This page presents the history of North Carolina passenger car license plates, from the 1956 plate through the present day.
Latest noteworthy updates to this page
This page addresses sequentially-numbered North Carolina passenger car plates dated from 1956 to the present. From 1927 until 1980, North Carolina license plates displayed the year of issuance. Plates and/or stickers supposedly expired each December 31, but a 46-day grace period effectively extended the registration period through February 15 of the following year. The last non-staggered passenger car registrations were indicated either by a dated 1980 plate, or a 1980 sticker, both of which were valid through February 15, 1981. Staggered registrations were first issued in January 1981, and the earliest expirations were indicated as the end of August 1981, but with a 15-day grace period that extended the registration to September 15, 1981. North Carolina has consistently issued single passenger plates since 1956.
Let me start out by saying that I generally don't collect North Carolina license plates, except in cases where I need them as part of a set. (For example, I have a 1959 N.C. plate in my collection as part of my 1959 U.S. passenger plate set.) Therefore, unlike most pages on this web site, very few of the plates shown here are actually from my collection, and I haven't meticulously identified each plate that's not from my collection. However, unless noted otherwise, I did photograph all plates shown.
So why do I even have North Carolina plate pages on my web site? Well, I've lived in North Carolina since 2001, and so I've become very familiar with the current plates from daily observation. As a collector, I also regularly encounter some of the more common North Carolina plate types from the past few decades. There's also not a whole lot of information already on the web regarding North Carolina license plate history. While I make no claim of being an expert on North Carolina plates, I do feel like I can make a contribution by documenting what I do know.
My "Pictorial History" pages are intended to be a supplement to the information found in the ALPCA Archives. I am providing additional details and additional photos not found in the archives, and clarifying information when appropriate. When the ALPCA archives cover a subject in great detail, I do not repeat that detail here. I sincerely hope that you find this information useful.
If you find an error or have additional information, or can provide a plate or a photo of a plate that I'm missing, please send me an e-mail. There's a link to my e-mail address at the bottom of every page. Please note that all plates shown that are credited to another person are plates that I am still seeking for my own collection.
Beginning in 1956, North Carolina began a new numbering scheme for its passenger car plates. The serial numbers consisted of one or two letters, followed by one to four numeric digits; lead zeroes were not used. In other words, serial formats x-0, x-00, x-000, x-0000, xx-0, xx-00, xx-000, and xx-0000 were all used for passenger cars. Due to the number of possible combinations, format xx-0000 was by far the most common. All of these formats were used on passenger car plates through 1972. 1956 also was the first year for North Carolina to adopt the North American standard 12 inch by 6 inch plate dimensions. For these reasons, 1956 is a good point to start this history page.
Plate colors alternated between black-on-yellow in even years, and yellow-on-black in odd years, through 1966. The location of the state name, the year, and the safety slogan Drive Safely were consistent from 1956 to 1960, and then varied over the subsequent years. The slogan was last used in 1963. Also, the presense or absence of a painted border, and the number of digits in the year, varied during the last few years in this time period. The idea was apparently to make each year's plate a little different looking than the plates from any previous years, perhaps to keep people from trying to use a prior year plate, with the year altered or covered in some way, in place of a current year plate. I suspect these deceptive practices may have become a problem during 1958, 1959, and 1960.
For 1967, North Carolina introduced plates with reflective backgrounds. The reflective sheeting applied to the bare metal plates was white in color, so beginning this year all North Carolina passenger car plates have had a white background. Or at least they once had a white background; the sheeting on many of these 1967-1974 plates has become badly mottled and/or discolored to an ugly yellowish-gray color. The embossed areas of these plates continued to be painted; the color alternated between green and red, with the exception of the 1972 plate which used blue. Again, the location of the state name and year, and the number of digits in the year varied in order to make each year's plate a little different looking than the plates from any previous years.
The serial number formats introduced in 1956 continued through 1972. A new format xxx-000 was introduced in 1973 and replaced all of the previous passenger car formats. In this new format, lead zeroes were again not used, nor was the number 100, so each three-letter alpha series consisted of plate numbers 101 through 999 only. In all likelikhood, serial letters G, I, O, Q, and U were also avoided. Note that also beginning in 1973, non-passenger plate types began using serial format xx-0000, which had become available since it was no longer being used for passenger cars.
|1967 –||green on reflective white||1971 –||green on reflective white|
|1968 –||red on reflective white||1972 –||blue on reflective white|
|1969 –||green on reflective white||1973 –||red on reflective white|
|1970 –||red on reflective white||1974 –||green on reflective white|
North Carolina's first multi-year base plate was issued in 1975. It was colored red on reflective white, and used serial format xxx-000, which had been introduced on the 1973 plate. Serial numbers in each letter combination began at 101. The reflective sheeting quality issues had apparently been resolved, and these plates have held up much better over the years than the 1967-1974 plates.
