A state vehicle registration plate, or a license plate, is a metal or plastic plate attached to a motor vehicle or trailer for official identification purposes. All countries require registration plates for road vehicles such as cars, trucks, and motorcycles.  The state registration identifier plate is an alphanumeric  IDENTIFICATION NUMBER that uniquely identifies the vehicle owner (the state) within the issuing region’s vehicle register. In some countries, the identifier is unique within the entire country, while in others it is unique within a state or province.

National databases relate this number to other information describing the vehicle, such as the make, model, color, year of manufacture, engine size, type of fuel used, mileage recorded and other similar data in jurisdictions where vehicles are regularly inspected for road-worthiness every year or two, vehicle identification number (chassis number), and the name and address of the vehicle’s registered owner or keeper.

In the vast majority of jurisdictions, the government holds a monopoly on the manufacturing of vehicle registration plates for that jurisdiction. Either a government agency or a private company with express contractual authorization from the government makes plates as needed, which are then mailed to, delivered to, or picked up by the vehicle owners. Thus, it is normally illegal for private citizens to make and affix their own plates, because such unauthorized private manufacturing is equivalent to forging an official document.

Vehicle operators have to replace a small decal on the plate or use a decal on the windshield to indicate the expiration date of the vehicle registration, periodic safety and/or emissions inspections or vehicle taxation. Other jurisdictions have replaced the decal requirement through the use of computerization in a central database that maintains the records of which plate numbers are associated with any expired registrations, communicating with automated number plate readers to enable law-enforcement to identify expired registrations in the field.

France was the first country to introduce the registration plate with the passage of the Paris Police Ordinance on August 14, 1893, followed by Germany in 1896. The Netherlands was the first country to introduce a national registration plate, called a “driving permit”, in 1898. Initially these plates were just sequentially numbered, starting at 1, but this was changed in 1906.

In the U.S., where each state issues plates, New York State has required plates since 1903 (black numerals on a white background) after first requiring in 1901 that only the owner’s initials be clearly visible on the back of the vehicle.  At first, plates were not government issued in most jurisdictions and motorists were obliged to make their own. In 1903, Massachusetts was the first state to issue plates.

Although registration plates have only existed for just over one hundred years in the United States, they have developed a distinctive history that has undergone several periods and changes. The first registration plates in North America appeared in 1903 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Soon after, other states followed suit, with virtually every state having adopted a form of registration plates by 1918.

The first registration plates in the United States were made out of leather, rubber, iron, and porcelain, painted on the front in usually two different colors—one for the background and one for the lettering. This scheme held true for most states until about 1920. The front of the plate would usually contain the registration number in large digits, and in smaller lettering on one side of the plate, the two- or four-digit year number, and an abbreviated state name. Each year, citizens were usually required to obtain a new registration plate from the state government, which would have a different color scheme than the previous year, making it easier for police to identify whether citizens were current with their vehicle registration.

In the United States, registration plates are issued by each state. The federal government issues plates only for its own vehicle fleet and for vehicles owned by foreign diplomats. In the United States, many American Indian tribal governments issue plates for their members, while some states provide special issues for tribal members. Within each jurisdiction, there may also be special plates for groups such as firefighters or military veterans, and for state, municipality, or province-owned vehicles.

When a person moves from one state to another state, they are required to obtain new registration plates issued by the new state of residence. Some U.S. states will even require a person to obtain new plates if they accept employment in that state, unless they can show that they return to another state to live on a regular basis. In many U.S. states, registration plates are made by prison inmates. Because of this, colloquial terms include “license plate factories” for prisons and “making license plates” for serving a prison sentence.

Some jurisdictions issue temporary registration plates made of cardboard or security paper or even printed on plain paper for newly purchased vehicles, for drivers waiting for plates in the mail, or other registration issues. A common length of time to have temporary plates is 30 days, although Ontario offers ten-day permits, and some U.S. states allow temporary tags to be effective for up to 90 days.  Temporary registration plates are usually either attached to the vehicle in place of the rear registration plate or the registration plates are taped to the inside of the rear window, while some states only require it to be in the front windshield. Expiration dates are usually hand written by regulatory employees or dealership sales personnel, but, due to easy alteration of hand written dates, some states now digitally print the date on the tag. If a driver continues to drive after the permit expires the vehicle can face impounding as an un-plated state vehicle.

Active duty military service members, who legally do not change residence when they move to a new posting are under federal law that specifically allows them to choose to either retain the state vehicle registration of their original residence or change the registration to their state of assignment. Tactical vehicles of the United States military do not bear registration plates, even if they travel regularly on public streets and highways.

There is one delivery vehicle that you see “DRIVING” on the roads every day that doesn’t ever have a license plate.

Do you know what it is?  Click here to be surprised.