What are Vanity Plates?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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When you get a car, you’re also getting a license plate, which is a random collection of numbers and letters that may vary in total number of digits or letters depending upon your country or state. In the US, many license plates are 7 letters long, and some even include special characters now like a dash or heart symbol. Some people opt to change this number/letter combination to something else, which may spell out or suggest one or more words. There is an extra charge for these license plates, which are called vanity plates or personalized plates.

Vanity plates are especially common in the US, UK, and Canada, and these extra funds paid for them can help fund a number of public projects. Prices can be expensive, but this depends upon the place where you purchase the plate. Another type of license plate worth mentioning is the special interest plate. These plates differ in design from standard issued plates in the country or state, and may indicate things like status as a veteran. Personal interest plates may not spell out anything intentionally, but money spent on them can be donated to specific causes.


Some people order vanity plates that are also special issue plates, and these will typically be most expensive. The goal of the vanity plate can be varied. You can advertise your business, say something cute or funny, or make a personal statement about yourself. Plates reading HOTMAMA for instance might suggest you’re a good looking woman with kids. You do have to check to see if the numbers and letters you want are already in use, and it can take some creative ability to come up with an unused combination of letters and numbers that actually spell something out that people could interpret.

There are restrictions on what vanity plates can say, and most countries do not allow plates to be obscene. Some words or combinations of letters and numbers are banned out of respect for others, and you can usually find a list of banned words and letter/number combos at the agency that issues your plate. Nevertheless, some people do try to work around these limitations by creating new ways to spell things that probably are rude or shouldn’t be uttered. There have even been successful lawsuits citing the First Amendment filed against various motor vehicle organizations if a person feels his vanity plate statement ought to be allowed, particularly if it is not obscene.

Due to the high number of vanity plates — close to 5% of all registered vehicles in the US — finding a plate that expresses what you want is sometimes a significant challenge. There are a number of websites that can advise you on common abbreviations so you can find new and creative ways to spell out what you’d like a plate to read. Interest in these plates inspired a short-lived game show, airing in the US from 1987-1990, where contestants attempted to guess and interpret vanity plates. Lots of people play the license plate game as they drive long distances, spelling out even randomly assigned numbers and letters to create meaning. This can be a great way to entertain kids on long drives.


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Is there a game you can buy that lets you try and figure these out?

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