The legend First in Freedom along the top edge of the plate proved to be the source of controversy, confusion, and irony. The 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Indepenence, in which the 13 American colonies declared themselves to be free from the tyranny of the British crown, was rapidly approaching. Several U.S. jurisdictions had already issued license plates commemorating the 1976 Bicentennial of this event and the birth of the U.S. as a nation. In response, North Carolina proclaimed themselves to be "First in Freedom" on their 1975 license plates. This slogan was a vague reference to the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775, in which Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (in which the city of Charlotte is located) had declared its independence from Britain. This subtlety was, of course, completely lost on most people. On the contrary, nearly everyone was very much aware that slavery had been legal and practiced in North Carolina until 1865, making it among the last states to actually offer freedom to all of its residents.
During 1975 this plate was used without stickers, as the year "75" was positioned vertically between the serial letters and numbers. This same date also appeared on plates newly issued in 1976, 1977, 1978, and possibly early 1979. Validation stickers were used for both new registrants and renewals during these years. In late 1978 or early 1979, upon reaching serial PMZ-999, this plate was discontinued, in no small part due to the slogan controversy. There seems to be disagreement among sources exactly when this plate stopped being issued. In any event, at least some of these "Freedom" plates continued to be renewed with stickers through 1985.
Between 1981 and 1985, all First in Freedom plates were phased out and replaced with either sloganless red-on-white plates (1981-1982) or new graphic First in Flight plates (1982-1985). As near as I can tell, "Freedom" plates starting with letters A through H were replaced as they expired in 1981 and 1982, and "Freedom" plates with first letters J through P were replaced approximately in 1985. Or something like that.
For a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, several different red-on-white base plates were issued to new registrants. None of them bore the controversial First in Freedom slogan, nor any other legend for that matter.
In about early 1979, starting with serial PNA-101, North Carolina began issuing a revised plate without the slogan or the now out-of-date embossed year. This plate had a small square separator in place of the previous "75" year in the center of the plate. Where the slogan had been, along the top edge, the new plate just had a big blank space. Otherwise, this plate was pretty much the same as the 1975 base. Being an undated plate, stickers were used to validate it even during the first year of issuance. This plain base was issued throughout 1979 and possibly into early 1980, and I believe it could be renewed through 1986 or so.
The embossed year 1980 was added to the plate in the blank space at the top center where the First in Freedom base had once been. Otherwise, the 1980 plate was identical visually to the undated plate. The 1980 plate was used without stickers during 1980, and I believe could be renewed through about 1989.
Versions with embossed 1981 and 1982 dates were also issued; however, both of these differ from previous bases in that the state name runs across the top of the plate, and the year is at the bottom center. Stickers therefore had to go in the bottom corners on these two bases. Also, on both the 1981 and 1982 plates, the state name is embossed with the taller dies that had been used from 1964 through 1974. Due to the implementation of staggered registrations at the beginning of 1981, all dated 1981 and 1982 plates were issued with month and year expiration stickers. However, the taller state name at the top of these bases meant there was not enough room at the bottom of these plates for the stickers to fit properly. These plates could be renewed through 1991.
Based on the ranges of serials issued on each base, the numbers would indicate that the 1980 base was actually issued well into 1981, and the 1981 base was only issued for a few months in 1981. The 1982 was actually introduced in the fall of 1981, but it too was short-lived, since it was discontinued as the graphic First in Flight plate made its debut in the spring of 1982.
Motorists renewing their registrations for 1981 were assigned staggered expiration dates based on the first letter of their last name. Initial staggered registration periods started in January 1981 and expired between August 1981 and July 1982. However, new registrations issued between July and December 1980 were all renewed for 1981 with an initial expiraiton date of June 1981. Month stickers were issued for the first time indicating the expiration month, and the 1981 and subsequent year stickers indicated the expiration year rather than the registration year. The dated 1981 and 1982 base plates were always issued with both month and year stickers since the expiration date was no longer fixed.
