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How to decode a license plate

Updated February 21, 2019

Issuing vehicle number plates is the responsibility of individual states, usually done by a state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or a Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV). A traditional number plate is usually a combination of numbers and letters. For example, the standard number plate in North Carolina includes three letters followed by four numbers, creating a unique combination used to identify a vehicle. Sometimes, a driver may choose to create his own number plate combination using letters, numbers and even symbols. Decoding these vanity number plates can be tricky, but there are some hints you can use to help figure it out.

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  1. Write the number plate combination down. This will help you in two ways. First, it will help you remember the vanity plate after the car drives away. Second, seeing the combination in writing can help you visualise different options.

  2. Examine the make and model of the vehicle on which the vanity plate is posted. A vanity plate that reads "1GR8MINI" (one great Mini) may not make a lot of sense, until you notice that the car sporting the plate is a Mini Cooper.

  3. Pay attention to any bumper stickers that may be posted on the vehicle. This can give you clues to the driver's interests, which may help explain the vanity plate. For example, a vanity plate that reads "GNFSHN" may become clear after you note the adjacent bumper sticker that reads "I'd Rather Be Fishing."

  4. Look for commonly used abbreviations. The number "4" is often meant to be read as the word "for," while the number "2" is often used in place of the word "to" or "too." When preceeded by a letter or letters, the number "8" can easily be used to create a word, such as "create" (CR8) or "late" (L8). Individual letters can also be used as abbreviations for whole words. The letter "R" can be used as an abbreviation for "are" or "our," while "U" can be used instead of the word "you." Consider abbreviations for phrases as well, such as "as soon as possible" (ASAP).

  5. Consider abbreviations used in text messages. Phrases like "Got to go" and "Be right back" can be shortened to "GTG" and "BRB," respectively. These abbrevations are often used in text messages, but can also appear on vanity number plates.

  6. Sound out the letters and numbers on the vanity plate. Repeating the letters and numbers out loud multiple times can help you phonetically sound out the combination. For example, the combination "IMAPYR8" may not make a lot of sense, until you start saying the individual characters out loud: "I-AM-A-PY-R-8." (Still confused? It reads "I am a pirate.")

  7. Think creatively. While some vanity plates may be obvious (a Florida number plate with the University of Florida logo on it that reads "G8RSR#1" can be easily decoded to read "Gators Are Number One"), others may be difficult. Try the above tips, but remember that the vanity plate's owner could be trying to be intentionally cryptic. Thinking outside the suggestions listed in Steps 1 through 6 may help you decode these tougher plates.

  8. Warning

    Don't spend so much time trying to decode a vanity plate that you stop paying attention to the road. As a driver, your first priority is safely handling your vehicle--not figuring out a vanity plate mystery.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Falwell

Elizabeth Falwell has been writing for the TV news industry since 2005. Her work has appeared on WXII 12 News, WMGT 41 News, NewParent.com and multiple parenting blogs. A graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University, Falwell holds a Master of Science in broadcast journalism.

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