries. Different views exist in particular in the case of motor vehicles with low power, special vehicles, mobile work equipment and trolleybuses . In many countries, the latter are legally regarded as trains and not as motor vehicles.

According to the applicable regulations, labels can consist of numbers and letters (different alphabets ). Various systems are in use internationally. Since the license plate should be quickly recognizable and noticeable in road traffic, many systems are designed to be as short and concise as possible. Counting letters serve the purpose of enabling more combinations in the same space, since there are significantly more letters than numbers.

In many countries, each license plate may in principle only be issued once in the respective administrative area at the same time, so that the license plate is a name for vehicles as in Germany or the vehicle owner as in Switzerland. However, there are exceptions to this rule in many countries (e.g. in France for agricultural vehicles), or it is only used for vehicles of the same type (e.g. in Switzerland ). In many places the letters and numbers do not contain any information that goes beyond the mere naming; in other countries, on the other hand, the position in the registration sequence or the time of registration of the vehicle can be read directly from the character string. Identifiers often contain standardized sequences of letters or digits that are associated with administrative districts or specific administrative units (military, state or international organizations, tourist offices), so-called distinctive signs. These are usually at the beginning of the license plate, sometimes at the end, as for example in the French standard for the expiring license plate as a two-digit number for the department. In addition, in numerous countries other forms that deviate from the respective standard license plate are permitted, for example for historic vehicles, for test drives and transfer drives, for tax-exempt vehicles, electric cars, temporary license plates , export license plates , official license plates and camouflage license plates . In special cases, distinctive signs can also be assigned to small groups of vehicles, such as government vehicles.

The assignment of a license plate to a vehicle or to the vehicle owner is also handled differently: while in Switzerland or Liechtenstein a license plate is assigned to the vehicle owner (he can use it with several vehicles for life with a change number, a license plate can be inherited and transferred depending on the canton ), in Germany, as in most countries, it is vehicle-specific. Both options exist in Austria.

Desired license plate , d. H. License plates, in which the vehicle owner chooses part of the character string himself within certain rules, are permitted in many countries (e.g. in Germany, Switzerland and Austria), often for a fee. As a rule, they are used to customize the vehicle (e.g. the initials of the name or parts of the date of birth are often used), but also for practical purposes, such as a particularly short license plate for automobiles with little space for the license plate. Companies occasionally seek to assign vehicles to a common fleet or to advertise.

It is now also possible in Germany to "take" a license plate with you when you change vehicles. The license plate reused in this way is then (also with regard to the fees) as a desired license plate; However, it is still much cheaper to take away than to mint new license plates. There used to be transition periods for taking along, but now you can completely de-register and re-register via EDP systems without any waiting time.

Materiality of the license plates

License plates are manufactured according to different standards depending on the country, whereby the lettering on the license plate is usually embossed or printed. They serve various purposes: First of all, as clearly visible evidence of the approval of vehicles for road traffic (and thus also of a corresponding liability insurance ), they also enable everyone to clearly name and recognize a vehicle. While the license plate has no further meaning apart from the name, the license plate often shows a lot of additional information, such as information on nationality, the administrative district of the registration office or tax and technical information in the form of badges or stamps. License plates must be attached to the rear of a vehicle in an internationally standardized manner, usually also to the front of a vehicle. For some types of vehicles (e.g. motorcycles) and in some countries (e.g. some states of the USA ) only a rear license plate is required.

To protect against unwanted noises from the license plate and for optical reasons as well as to protect against loss or theft, license plate carriers are often used for attachment, which are usually made of plastic and the border of which often has advertising labels. These license plate holders save the previously common drilling of the license plate for fastening screws. In particular, when license plate carriers are screwed into the usually thin sheet metal of passenger cars with self-tapping screws with a diameter of almost 5 mm, these screws, which grip with only part of a thread turn, can loosen and cause the carrier to slip. The license plate carriers make it easier for car dealers, car users, the executive but also thieves to attach and remove signs. This is done easily with a slotted screwdriver, coffee spoon or something similar. Number plate holders weigh around 0.2 kg in pairs and increase the mass of the car fleet by 1 / 10,000 and thus fuel consumption. When the holder lifts the license plate and the frame casts a shadow, the legibility of the license plate under the license plate lighting is impaired. In France, it is common practice to stick a film directly onto the body or bumper, even saving the weight of the sheet metal and making the vehicle more permanent and more forgery-proof. Special exchange plate holder allow the practice in Austria tool-free routing of change characteristics between this legitimate vehicles. Since only the Austrian license plates - with red-white-red vertical stripes - are higher in Europe, they need their own license plate holders.

