This page illustrates some of the various types of personal vehicle license plates currently or recently seen on the streets of North Carolina.
Latest noteworthy updates to this page
This page illustrates some of the various types of license plates currently or recently seen on the streets of North Carolina. There are also many additional types of North Carolina license plates, some issued in very small numbers, that do not appear on this page. As I find them, I will add their images to this page.
Please note that, unlike the other pages on this web site, very few of the plates shown on this page are from my personal collection, since I don't actively collect North Carolina plates. Most of the plates shown on this page – the ones with bolts attaching them to vehicles – are simply photographs of plates that I've spotted on various vehicles found in parking lots, mostly in or near the city of Raleigh. I haven't tried to individually identify the source of each plate shown. However, all images on this page are photographs that I've taken, unless otherwise credited. Oh, and if you're wondering what that arc of light is on some of the candid shots, it's just a reflection from my camera. I get this when I have to shoot towards the sun due to the position of the vehicle. (Remember when cameras were black and didn't reflect light?)
I sincerely hope that you find this information useful. If you find an error or have additional information, or can provide a photo of a plate that is not shown, please send me an e-mail. There's a link to my e-mail address at the bottom of every page.
Move your mouse over each image to see a description of that plate. Click on any image to see a larger version.
In North Carolina, passenger plates are issued to cars, SUVs, passenger vans, motor homes, not-for-hire buses, and not-for-hire trucks up to 7,000 pounds gross vehicle weight. The First in Flight base used for passenger car plates has been around since 1982, but the oldest plates still in use were issued in the late 1990s. Lead zeroes are never used in the serial number, nor are letters G, I, O, Q, or U.
For 25 uninterrupted years, from spring 1982 until spring 2007, First in Flight plates were issued with royal blue serial characters. In the spring of 1985, the current serial format xxx-0000 made its debut. In this format, for some mysterious reason, the second letter was restricted to the range N through Z. Also, lead zeroes are not used, nor is the number 1000. Therefore, the format began at serial ANA-1001, and, for example, the next plate number after AZZ-9999 was BNA-1001. In later years, the DMV went through about one first letter per year, with a new first letter introduced sometime in the summer of each year. This format eventually got up into the early WTF series in the spring of 2007, when the state must have run out of blue paint or something.
Also until the spring of 2007, any First in Flight plate issued since 1982 could still be used if the registration was continuous. However, most plates that were on the road for more than ten years or so became quite ugly looking, and often had serious legibility problems due to fading and also flaking and general deteriorization of the reflective sheeting. Between 2007 and 2009, the oldest blue-character plates were replaced with new red-character plates as they come up from renewal. Currently, blue-character plates with format xxx-0000 from the "M" series forward remain in use. Read more about the plate replamcement process below.
Older plates had month stickers with alphabetic month abbreviations. These should all be off the road now; since the mid-to-late 1990s, month stickers simply indicate the month numerically.
From the spring of 2007 until the fall of 2009, First in Flight passenger car plates were issued with red serial characters, although the background design remained unchanged. According to the NC DMV, the red-character plates were supposed to debut on April 16, 2007, but some plate spotters began seeing them in use as early as March 2007. Apparently, some DMV offices ran out of blue-number plates, and so began issuing the red-number plates early. The serial format continued as xxx-0000, and picked up where the blue-number plates left off with no break, as fate would have it, somewhere in the midst of the WTF series. The red-number plates continued until about the end of the ZND series.
In my opinion, the North Carolina DMV succeeded in changing what was a dated, yet still attractive plate design, to one that remained dated, but was also downright dumb-looking. Although it's not really evident in the photos above, the red paint is somewhat of an orangey color which clashes with the deeper red state name and First in Flight slogan screened on the plate. Also, and more significantly in my opinion, the red characters are much harder to read at a distance than the blue characters.
Also beginning in April 2007, the DMV began replacing the oldest of the blue-character "First in Flight" plates with red-character plates as they come up for renewal. The state's intention was to have an ongoing rolling replate program, but without a fixed age that a plate must reach for it to be replaced. The number of old plates that were to be replaced each year would depend on the amount of money budgeted for this purpose. When the plate replacement program began, the state announced that it intended to replace 600,000 old plates in 2007 and another 500,000 in 2008. The affected plates in this first round included all 5-character and 6-character passenger car plates, as well as all 7-character passenger plates up to and including plate numbers starting with the letter "H". Those plates were replaced over a 16-month period running through mid-August 2008. For the first few months, a small number of qualifying older blue-character plates slipped through the cracks and were renewed, but these were replaced upon expiration in 2008.
A second round of blue-character plate replacements affected 7-character plates starting with the letter "J" and expiring between June 2008 and May 2009. These were replaced by the DMV with red character plates rather than be renewed. Altough the state has now resumed issuing new plates with blue serial charactrers, the older plate replacement program continues on and on-and-off basis as funds permit. K-series and L-series plates have now been replaced with new blue-letter plates with new plate numbers.
