License Plates and Car Tags: Where to Find Information

License plate
Learn about license plates, car tags and vehicle registration.

So, you want to search for a license plate? Before you start conducting a license plate search or set out to find vehicle registration plates, let’s talk a little bit about what they are, their history, and how to go about running a search.

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 registration identifier is a numeric or alphanumeric code uniquely identifying 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 simply unique within a state or province.

Whether the 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, a car tag, or a tag.

Car 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 vehicle fleet and for vehicles owned by foreign diplomats. Until the 1980s, diplomatic plates were issued by the state where the consulate or embassy was located. Tags’ physical and visual appearance varies, with some containing symbols, colors, or slogans associated with the issuing jurisdiction.

The term license plate is frequently used in the statute, although a tag is informally used in some areas. The term tag originates from the small stickers issued periodically to indicate that vehicle registration is current. Tags are issued rather than replacing the entire plate each year.


Auto tags have been around almost as long as automobiles. They began appearing from 1890 to 1910. France was the first to introduce them in 1893, followed by Germany in 1896. The Netherlands was the first to introduce a national license plate, a “driving permit,” in 1898.

In the U.S., where each state issues automobile tags, New York State has required tags since 1901. At first, they 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 tags in 1903. The earliest tags were made of porcelain baked onto iron or ceramic with no backing, making them fragile and impractical. Few of the early versions survived. Later experimental materials include cardboard, leather, plastic, and, during wartime shortages, copper and pressed soybeans.

Earlier vehicle tags varied in size and shape from one jurisdiction to the next, so if one moved, new holes would need to be drilled into the bumper to support the new plate. Standardization of tags occurred in 1957 when automobile manufacturers agreed with governments and international standards organizations.

General Registration

Many states issue special plates to automobile dealers, auto repair shops, farms, and construction contractors, not tied to any particular vehicle. These users typically have more vehicles on the premises than on the public streets, and registering and insuring each vehicle would not be practical. So, they simultaneously hold several “floating” registrations for the vehicles they plan to use on the public streets. States typically have rules about who is eligible and how they may be used and may impose record-keeping and audit requirements.

The United States Department of State issues diplomatic plates only to accredited diplomats. Diplomats use the tags on any vehicles driven while in the U.S.

Vanity and Specialty License Plates

In each of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, drivers are given the option of extra-cost vanity plates (also known as “personalized” or “prestige”), which have a custom serial (sequence of letters and/or numbers) vanity messages created by motorists. Generally, vanity plates may not contain offensive or obscene messages, although standards regarding 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 like New Hampshire and North Carolina permit certain punctuation symbols.

Temporary plates

Some jurisdictions issue temporary car plates made of security paper for drivers waiting for official tags in the mail.  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 handwritten by regulatory employees or dealership sales personnel, but some states digitally print the date on the tag due to easy alteration of handwritten dates. If a driver continues to drive after the permit expires, the vehicle can face impounding as an unplated vehicle.

License Plate Search and Lookup Tools

Suppose you enter the keywords “License Plate Search” into any search engine. In that case, most 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 to match it to the person’s name and address. Would you want someone to be able to look up YOUR name and address from your tag number?

Some public records database search tools will match a tag number to vehicle information. Vehicle information includes the vehicle make, model, year, etc. However, law enforcement is the only legal way for a tag number to be matched to a name and address.

Do you have a number and need to find out the name and address of the vehicle’s owner? If so, you might have already realized there is no free online database of license plate numbers. As you can see from the options above, there is no such thing as a free reverse license plate search. You can only get it done for free if you know a law enforcement officer who will risk their job to search for you.

License plate and VIN records typically include Name and address; registration, with expiration date; year, make, model, and VIN of the vehicle; title info; and any lien holders listed.

Search Online Public Records

BeenVerified’s Background Search Report allows you to search for criminal records, bankruptcies, contact information, and more. Go to BeenVerified. Also, try an Intelius People Search for people search reports, background checks, criminal records, court records, real estate, and financial reports.

License Plate Collectors and Association Websites

  • License Plate Mania – A collection of pictures from around the world. It also has a good collection of links to worldwide resources.
  • World License Plates – A huge collection of tag images and photos from plates worldwide.
  • Automobile License Plate Collector’s Association (ALPCA). ALPCA is the most prominent collector’s organization in the world. The ALPCS is dedicated to promoting, researching, and exchanging information.



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