|1975 –||no sticker||Natural serial letter range AAA to approx. H series.|
|1976 –||white-on-blue sticker||Natural serial letter range approx. H to K series.|
|1977 –||white-on-red sticker||Natural serial letter range approx. K to M series.|
|1978 –||white-on-green sticker||Natural serial letter range approx. M to P series.|
|1979 –||black-on-orange sticker||Natural serial letter range approx. P to S series.|
|1980 –||white-on-black sticker||Natural serial letter range approx. S to V series. (1980 sticker not used on dated 1980 base plates)|
|1981 –||white-on-blue sticker||(No naturals due to start of staggered registrations; renewals only; Jun. and Aug. to Nov. expiration months only.)|
|1982 –||white-on-red sticker||Natural serial letter range approx. W to Y series.|
|1983 –||white-on-blue sticker||Natural serial letter range approx. Y series to ZRZ on this base.|
|1984 through 1991 –||No naturals, renewals only; see subsequent sections for sticker colors, latest possible renewal year is 1991.|
For about the first three years, from mid-1982 to mid-1985, graphic First in Flight plates all had five or six serial characters. The formats issued were xxx-00 and xxx-000. In the case of the five-character plates, early issues had no spaces before or after the square separator, and so the serial characters were bunched in the middle of the plate, while later issues did have spaces and the serial was spread out across the whole plate.
The sequence in which these plates were issued is somewhat convoluted. Initially, serial numbers picked up where the red-on-white 1982 base plate had left off, starting with plate ZSA-101, and continued until ZZZ-999 was reached. Again, plate numbers in each letter combination began at 101. Then, five-character plates and six-character plates with the number 100 were issued. It's a matter of debate among plate historians whether these were issued simultaneoulsy or whether the number 100 plates were issued only after all the five-character combinations had been issued. In either event, serials started with AAA-11 and inexplicably ended at about XZZ-100. Plate numbers in each letter combination began at 11 on the five-character plates. Finally, six-character plates were issued starting at AAA-101 and ending at JAY-999 in mid-1985, again with each letter combination having an initial number of 101. At this point, no further six-character plates could be issued, because the remaining numbers were still in use on the red-on-white 1975-1982 base plates.
Although North Carolina passenger plates had had reflective backgrounds since 1967, some First in Flight plates in the six-character B, C, and D series were painted, rather than made of reflective sheeting. There were two versions of painted plates – the earlier version in the B and C series on which the blades of grass cannot be seen behind the words North Carolina, and the later verison in the C and D series where the blades of grass are visible through the red paint of the state name. However, there were not clean start and end points for these painted plates; reflective background plates were intermingled with the painted plates, sequence-wise.
The last possible expiration month for older "Flight"
plates was July 2008.
The five- and six-character plates could be renewed until sometime in mid-2007. Beginning April 16, 2007, they were supposed to all be replaced with new, red-character First in Flight plates and removed from service, rather than renewed. Mostly, they were. However, some motorists with plates slated for replacement were nevertheless issued 2008 renewal stickers for their old plates, even though their previous registration expired in May, June, or even July 2007. Therefore, the latest expiration stickers that should be found on these plates is July 2008, and these old plates should have been off the road by August 16, 2008. Thanks to plate spotter Mike Fox, who has followed these developments much closer than I have, and who even sent me a photo he managed to snap of what will be one of the very last 6 digit plates on the road, one indicating a July 2008 expiration, shown at right.
|1983 –||white-on-blue sticker||Natural serial ranges: 6-character ZSA to ZZZ; all 5-character serials; then 6-character approx. A series.|
|1984 –||white-on-red sticker||Natural serial range: 6-character approx. B to D series.|
|1985 –||white-on-blue sticker||Natural serial range: 6-character approx. D to F series.|
|1986 –||white-on-black sticker||Natural serial range: 6-character approx. F series to JAY.|
|1987 through 2008 –||No naturals, renewals only; see subsequent section for sticker colors, latest possible expiration should be July 2008.|
First in Flight graphic plates with seven blue serial characters were issued continously from mid-1985 until April 2007, when red serial character plates were introduced. The serial format is xxx-0000. The first plate number issued was ANA-1001, because the second letter of these plates is limited to the range of N through Z. Why exactly this is so has been a long-running mystery among plate historians. Also, the letters G, I, O, Q, and U are avoided, and in each 3-letter combination, numbering starts at 1001 and goes up to 9999. The last blue-character plate issued is reported to be in the upper WTF-1000 series. I've personally seen them as high as plate number WTF-1956 myself.