In March 2009, the N.C. DMV announced that it would discontinue issuing red serial letters and numbers, and red vanity plate characters, on its standard First in Flight license plates. Existing red-numbered sequential plates were to continue to be distributed until they were gone from inventory. Newly-ordered vanity plates began being made with blue characters immediately.
The reason given for the return to blue serial characters was that the DMV was responding to complaints about the red plates from the public (presumably because they're ugly) and from law enforcement (presumably because they're harder to read at a distance). It apparently didn't occur to the DMV to test the readability of these plates before issuing them.
Blue-character First in Flight standard passenger car plates resumed being issued in October 2009, at or near the beginning of the ZNE letter series. These plates are visually identical to the blue-character plates that were issued between 1985 and 2007. However, red-character plates continued to be issued as late as January 2010. It would seem that various DMV tag offices ran out of red-character plates at different points in time.
Plate number ZZZ-9999 was reached in December 2010, and plate numbers then rolled over to the AAA series, starting with plate number AAA-1001. However, both Z-series and A-series plates were issued concurrently in December 2010, January 2011, and possibly beyond.
Despite the return to A-series plate numbers, earlier First in Flight plate numbers are not being reused. Recall that until December 2010, all seven-character First in Flight passenger car plates were issued with the second letter limited to the range of N to Z. With the new plates being issued in the early part of the alphabet, the second letter is limited to the range of A to M. So, newly-issued A-series plates were issued with numbers between AAA-1001 and AMZ-9999 only. After AMZ-9999 came BAA-1001. After BMZ-9999 came CAA-1001, and so on.
The middle letter N-to-Z format lasted 25 years, from 1985 until 2010, so the middle letter A-to-M plates should keep us going for another 20 to 25 years before they're used up.
North Carolina issues a couple of optional plates that are used to promote certain geographic areas within the state. One of these is this seemingly passenger-format plate with prefix OBX. "OBX" stands for "Outer Banks", which is the term used for the string of barrier islands along the Atlantic coast. It differs from a standard passenger plate in several subtle ways. Passenger plates never use the letter "O", and so far have never used a letter before "N" in the second position on seven-character serials. Also, lead zeroes are used on OBX plates but not on standard passenger plates.
Initially, plate numbers OBX-1001 through OBX-9999 were issued, then OBX-0001 through OBX-1000, exhausting the format. Now, new OBX plates are being issued in an eight-character format with serials starting from OBX10001. Incidentally, Kitty Hawk, an Outer Banks town, was the location of the Wright brothers' first flight.
A second such geographically-oriented plate is the Global TransPark plate. The Global TransPark is an economic development zone in eastern North Carolina. The only serial format used for these is the eight-character format GTP00000. Probably, these began at serial GTP10001.
I've been told that the OBX plates are available for sale only at one DMV tag office that's actually located on the Outer Banks. However, they're apparently available to anyone in the state to purchase. I don't know how one would obtain the GTP plates, but I would imagine that it's something similar to the OBX plates.
Plates issued to current government officials and members of the National Guard for their personal vehicles are made on the standard passenger base. Current government official plates are reissued annually and have the registration year actually on the plate in the upper corners. Some plates issued to government officials clearly state what position they hold in the state or federal government; others are cryptic but can be decoded, and still others simply have all-numeric serials numbered 200 and below.
The 2007 State Senate plate should not have the 2008 sticker applied to it – such plates are re-issued annually and only have embossed years. Since North Carolina sticker numbers match the plate numbers, it's evident that this sticker was intended for a completely different plate. Thanks, Mike Fox, for sending in this photo.
National Guard member plates look much like extra-cost special-interest plates. The serial format is a one-digit to four-digit number followed by the stacked letters "N/G". Officers and senior noncommissioned officers are assigned plate numbers 1 through 3000 in order of rank and seniority. They also get new plates bearing the registration year on an annual basis, with presumably lower serial numbers each year, as those ranking above them retire or otherwise leave the Guard. Plate number 734 N/G, shown above, was issued to a captain.
Lower ranking enlisted National Guard personnel are assigned numbers starting from 3001 on a first-come, first-served basis. These were also issued annually and had embossed years through 2005; beginning in 2006 these higher-number National Guard plates are undated and are kept current with stickers. There is no additional charge beyond the normal registration fees for Guard members to obtain these plates.
Some retired government officials and retired National Guard members are also entitled to receive distinct plates; some of these have the year on the plate and are replaced annually, while others are issued undated base plates and use stickers to indicate the expiration date.
Most, if not all, annual government official and National Guard plates dated 2009, 2010, and 2011 were flat rather than embossed. Likewise, undated base plates issued to such individuals issued between late 2008 and late 2011 are also flat. North Carolina discontinued producing flat plates in mid-year 2011.