The improper use of license plates and license plates is a criminal offense in many countries, see forgery of documents and license plate abuse . A historically important argument in favor of the introduction of license plates in various countries was to prevent the escape from the driver , which became a frequently committed crime with the increase in automobile traffic at the beginning of the 20th century.


The oldest known marking of vehicles was the numbering of Roman chariots . In the 17th century, plates with coats of arms were attached to English carriages to distinguish them.

In Germany, between 1870 and 1890, due to hit-and-run cases, some local authorities began to require number plates for bicycles that were issued locally and differed in color.

From October 1, 1907, a uniform system of attaching number plates to all motor vehicles was in effect in the German Reich . In the 1930s there was a number plate and tax obligation for bicycles in various areas of Austria. The approximately 4 × 15 cm panels were clamped in place with an axle nut on the front wheel. In Austria until around 1970, motorcycles had a pair of signs mounted back to back over the front wheel in addition to the rear one, which could be read from both sides. At that time all two-wheelers had to be parked “across the edge of the road” according to the StVO.

The introduction of vehicle identification was not everywhere without protests. After more and more European countries issued a labeling requirement at the beginning of the 20th century (e.g. Bavaria in 1899, Spain and Belgium in 1900, France in 1901), voices were particularly loud in England, the numbering disfigured the automobiles, they took on the character of rental cars.

Vehicle license plates were introduced, among other things, for identification after a hit-and-run (§ 142 StGB), other traffic offenses in road traffic, violations of traffic offenses as well as for civil law enforcement of claims (e.g. claims settlement after an accident).

Standards for license plates and license plates

Both the license plates and the license plates have developed differently historically and are standardized differently depending on the state . No uniform standard for license plates or license plates has been implemented in the European Union. Many countries use standards that have been harmonized with one another and, in the meantime, uniformly use the euro band with the country code on the left edge of the license plate. Similar developments can also be found outside the EU, where the license plate has a blue bar (e.g. in Lebanon ), the national flag (e.g. Kazakhstan ) or the national coat of arms (e.g. San Marino ) - often in combination with the Country code - is prefixed.


In many countries, the license plates are optimized for quick recognition and good retention. The German standard identifier initially contains one or two letters after the distinguishing mark, followed by a series of numbers with up to four digits. The norms of other countries are different, but they all have in common that the population is familiar with the structure of their license plates and a domestic person can grasp the familiar structure more quickly, even with a cursory glance. If a foreign registration number deviates from the expected structure, it is much more difficult to spontaneously retain the character string. This historically grown habit is a pragmatic obstacle to the establishment of a Europe-wide standard for vehicle registration numbers.

Not all international standards are designed to be easily recognizable. In particular in large administrative rooms in which numerous motor vehicles are registered, larger sequences of digits with up to eight digits or inconsistent arrangement of rows of letters and numbers occur. In Europe, however, only a maximum of six-digit number sequences are used.

The number of possible labels also depends on the standard. With a pure sequence of six digits, as is common in Switzerland, almost one million vehicles can be named for each administrative area (1 to 999,999). A combination of one or two letters, followed by a maximum of one to three digits, results in over 770,000 possible identifiers, which are much easier to remember than six-digit numbers. With the most extensive European standard to date consisting of five letters and two digits - as used, for example, by Poland , Romania and the United Kingdom - well over a billion vehicles could be labeled per administrative area. Such a standard is suitable for carrying a Europe-wide uniform system, even if no distinctive signs are used at all. The latter, however, are important for making the license plates easier to recognize, as they support the spatial classification of the vehicles.

Size and color

The standards of the license plates are also different nationally in terms of color and plate size. For example, some countries use different colors (e.g. United Kingdom) or sizes (e.g. Italy ) for the front and rear plates , and the contrast ( e.g. dark text on a light background or vice versa) is standardized differently. For private vehicles, however, a light background (often white or yellow) is predominantly used, while military vehicles often have license plates with a black background.

With regard to sizes, two basic types are distinguished today:

  • Long format: The long format is the format commonly used in most European countries today. Due to colonial influences, this format also prevails in Africa. In several European countries the dimension is 520 mm × 110 mm. Austria shows a higher altitude. In Switzerland and Liechtenstein, the back shields are 500 mm × 110 mm, the front shields 300 mm × 80 mm.
  • Portrait format: The portrait format can be found in North and South America, Asia as well as for back signs in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The dimensions in the USA are 320 mm × 170 mm, in Switzerland and Liechtenstein 300 mm × 160 mm.