Older seven-character plates starting with letters A through H were also replaced with red character plates as they expired between about April 2007 and July 2008. J-series plates were replaced with red character plates as they expired between June 2008 and May 2009. Therefore, the oldest remaining plates on the road are seven-character, blue letter K-series plates, but these are in the process of being replaced during 2010.
|1986 –||white-on-black sticker||Natural serial letter range: A series on this base, starting at ANA-1001.|
|1987 –||white-on-red sticker||Natural serial letter range: A to B series.|
|1988 –||white-on-green sticker||Natural serial letter range: B to C series.|
|1989 –||black-on-orange sticker||Natural serial letter range: includes the C series.|
|1990 –||white-on-blue sticker||Natural serial letter range: not determined.|
|1991 –||white-on-black sticker||Natural serial letter range: not determined.|
|1992 –||white-on-red sticker||Natural serial letter range: D to E series.|
|1993 –||white-on-green sticker||Natural serial letter range: not determined.|
|1994 –||white-on-orange sticker||Natural serial letter range: not determined.|
|1995 –||white-on-blue sticker||Natural serial letter range: includes the H series.|
|1996 –||white-on-black sticker||Natural serial letter range: H to J series.|
|1997 –||white-on-red sticker||Natural serial letter range: J to K series.|
|1998 –||white-on-green sticker||Natural serial letter range: includes the K series.|
|1999 –||white-on-orange sticker||Natural serial letter range: includes the L series.|
|2000 –||white-on-light-blue sticker||Natural serial letter range: L to M series.|
|2001 –||white-on-black sticker||Natural serial letter range: M to N series.|
|2002 –||white-on-red sticker||Natural serial letter range: N to P series.|
|2003 –||white-on-pale-green sticker||Natural serial letter range: P to R series.|
|2004 –||white-on-orange sticker||Natural serial letter range: R to S series.|
|2005 –||white-on-light-blue sticker||Natural serial letter range: S to T series.|
|2006 –||white-on-red sticker||Natural serial letter range: T to V series.|
|2007 –||white-on-green sticker||Natural serial letter range: V to W series.|
|2008 –||white-on-blue sticker||Natural serial letter range: W series to mid-WTF on this base.|
|2009 and beyond –||No naturals, renewals only; see subsequent sections for sticker colors.|
North Carolina officially began issuing otherwise familiar First in Flight plates with red serial characters on April 16, 2007. A small number of these plates were issued early, during March and the first half of April, at some DMV locations that had run out of blue-character plates prematurely. The serial format continues unchanged, and serial numbers began where the blue-character plates ended, as fate would have it, somewhere in the middle of the WTF series. The lowest red-character plate I've seen is WTF-4338. However, I've seen a photo that shows part of a red-character plate in the WTF-2000 series.
The specific reason, if any, for this color change was not entirely clear. Various DMV employees who addressed this question in the media didn't seem to really know, either, and suggested reasons that clearly were not correct. For example, one DMV representative stated that the change was made because the blue paint faded too quickly. This is certainly not the case, with the exception of a relatively small batch of plates issued in 1983. In fact, the color red is actually much more prone to fading than blue, and even unfaded, is harder to read from a distance than blue.
I believe that the actual reason for the color change was related to the replating initiative. The intent was probably to continue replacing blue-character plates with red-character plates until there were no more of them left on the road.
In March 2009, the N.C. DMV announced that it was discontinuing using red serial letters and numbers on its standard and vanity First in Flight license plates. Existing red-numbered sequential plates would continue to be distributed until they were gone from inventory, which was projected to be in October 2009. 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.
However, another contributing factor may have been that the replating project is dependent on being funded by the state legislature each fiscal year. In late 2008 and early 2009, the state began experiencing severe budget shortfalls, and therefore the blue-character plates were probably not going to disappear any time soon, anyway. The replating effort was interrupted during the first half of the 2009-2010 fiscal year, and resumed in early 2010.
As anticipated, new blue-character plates began being issued in October 2009. However, apparently all DMV offices didn't run out of red-character plates at the same time. As a result, some offices continued to issue remaining stocks of red-character plates at least into January 2010, with natural January 2011 expirations. The highest red-character plate number I've seen had plate number ZND-9365.
|2008 –||white-on-blue sticker||Natural serial letter range: mid-WTF to X series on this base.|
|2009 –||white-on-purple sticker||Natural serial letter range: X to Y series.|
|2010 –||white-on-green sticker||Natural serial letter range: Y series to approx. ZND on this base.|
|2011 –||white-on-yellow sticker||Very few naturals on this base, in very late Y zeries to approx. ZND, likely with January expirations only.|
|2012 and beyond –||No naturals, renewals only; see subsequent section for sticker colors.|
Blue-character First in Flight standard passenger car plates resumed being issued in October 2009. The lowest serial number I've seen so far is ZNE-1380. These plates are visually identical to the blue-character plates that were issued between 1985 and 2007.
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 reissued. 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.
