Pennsylvania government or emergency license plate

Rick Kretschmer's License Plate Archives 

Pennsylvania government or emergency license plate

A Pictorial History of Pennsylvania License Plates

Government-owned vehicle and emergency vehicle plates, 1920s to present


This page addresses the history of Pennsylvania license plates used on government-owned vehicles, and those issued to non-government emergency vehicles, such as commercial ambulances or those owned by non-profit volunteer fire companies and rescue squads. 

Latest noteworthy updates to this page
  • February 29, 2024  –  Added photos of a circa 1990s Emergency Vehicles (plural) plate, a current undated Emergency Vehicle plate with the state map outline in the upper left corner, and a circa 1980s Pennsylvania State University official vehicle plate.  Upgraded late-1950s/early 1960s state government vehicle plate.  Added discussions of 1931-35 Department of Highways plates as well as all types of plates on this page transitioning to the solid-band "Visa card" base. 
  • July 29, 2016  –  Brand new page! 


This page addresses the history of Pennsylvania license plates spcifically intended for use on government-owned vehicles and non-government emergency vehicles, such as commercial ambulances or those owned by non-profit volunteer fire companies and rescue squads. 

Government-owned vehicles are known in some instances to use other, non-government-specific license plates.  Apparently this was always the case from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, but even today, it's common for government-owned buses, for example, to display bus, omnibus, school bus, or mass transit plates, as appropriate, rather than municipal goverment or "official use" state government plates.  Why this is done, I have no idea.  In such instances, the plate will often be used with either a "permanent" sticker affixed, or with no expiration sticker at all.  However, I don't attempt to address such plates on this page; they're already discussed on my various other Pennsylvania plate history pages. 

This page does not attempt to cover plates issued to specfic elected or appointed government officials.  I will develop that topic sometime in the future, either as an addition to this page or as its own separate page.  Neither does this page address the numerous "bread loaf" plates, that is, unnumbered plates with state crests, usually on a raised portion of the plate that's shaped like a loaf of bread.  These have been and still are used on both government-owned vehicles and government officials' personal vehicles.  I may address such plates as a future project, but I'm much more interested in actual vehicle registration plates than unnumbered front plates. 

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. 

Pennsylvania generic government-owned vehicle plates

I define "generic" government plates as those that don't identify a specfic government agency.  Most Pennsylvania government plates are generic, but there are a few state universities that have their own specific plates.  Those are addressed in a separate section below. 

Government-owned vehicle plates, 1924-1938

(no picture available)

Another plate historian has uncovered evidence that state-owned vehicles were issued 1924 plates with numbering format 000-S, and in fact, such plates are known to exist.  There's no text on these plates that identifies what type of vehicle they were issued to.  It's unknown how state-owned vehicle plates might have been designated in 1925. 

Generic state-owned vehicle plates have had the word Official stamped on them from at least 1926 forward.  Between 1925 or 1926 to 1935, the word Official was located along the bottom edge, with the state abberviation Penna and the four-digit year displayed vertically along the left and right edges of the plate, respectively. 

I've recently (early 2024) become aware of the existence of agency-specific Department of Highways plates, which are reported to have been issued only between 1931 and 1935.  These have the text Dept of Hwys along the bottom in place of the generic "Official". 

In 1936, the text on the generic government plates was changed to read Official Use Only, and the state abberviation and year were reduced to two characters each.  Then in 1937, the plate design was changed to resemble passenger car plates, with the state map outline. The plate text was shortened back to just Official, and it was located across the top of the plate, flanked by the two-character state abvreviation and year displayed horizontally. 

No distinct plates for state government vehicles are known to have existed between 1939 and 1955.  Instead, I've read numerous reports and seen photographic evidence that state government vehicles were issued ordinary passenger car, truck, or other appropriate plates during these years.  Apparently, state government cars were consistently issued five-digit, all-numeric plate numbers, but such plates were issued to private citizens as well. 


Government-owned vehicle plates, circa 1956-1964
1958-64? state government
Late 1950s / early 1960s
state government vehicle,
version 2

After an absense of nearly two decades, license plates specifically intended for state-owned vehicles apparently made their return around 1956 or so.  These Official Use Only plates had dark yellow features, including a large keystone, on a unique light blue background, never used for this or any other Pennsylvania plate type before or since.  As far as I know, all of these plates had that standard 12 inch by 6 inch dimensions introduced in 1956, but the first version had thick serial dies otherwise last used in 1956.  The second version, shown at left, used dies introduced in mid-year 1957.  Both versions used the thick border state map die also used on version 1 dated 1956 plates and on 1965-1970 special number passenger car plates. 


