Private Plates vs. Vanity Plates: A Cross-Atlantic Comparison

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Despite the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean that separates them, the USA and the UK maintain a profound and lasting friendship, transcending their unique cultural, historical, and political identities as economic superpowers. In the domain of number plates, referred to as license plates by Americans, these differences become evident. Beyond these linguistic distinctions, a closer look shows a shared penchant for personalisation in these plates. In the following discussion, we will delve into both the commonalities and distinctions that define the fascinating world of DVLA private plates and vanity plates.

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What is a private plate?

A private plate, often referred to as a personalised registration, consists of a combination of numbers and letters that can display a name, word, initials or date that is of personal significance to the buyer. Private plates serve as a means of self-expression and can be a source of pride for those who value individuality and a personal touch on their vehicles.

What is a vanity plate?

A vanity plate, essentially the American counterpart to a private plate in the UK, is a custom license plate that allows vehicle owners to select a unique combination of letters and numbers beyond the standard-issue ones. These plates are often chosen to convey personal messages, slogans, or creative expressions, making them a canvas for self-expression on American roads.  


Both the DMV in the United States and the DVLA in the United Kingdom offer drivers the option to transfer their license plates to another vehicle, providing a degree of flexibility. However, the transfer process for vanity plates in the USA can vary significantly due to the individual regulations of each state. Some states have streamlined procedures, allowing for a relatively straightforward transfer, while others may impose additional paperwork, fees, or even require reapplication for the desired plate on the new vehicle. This diversity arises from the decentralised nature of vehicle registration in the United States, where each state manages its license plates and transfer protocols independently. Conversely, in the UK, transferring a number plate is a more straightforward process, as drivers can apply via post or online, adhering to consistent guidelines regardless of their place of residence.


The degree of personalisation between private plates in the UK and vanity plates in the USA varies significantly. Vanity plates in the USA offer a canvas for extensive modification, allowing the inclusion of state slogans, iconic state symbols, pop culture references, background colours, images and even fully spelt words. There’s no shortage of ways to make a statement on your vehicle. Whereas, private plates in the UK consist of combinations that have already been issued. It may be possible to have unused combinations specially issued, but they must still conform the the prescribed formats. Additionally, private plate options may include 4D characters or the addition of a flag of provenance, but there is generally less visual customisation compared to the more visually dynamic and diverse landscape of vanity plates in the United States.


The cost of attaining personalised license plates differs significantly between the UK and the US, reflecting distinct approaches to pricing and availability. In the United States, the expense of a vanity plate can vary widely from state to state. For instance, obtaining a vanity plate in Washington can cost nearly $170, exclusive of the annual renewal fee, and the total price may further escalate based on the selection of background designs or additional elements. On the other hand, in the UK, the emphasis is placed more on the availability and desirability of specific character combinations. In the UK, private plates exhibit a wide range of price points, catering to diverse budgets and preferences. This approach allows individuals to find modestly priced current-style registrations to highly sought-after, six-figure dateless plates, providing a flexible and inclusive spectrum for personalising their vehicles.


When it comes to vanity plates, annual renewal fees are a standard expectation to keep your plate active for the following year. These renewal costs can vary significantly from state to state in the United States. In the United Kingdom, customers can anticipate an £80 fee payable to the DVLA, which covers either the transfer of a number plate to a vehicle or the retention of rights to a registration for a generous period of 10 years. It is important to note that once a private plate has been assigned to a vehicle, it does not need to be renewed.


In the UK, number plates come in several formats, including dateless, suffix, prefix, and the current style format. Dateless plates are distinct for their absence of an age identifier, making them suitable for most vehicles. The evolution of these formats was spurred by the gradual exhaustion of available combinations. In contrast, American license plates typically display 3 to 7 characters, often in a 3-letter, 3-number combination. Shorter plates can be requested through the DMV, provided the desired combination is both permissible and available.


Although private plates offer considerable room for personalisation, they are still subject to specific regulations within the UK. These regulations ensure that all number plates follow a standardised set of guidelines, which dictate character spacing, font style, and colour choices. Offensive or misleading combinations are strictly prohibited from release to the general public. These guidelines strike a balance between individual expression and maintaining a uniform and legible appearance across all private plates, ensuring road safety and adherence to legal standards. In the USA, way back in 1977, the Supreme Court decided that licence plates were private speech, which means an individual can’t file a lawsuit for what is being displayed on a plate. With that being said, the DMV prohibits any vulgar or hateful statements. Generally, vanity plates are issued by individual states, and the rules and regulations can vary from one state to another.

Investment potential

Both private plates in the UK and vanity plates in the US have evolved into lucrative businesses within their respective domestic markets. Dateless plates in the UK, known for their timeless appeal, have become some of the most valuable and sought-after registrations, with distinct character combinations fetching six figures or more. Notably, registrations like ’25 O’ have sold for over £500,000, highlighting their immense worth to collectors and enthusiasts. Meanwhile, in the US, some vanity plates have also attained remarkable values. For instance, ‘CASH,’ a vanity plate currently available for purchase in California, is listed at a staggering $2 million by its owner. These impressive figures underline the significant financial and cultural impact of personalised license plates on both sides of the Atlantic. In conclusion, the investment potential for private plates and vanity plates is a dynamic landscape marked by the fusion of personal expression and financial opportunity. Whether in the UK or the US, those who delve into the world of personalised plates find not only a canvas for self-expression but also a realm where their investments can flourish, making it a truly unique and lucrative niche within the broader automotive industry.

The exploration of private plates in the UK and vanity plates in the USA has revealed more than just contrasting choices in language. It has offered us a glimpse into the unique ways people on both sides of the Atlantic use license or number plates. Whether it’s a reflection of cultural distinctions, personality, or even status, one thing remains clear: the number plate serves as a symbol of personal expression.  

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