In late 2013, some new plates began to be issued with an orange sticker with a large black "T" in place of the normal year sticker. The North Carolina DMV has begun collecting vehicle property taxes at the time of registration, instead of the counties sending motorists a separate bill for the tax months later. For newly purchased vehicles, the state allows motorists to defer paying the property tax for up to 60 days after the vehicle is titled and registered. Newly-registered vehicles for which the property tax is not paid get these orange "T" stickers, which indicate a temporary 60-day registration. Once the property tax has been paid, the motorist receives a normal year sticker to affix to the plate.
Effective May 26, 2015, the DMV began issuing plain black-on-white expiration stickers showing both the expiration month and year on a single sticker, and ceased issuing the separate white-on-red month stickers and colored year stickers bearing the state shape that had been used for decades. In general, newly-issued plates will have only the single month-year sticker affixed in the upper right corner, while existing plates being revalidated for another year will also still have the old red month sticker visible in the upper left corner. This results in there being two distinctly different 2016 stickers, the white-on-black year-only sticker issued prior to May 26, and the black-on-white month/year sticker issued since May 26. Although rare, some plain black-on-white stickers are also being made with 2015 expirations, in cases where lost or stolen plates are being replaced but retain their original expiration date.
Since July 1, 2015, motorists now have a choice between two standard-issue plate designs, the familiar First in Flight plates, or a new First in Freedom design. The Freedom plates are addressed separately, below. Apparently, both designs will be offered for the forseeable future.
|2010 –||white-on-green sticker||Natural serial letter range: approx. ZNE to ZPx series on this base.|
|2011 –||white-on-yellow sticker||Natural serial letter range: approx. ZRx series to ZZZ, then AAx series.|
|2012 –||white-on-red sticker||Natural serial letter range: approx. ABx to AKx series.|
|2013 –||white-on-blue sticker||Natural serial letter range: approx. ALx series to AMZ, then BAA to BFx series, plus BKK, BKL, and CDB.|
|2014 –||white-on-green sticker||Natural serial letter range: approx. BHx series to BMZ, then CAA to CDx series, excluding BKK, BKL, and CDB.|
|2015 –|| white-on-hot-pink sticker
|Natural serial letter range: approx. CEx series to CMZ, then DAA to DBx series. Month stickers and white-on-pink year stickers issued prior to May 26, 2015. Black-on-white month/year stickers issued starting May 26, 2015, but only in rare instances where a new plate is issued as a replacement for an existing plate, retaining the expiration date of the old plate.|
|2016 –|| white-on-black sticker
|Natural serial letter range: approx. DCx series and up. Month stickers and white-on-black year stickers issued prior to May 26, 2015. Black-on-white month/year stickers issued starting May 26, 2015.|
On July 1, 2015, the North Carolina DMV introduced a new First in Freedom plate, which is a second standard plate design available at no extra cost. Motorists may now choose between the familiar First in Flight design or the new First in Freedom design.
Apparently, the state forgot, or didn't care, about the controversy surrounding the First in Freedom slogan used on plates issued between 1975 and 1978. They've made it a bit more clear what the slogan refers to this time, with the addition of two dates: May 20, 1775 and April 12, 1776. These two dates, which also appear on the state flag, represent the dates that the Mecklenburg Declaration and Halifax Resolves were passed. These two resolutions declared Mecklenburg County and the entire colony of North Carolina, respectively, to be independent from Great Britian.
Freedom plates use the same numbering format as do Flight plates, but plate numbers began at PAA-1001. I have no idea why they chose to begin in the P series. No doubt, once PMZ-9999 is issued, a new letter seriers will begin, as Flight plates in the PNA through PZZ series were issued in 2001-2002 and are still in use. Since this plate design was introduced over a month after the plain black-on-white expiration stickers made their debut, all Freedom plates should have these new stickers.
|2015 –||black-on-white sticker||Natural serial letter range: PAA series and up. Only issued with 2015 expirations when issued as a replacement for an existing plate, retaining the expiration date of the old plate.|
|2016 –||black-on-white sticker||Natural serial letter range: PAA series and up.|
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Thanks to those who have directly contributed to the information on this page: Mike Fox, Todd Long, Christopher Jackson, Richard Baucom, Judy Beard, Steve Weddington, Pete Madsen, Neal Adkins, Craig Frazier, and Paul Casadonte.
Fox, Long, Jackson, Beard, Weddington, Madsen, Frazier, and Casadonte photos are presumed to be copyrighted by Mike Fox, Todd Long, Christopher Jackson, Judy Beard, Steve Weddington, Pete Madsen, Craig Frazier, and Paul Casadonte, respectively, and are used with permission.
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