Some countries now assign both sizes (e.g. Bahrain and Australia ). In Switzerland the long format was introduced in 1959, in Liechtenstein in 1986 in addition to the portrait format, today both formats are permitted there with equal rights. In contrast, in many other European countries the license plate in portrait format ("two-line license plate") is only issued in exceptional cases (e.g. on US imported vehicles or motorcycles).


In Europe, most countries now use asymmetrical types , which ensure that a character can still be identified even if it is partially hidden. The inhibition threshold for falsifying a license plate is therefore higher. There is also no uniform standard for the types in the European Union , although the different fonts used have equivalent properties. More and more countries around the world are using variants of the German FE script (e.g. Cuba , Malta , Tanzania , etc.).

Font color:

From 2017, electric cars in Austria will have signs with green instead of black letters. This entails certain privileges that typically have to be prescribed by municipalities, such as benefits for short-term parking that is subject to charges.

Automatic license plate recognition

Systems for automatic license plate recognition are permanently installed in numerous places on German motorways . This is a video surveillance method that uses handwriting recognition ( OCR ) to automatically read license plates on moving vehicles. The data is now compared in real time with the police search computer. If this results in a hit, the responsible motorway police inspection is automatically informed in order to remove the vehicle in question from traffic and check it. The conformity of these systems with applicable law is very controversial. Although the Federal Constitutional Court with judgment of 11 March 2008 , the regulations are in the national laws of Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein had declared unconstitutional, the plants will continue to operate to this day. The administrative court in Munich declared the operation of the facilities in Bavaria permissible by judgment of 23 September 2009 . In the subsequent appeal to the Bavarian Administrative Court (BayVGH), the latter declared in a decision (BayVGH) of December 18, 2012 the admissibility based on state law for Bavaria.

According to a study commissioned by the ADAC by data protection expert Alexander Roßnagel on the regulations in the various federal states, almost all of the state laws that exist in this regard are in part unconstitutional. In particular, the states of Bavaria (as named), Baden-Württemberg , Lower Saxony and, as stated, Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein continue to use license plate recognition. The former Minister of the Interior of Baden-Württemberg, Heribert Rech ( CDU ), announced in Stuttgart that the use of automatic reading systems was "an important tool in search work". Bavaria operates 22 plants at twelve permanent locations (as of autumn 2009) and an additional three mobile plants. The systems are not only used to combat serious crimes in the area of terrorism , but also to prosecute car theft, drunkenness, or petty offenses such as breaches of the compulsory insurance law or residence investigations. The recording systems in Bavaria alone photograph an average of eight million vehicles per month, with 500 to 600 “hits” being reported per month as a rule.

International country codes

In addition to the actual vehicle registration number, international agreements stipulate the use of the nationality mark , which is an abbreviation of the respective national names and which is attached next to the actual registration number.

Legally, the cross-oval additional label - black writing on a white background - is part of the label. In many countries, however, this additional sticker is unusual, since most motor vehicles hardly ever cross an international border. In the European Union and some European countries, the international national number plate is integrated into the number plate on new signs, the so-called Euro number plate , including the EU emblem or the national flag on the left edge. Vehicles do not need a nationality mark when traveling within the European Union, in the European Economic Area (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), in the EFTA state Switzerland and in member states of the Vienna Road Traffic Convention , which also accept the country identification through the EU license plate.

When traveling to a country other than the EU / EEA / EFTA / member state of the Vienna Road Traffic Convention, this additional sign must be attached.


Structure of license plates in individual countries

Some license plates from Europe





Australia and Oceania

Distinguishing key

If the international number plate is neither a separate sticker nor on the plate itself or if the latter sequence of letters is illegible, you can often differentiate between the different countries using the sequence of letters / numbers. However, the criteria are not always clear and many countries use different schemes for specific purposes.

Compulsory cancellation

In many countries it is possible for the police or the road traffic authorities to “unstamp” the license plates (compulsory unstamping) in order to end the registration. The approval seal is removed. Reasons for this can be delinquent taxes, lack of liability insurance, etc.

Other characteristics

  • Nationality symbol - an oval plate with a country code that was common before the introduction of the euro plate .

See also

Web links

Commons : Vehicle Registration  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: car number  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Vehicle registration plates  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


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Individual evidence

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  14. Table of Contents