Motorcycle Number Plates – What’s the law?

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Motorbike showing rear number plate

We’ve all seen that rider with the suspiciously small plate tacked onto the back of their bike – often so small as to be almost illegible.

But did you know he is actually breaking the law?

There are very clear laws governing the size of motorcycle license plates, and the smaller ones you see are generally illegal.

The law is actually pretty complicated, so read on and avoid that awkward conversation at the side of the road with the local constabulary.

 

What does the law say?


For bikes registered on or after September 1st 2001,  motorcycle registration plates must only be displayed on the back of the motorcycle.

For older models, you can also put one on the front, but you don’t have to.

 

Fines

If you ride without proper plates, you may be fined up to £1,000 and your bike can fail its MOT. If you’ve got a personal plate, that can be taken from you at your own expense.

Many garages, however, will turn a blind eye to a small plate as long as you can produce the correct size one when you bring your bike in for an MOT or other work. However, this isn’t strictly legal and is only anecdotal as far as this author is concerned.

 

Lettering

Your motorcycle license plate should read as follows:

  • Two letters that refer to the region in the country where your vehicle was first registered, for example CA for Cardiff.
  • Two numbers that tell you when it was issued – 51 means 2001, 56 2006, 61 2011 etc.
  • Three letters chosen at random. If you buy a brand new motorcycle, when registering it you can often choose these three letters yourself, which you can either pick as your own initials, or reflect the bike model.
  • The license should run across two lines on a square plate.

 

Colours

Rear bike plates also have to feature black text on a yellow background with no pattern, and be made of a reflective material. The text can have a ‘3D effect’ though, if you fancy.

 

How big does a motorcycle plate have to be?


Since 2001, the characters on your plate must be 64mm tall and 44mm wide with the exception of the number 1 or letter I.

There’s no official ruling on how big the plate itself has to be, as long as it contains letters of the correct size. The standard plate size, however, is 229x178mm (9x7in).

  • The thickness of the ‘stroke’ of the letters must be 10mm and the space between letters must be 10mm.
  • The gap between the age identifying numbers and the random letters must be 30mm, and the distance separating the two lines of text on the top and bottom must be 13mm.
  • Finally, there must be 11mm between the lettering and the edge of the plate.

You might be thinking you could get away with a smaller plate if your registration contains loads of Is and 1s – and you’d be right. But spare a thought for people with lots of 7s and Ms.

Bikes registered before September 1st 2001 can display text over three lines if they like, but it’s against the law to have a one-line plate, no matter what. (Source)

 

Can a number plate be decorated in any way?


Not really, is the short answer. You have to have a plain yellow background, but certain flags or country markings are allowed, as follows, as long as they don’t exceed 50mm in width and are on the left side of the plate.

  • Union Flag
  • St George Cross
  • St Andrew Cross
  • Red Dragon

Furthermore, if you travel in Europe it’s also possible to have your plate display your country of origin, in one of the following formats:

  • GREAT BRITAIN, Great Britain or GB
  • UNITED KINGDOM, United Kingdom or UK
  • CYMRU, Cymru, CYM or Cym
  • ENGLAND, England, ENG, Eng
  • SCOTLAND, Scotland, SCO or Sco
  • WALES or Wales

It’s also possible to have a border or slogan on your plate, which often shows the dealer you bought the bike from.

You’re not allowed to be creative with bolts to change the appearance of any letters, and you could even get in trouble if your plate’s too dirty to read.

Common sense, as in so many things, is key.

 

I’ve seen plates with silver or white text on a black background – why?


Black and white motorcycle number plate on classic bike.Bikes registered before 1 January 1973 can show those lovely looking ’black and white’ plates – although the text can be white, grey or silver.

Since April 2016, vehicles registered before 1 January, 1976 can display the older style plates as long as it’s been applied for through the DVLA and registered as an ‘historic vehicle’ for tax.

If you see a modern bike with a black and white plate, it’s probably not legal and the rider is taking a risk if he ever gets pulled on it.

 

Where can I get a custom, but still legal, plate made up?



There are loads of places online you can get custom plates put together – we like this company on Amazon . Fully legal, Simple, quick and easy.

There are also options for more decorative plates;

The Plate Man has options for UK legal plates, or ‘show size’ which is what you might use on a bike you’re trying to sell. They will let you custom pick your own size if you want to push the barrier.

Number 1 Plates does much the same thing, but you can also get weird and wacky plates cut into different shapes – perfect for decorating a garage wall, but not so much for identifying your bike.

Conclusion


Anecdotal evidence, and my own experience, has found that most police officers don’t really care about the size or contents of your plate.

I’ve run noticeably small ones in the past and been fine for months, only earning a telling-off from an officer once with no other repercussions. But I soon switched it out!

Officers may pull you over for any one of the following motorcycling misdemeanours:

  • A small plate
  • Tinted visor
  • Loud pipe
  • Aggressive driving

It’s likely that if you’ve only ticked one of those big four, they’ll let you go with a slap on the wrist – however, if you start adding them up it’s much more likely they’ll throw the book at you.

For my money, the benefit of a small plate is purely cosmetic, and it’s not worth running the risk of a big fine just to make your back tyre look a bit bigger.


Image credit: Endrick Shellycoat at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Triumph Bonneville T120 (1960) flickr photo by SG2012 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license