License Plates and Car Tags

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 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 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 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 physical and visual appearance of tags varies with some containing symbols, colors, or slogans associated with the issuing jurisdiction.

The term license plate is frequently used in the statute, although in some areas tag is informally used. The term tag originates from the small stickers that are 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 country in the world to introduce a national license plate, known as 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 out of porcelain which was baked onto iron or ceramic with no backing, which made 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, such that 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, 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 the vehicles they plan to use on the public streets simultaneously. States typically have rules about who is eligible and how they may be used and may impose record keeping and audit requirements.

Diplomatic plates are issued by the United States Department of State 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 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.

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, due to easy alteration of handwritten 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.

License Plate Search and Lookup Tools

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 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?

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

Do you have a 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. As you can see from the options above, there is no such thing as a free reverse license plate search. The only way you can get it done for free is if you know a law enforcement officer who will risk their job to conduct the search for you.

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

Search Online Public Records

BeenVerified’s Background Check Report allows you to search for criminal records, bankruptcies, contact information, and more. Go to BeenVerified. Also, try an Intelius People Search, the 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 around the world.
  • Automobile License Plate Collector’s Association (ALPCA). ALPCA is the largest collector’s organization in the world. The ALPCS is dedicated to the promotion, research, and exchange of information.
Michael Kissiah is the owner of Brandy Lane Publishing, LLC, which owns and operates a small portfolio of websites, including Michael created more than 20 years ago after working as a private investigator in the state of Florida. Since that time, he has become an expert at how to find information online and has written over 1000 articles on topics related to the investigation industry. In addition, he is the author of the "Private Investigator Licensing Handbook", available at



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