Antique Auto plates are available to vehicles more than 35 years old. Serial format is 00000. Horseless Carriage plates are similar to antique auto plates, except that they show an image of a very old car on the plate. These are available to vehicles from model year 1943 or older. The serial format for these is 0000. Like other special interest plate types, the state issued antique auto plates, and likely also horseless carriage plates, with flat serial characters between about the fall of 2008 and the fall of 2011.
In North Carolina, antique auto and horseless carriage plates are both considered to be special interest plates, and cost $10 extra than regular plates, and so there's no restriction against driving the vehicle daily, if desired.
Neal Reid reports that North Carolina once offered street rod plates, but no more than 300 were ever sold (probably not even anywhere near that many), and they were discontinued in 1993. They were available as sequentially-numbered plates with serial format SR-0000, and also as vanity plates. In either case, I believe they were made on the non-graphic blue-on-white non-passenger base, similar to amateur radio operator plates, with the legend Street Rod across the top. Neal further reports that according to the North Carolina DMV, exactly one sequentially-numbered street rod plate continues to be renewed each year.
Vehicles over 35 years old are also eligible to display "year of manufacture" (YOM) plates, which are old license plates from the year the vehicle was built. YOM plates are permitted only if the vehicle is currently registered with a modern plate, and the modern plate is kept somewhere in the vehicle when being driven. The modern plate may be a standard plate, an antique auto or horseless carriage plate, or any other appropriate plate.
Up to eight characters and spaces are permitted on regular North Carolina vanity plates. A variety of special characters, or punctuation characters, are permitted on the plate, although these are not considered part of the serial number. Like all other North Carolina stickered plates, the plate number is printed on the sticker, but in the case of vanity plates, any special characters or spaces on the plate itself are omitted on the sticker.
Prior to the spring of 2007, all vanity plates were made with blue, embossed serial characters. Vanity plates issued between the spring of 2007 and the spring of 2009 have red serial characters, just like standard passenger car plates of the same time period. Prior to mid-year 2008, these were also embossed; but then North Carolina began making all vanity plates with flat serial characters, as this process significantly sped up the maufacturing process for one-of-a-kind plates. Beginning in the spring of 2009, the state resumed using blue serial characters, but they were still flat. In the summer of 2011, the state discontinued making flat plates, and resumed making vanity plates with blue, embossed characters. To summarize, vanity plates currently in use may be embossed or flat, and may have blue or red serial characters.
Embossed vanity plates with six or fewer characters and spaces were usually, but not always, made with the wide serial dies used on various non-passenger plate types. Embossed plates with seven or eight characters and spaces are made using the narrow dies used on passenger car plates. Flat vanity plates are made using a narrow font regardless of the number of characters.
Although it's extremely rare to do so, trailers can also be registered with a vanity plate number, and when they are, they're issued a First in Flight passenger base with the requested plate number. In other words, vanity plates issued to passenger vehicles and those issued to trailers are indistinguishable. This must be very confusing for law enforcement; it would appear that the motorist had put a vanity plate actually registered to a passenger vehicle on their trailer. It's unclear to me why the state doesn't just make vanity trailer plates on the red-on-white trailer base that has the Trailer legend, similar to how they make "weighted" vanity plates for medium-duty commercial trucks.
I've seen conflicting reports whether or not older vanity plates are being replaced as they come up for renewal I believe that they are not being automatically replaced, but rather that some motorists may have requested that their old vanity plates be remade simply because they had become ugly looking.
Neal Reid reports that North Carolina once offered street rod plates, in both sequentially-numbered and vanity versions, but both were discontinued in 1993. A very small number of street rod vanity plates that have been continously registered since then are still in use, such as the example shown above.
Neal also reports that antique auto plates also used to be available with vanity registrations, but these were also discontinued in 1993. I don't know if any of these remain in use, or what they look like.
Standard-sized and motorcycle handicapped plates are currently available with vanity registrations, but I've never seen an actual example of either type. Special interest and organizational member plates may be had with vanity serial numbers; these are addresed on the Current North Carolina license plates, part 2 page, which covers all types of special interest and organizational member plates.
"First in Flight" graphic plates do not have a place for a legend to identify the plate type, so amateur radio operators must make do with these plain, non-graphic plates, which are similar to commerical or weighted vanity plates. Amateur radio plates have had staggered registrations for many years. I presume that the plate with the "/2" at the end is intended for a second vehicle owned by the holder of the call sign.
Starting in the latter part of 2008, amateur radio plates were made completely flat, with blue features on a white background. Although the shade of blue is a bit darker, the flat radio plates otherwise mimic the all-embossed version, even including the blue border around the outside edge of the plate. Since mid-year 2011, they're once again being made with embossed characters.
