So you want to search for a license plate? Before you start conducting a license plate search, let’s talk a little bit about license plates, or vehicle registration plates.
What is a license plate?
A vehicle registration plate, commonly known as a license plate, is a metal or plastic plate attached to a motor vehicle or trailer for official identification purposes. The license plate registration identifier is a numeric or alphanumeric code that uniquely identifies the vehicle within the issuing region’s database. In some countries, the license plate identifier is unique within the entire country, while in others it is unique within a state or province. Whether the license plate identifier is associated with a vehicle or a person also varies by issuing agency. Depending on the country, the vehicle registration plate may be called a registration plate (in British English), a license plate (in American English), a number plate, a vehicle tag, car tag, or a tag.
United States License Plates
License plates are issued by an agency of the state or territorial government, and in the case of the District of Columbia the District government. Some Native American tribes also issue plates. The U.S. federal government issues plates only for its own vehicle fleet and for vehicles owned by foreign diplomats. Until the 1980s, diplomatic plates were issued by the state in which the consulate or embassy was located. The appearances of plates are frequently chosen to contain symbols, colors, or slogans associated with the issuing jurisdiction. The term license plate is frequently used in statute, although in some areas tags is informally used. The term tag stems from small stickers issued periodically to indicate that the vehicle registration is current, rather than replacing the entire license plate each year.
Vanity License and Specialty License Plates
In each of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, motorists are given the option of extra-cost vanity plates (also known as “personalized” or “prestige” plates), which are license plates with a custom serial (sequence of letters and/or numbers)–”vanitized” messages created by motorists. Generally, vanity plates may not contain profane or obscene messages, although standards as to what constitutes an unacceptable message vary widely among issuing jurisdictions. In California, motorists may order symbols—a heart, hand, plus sign, or star—on one type of specialty plate. Other states, such as New Hampshire and North Carolina, also permit the use of certain punctuation symbols.
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General Registration License Plates
Many states issue special plates to automobile dealers, auto repair shops, farms, and construction contractors, which are not tied to any particular vehicle. These users typically have many more vehicles on the premises than on the public streets, and it would not be practical to register and insure each individual vehicle. So, they hold a number of “floating” registrations for however many vehicles they plan to use on the public streets simultaneously. States typically have rules about who is eligible and how the plates may be used, and may impose record keeping and audit requirements.
Diplomatic License Plates
Diplomatic license plates are issued by the United States Department of State to accredited diplomats. Diplomats use the license plates on any vehicles driven while in the U.S.
Temporary license plates
Some jurisdictions issue temporary license plates made of security paper 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 10 day permits, and some U.S. states allow temporary tags to be effective for up to 90 days. Temporary license plates are usually taped to the inside of the rear windshield, while some states 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 unplated vehicle.
History of License Plates
License plates have been around almost as long as automobiles, appearing in the earliest period of the transition from the horse, 1890 to 1910. France was the first to introduce a license plate, in 1893, followed by Germany in 1896. The Netherlands were the first in the world to introduce a national license plate, called a “driving permit”, in 1898. The first licenses were plates with a number, starting at 1. By August, 8, 1899 the counter was at 168. When the Netherlands chose a different way to number the plates on 15 January, 1906 the last issued plate was 2001.
In the U.S., where each state issues plates, New York State has required plates since 1901. At first, plates were not government issued in most jurisdictions and motorists were obliged to make their own. Massachusetts and West Virginia were the first states to issue plates, in 1903. The earliest license plates were made out of porcelain baked onto iron or ceramic with no backing, which made them fragile and impractical. Few of these earliest plates survive. Later experimental materials include cardboard, leather, plastic and during wartime shortages copper and pressed soybeans. Earlier plates varied in size and shape from one jurisdiction to the next, such that if one moved, new holes would need to be drilled into the bumper to support the new plate. Standardization of plates came in 1957, when automobile manufacturers came to agreement with governments and international standards organizations. While peculiar local variants still exist, there are three basic standards worldwide.
License Plate Search
If you enter the keywords “License Plate Search” into any search engine the majority of the responses will lead you to bogus license plate search sites or vehicle tag search tools that will encourage you to sign up for a product that cannot run license plate searches.
Think about it. Here’s a simple example. Someone cuts another person off on the highway. The person who got cut off gets their tag number and goes to the internet matches it to the persons name and address. Would you want someone to be able to look up YOUR name and address from your tag number?
The only legal way for a license plate to be matched to a name and address is through law enforcement.
Do you have a license plate or license tag number and you need to find out the name and address of the owner of the vehicle? If so, you might have already realized that there is no free online database of license plate numbers.
Don’t worry. There is still hope. If you need to conduct a reverse license plate number search online, below are several methods to accomplish your goal.
- The first method is to hire a private investigator. Find a list of Private Investigators in our Private Investigator directory. Start calling and get prices for how much they charge to run a license plate trace. You can expect to pay $150 to $300 to get this service completed in your local area.
- The next method is to use a large online private investigation service. These services will charge you $79 or more to search by license plate number. You will normally get back a combination of the following information: the first and last Name, address, registration and expiration date, make and model of vehicle, VIN number, title number, lien holder name. These services can normally get information for most states in the United States as Canadian Provinces. License plate data for additional countries are also available depending on the service.
- The third option is to join a private investigation tools membership service where you have access to databases and resources used by private investigators. These memberships normally start at $29 to $59 per year and give you access to all sorts of people search databases used by private investigators. This is a good choice if you’re willing to do the work yourself and you want to save a little money. The downside to this option is there is no guarantee that you will be successful in your search. Be wary of services like Net Detective, Urgent Detective and eDetective.
As you can see from the options above, there is no such thing as a free reverse license plate search. About the only way you can get it done for free is if you know a law enforcement officer who will conduct the search for you (they have access to all of the databases).
License plate and VIN records typically include: Name and address; registration, with expiration date; year, make, model and VIN number of vehicle; title info; and any lien holders listed.
Mostly for law enforcement: License plate ownership information is not freely available to just anyone; fees start around $10 for basic information; available online from numerous sources.
It appears that license plate numbers are not considered public information; at least not in the same way as some information.
Public information is simply information within public records that is supposed to be freely available. And, usually, public information is free, unless you request a particular report or documentation; which might carry a nominal service fee.
Some sites offer search by name, state, county, city/town; but reports still cost money.
Unless you belong to law-enforcement or similarly authorized organization, you will have to pay for any information relating to license plate numbers. Some sites offer basic information for under $10 (includes name, address, etc.); additional information is extra.
Government sites: Some State, County and City or Town records are searchable online. Larger metropolitan areas are most likely to have up to date information via Internet; smaller cities and towns might not have the resources for such data management and maintenance.
See our list of Private Investigation Reports.
License Plate Search Websites
- http://www.licenseplatemania.com/ - A collection of license plate pictures from around the world. Also has a good collection of links to world-wide license plate resources.
- http://www.worldlicenseplates.com/ - A huge collection of license plate images and photos from license plates around the world.
- http://www.alpca.org/ - The Automobile License Plate Collector’s Association (ALPCA) website. The ALPCA is the largest license plate collectors organization in the world. The ALPCS is dedicated to the promotion of license plate collecting and research, and the exchange of information and plates.