Both standard handicapped plates and 100% disabled veteran plates can be found with their identifying serial letters used as either prefixes or suffixes. Standard handicapped plates originally had four variable digits, first in serial format HD0000 and then in format 0000HD, but these were both exhausted, and presently the H/D00000 is being issued. 100% disabled veteran plates have been made in serial formats D/V0000, 0000D/V, and now x000D/V, with a variable first letter.
Both types of handicapped plates may be had with vanity registration numbers. Handicapped and 100% disabled veteran plates have both always been made with blue characters on the First in Flight base, and sequentially-numbered versions have always had embossed serial characters.
Handicapped motorcycle plates, both standard and vanity, are addressed in the motorcycle plate section, below.
Partially disabled veterans also have a distinct plate type, but if I had one to show you, it would rightfully go in the restricted special interest plate section, since it does not have a wheelchair graphic. Also, it costs $10 extra to get a partially disabled veteran plate. For these reasons, they're rarely issued or seen.)
Handicapped persons have the option of obtaining either a handicapped license plate, or standard plates with a long-term handicapped placard to be hung from the vehicle's inside rear view mirror. For unknown reasons, the vast majority of North Carolina handicapped motorists choose the placard.
Motorcycle plate numbers advance like an odometer, so the left-most digit is the last to change. These were originally all numeric; once 999,999 motorcycles were registered, a new serial format 0x0000 was begun. In this format, the left-most digit started at 1. After the 1A series came the 1B series, after the 1Z series came the 2A series, etc. However, after the 3H series, the state mistakenly made and issued motorcycle plates in the 4H and 5H series before resuming the original sequence by next issuing 3J series plates. Motorcycle plate dimensions are 7 inches wide by 4 inches high.
These cardboard plates are issued by car dealers to their customers who have purchased vehicles and are not transfering the plate from another vehicle. These plates provide time for the DMV to mail the vehicle owner their new permanent metal plate and registration papers.
Until mid-year 2010, temporary plates were of the design shown above left, with large serial numbers. Since then, beginning at about serial number 17600000, a redesigned temporary plate is being issued, as shown above right. On this new plate, the serial number is much smaller and occupies the bottom half of the plate. A place for the expiration date has been greatly increased in size and relocated to the upper half of the plate. The state name has also been moved to the bottom edge of the plate, to bring it into conformance with all other North Carolina plates.
(Since these are pretty easily to duplicate, I've chosen to pixelate the plate number of the current-design temporary plate, so that someone doesn't use this photo as the basis for a fake plate that could be traced back to the motorist to whom the plate was issued.)
All plate types that use stickers to indicate the expiration date use the same type and color of stickers. Month stickers are white on red, and include the month number and the letters "NC", which are stacked vertically on the left. If you look at the various numeric month stickers on this page, you'll notice that they did not use a consistent font for the month number. Older month stickers indicated the month alphabetically with three or four letters, and included the letters "NC" horizontally on the bottom. Sometimes month stickers become quite faded over time, but I haven't noticed any discernable patterns.
Current and recent year sticker colors are as follows:
|2004 –||white on orange sticker||2008 –||white on blue sticker||2012 –||white on red sticker|
|2005 –||white on light blue sticker||2009 –||white on purple sticker||2013 –||white on blue sticker|
|2006 –||white on red sticker||2010 –||white on green sticker||2014 –||white on green sticker|
|2007 –||white on green sticker||2011 –||white on yellow sticker||2015 –||white on hot pink sticker|
Year stickers feature a prominent state outline with the letters "NC" inside; the year itself is relegated to the lower left corner of the sticker. The sticker serial number is placed in a white box found at the bottom of the sticker, to the right of the year. Some 1997 year stickers, and all year stickers since 1998, are printed with the serial number of the plate they were issued to. This is done to minimize sticker theft and fraud. A minority of 2004 year stickers had a problem with the orange color fading to the point of appearing to be white. When this happened, though, the plate number printed on the year sticker in black did not fade. The 2000 and 2005 stickers were colored white on light blue, and were rather difficult to make out due to the low contrast between the two colors. The 2009 stickers were white on purple, the 2011 stickers were white on yellow, and the 2015 stickers are white on hot pink, all colors not previously seen on North Carolina registration stickers. The 2011 stickers also had significant legibility issues.
Related pages on this site
Elsewhere on the web
Thanks to those who have directly contributed to the information on this page: Mike Fox, Neal Reid, Kenny O'Dell, Steven Kretschmer, Richard Baucom, George Kunsman, John Weeks, and Neal Adkins.
Fox, O'Dell, and Weeks photos are presumed to be copyrighted by Mike Fox, Kenny O'Dell, and John Weeks, respectively, and are used with permission. S. Kretschmer plate was once registered to Steven Kretschmer. Kunsman and Sowers plates are from the collections of George Kunsman and Brandon Sowers, respectively.
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