Government-owned vehicle plates, circa 1965-1971
1965-71? state government
Mid-to-late 1960s state
government vehicle,version 1

1971 state government
Late 1960s / early 1970s
state government vehicle,
version 2

There were two versions of state government plates similar to other non-passenger plates used from 1965 to 1971.  The first version somewhat resembled 1967-1970 dealer and motor vehicle business plates.  This version introduced the PA serial prefix letters, followed by a four-digit serial number.  I've heard that plate number PA-9999 was reached and then a second format with a four-digit number followed by suffix letters PA was issued; however, I've never seen one of these. 

The second version with the distorted state map outline and the sticker box in the lower left corner resembled various 1968-1971 non-passenger plate types such as commercial (truck), bus, and trailer plates.  This version had five-digit serial numbers, and a shortened version of the plate type legend that simply read Official Use

Every example I've seen of the other plate types with the distorted state map either are early versions with the debossed year "68" in the sticker box, or later versions with nothing in the sticker box.  I was surprised when I acquired this distorted map state government plate, which has an etched "71" in the sticker box, visible from the rear of the plate.  I supposed this indicates that the subsequent blue-background base wasn't introduced until 1972 or later. 

I don't know whether the version 1 plates were replaced with the version 2 plates, or whether both versions were used simultaneously.  At least some of the version 2 plates used the same black-on-red "permanent" stickers as were used on fire department vehicle plates. 


Government-owned vehicle plates, circa 1972-1977

Government plates of this era use the same  yellow on navy  colors and other features as did other 1972-1977 non-passenger plates, except that they did not have sticker wells or any year etched on the plate.  These plates were used without any registration or expiration stickers. 

1972-77? state government
Mid-1970s state government
"Official Use" state government vehicles

State government plates continued with the PA-00000 numbering format and the Official Use designation.  I'm not aware of there being any state government motorcycle plates. 

1972-77? municipal government
Mid-1970s municipal
government vehicle
Municipal government vehicles (full-sized plates)

Apparently starting approximately in 1972, Pennsylvania introduced a new plate type for municipal government vehicles.  These plates used numbering format MG-00000 and had the text Municipal across the top.  Municipal plates were issued to most or all types of vehicles owned by counties, cities, towns, villages, boroughs, townships, school districts, etc., with the major exception of fire department vehicles, which already had their own type, described further down this page.  I don't know what type of plate non-fire, municipal-owned vehciles were issued prior to they introduction of this plate type.  I believe they were issued regular car, truck, bus, trailer, etc. plates. 

Municipal government motorcycles

Municipal motorcycle plates were introduced in the mid-1970s, in 1974 according to one report.  Most typically, these were used on police motorcycles.  Municipal motorcycle plates have always been 4 1/2 inches by 8 inches and have the state map outline.  First-generation plates from the mid-1970s had the text Municipal at the top and Penna at the bottom, and used serial format MG000


Government-owned vehicle plates, circa 1978-2021

Government plates colored  navy on reflective white  replaced the yellow-on-navy plates.  Though these are commonly referred to as 1977 plates, I suspect they were actually introduced in 1978.  Most navy-on-reflective-yellow non-passenger plate types were introduced in 1978 but are mistakenly called 1977 plates.  Aside from the white rather than yellow background and the lack of sticker wells and registration or expiration stickers, these look just like 1978-base non-passenger plates.  The state name was moved to the top of the plate and the plate type to the bottom. 

"Official Use" state government vehicles

State government plates again used the the PA-00000 numbering format and the Official Use designation.  These continued to be used at least, through 2021, though in later years they were only rarely seen.  These were issued singly and were used for all types of state-owned vehicles.  I'm not aware of there being any state government motorcycle plates. 

1978-present municipal government
Late-1970s / early 1980s
municipal government
vehicle (plate owner
kept confidential)
Municipal government vehicles (full-sized plates)

Municipal government plates again used numbering format MG-00000.  Although rarely seen in later yesrs, these remained valid for use through at least 2021. 

Municipal government motorcycles

Municipal motorcycle plates issue between about 1978 and 1984 were colored navy-on-reflective-white and had the legends Penna at the top and Municipal at the bottom.  Initially, the serial format was MG000, and then later was 000MG.  At some point, the plates with format MG000 were replaced; however, those with format 000MG remained in use for many decades. 


Government-owned vehicle plates, circa 1984-2021

At about the time that regular Pennsylvania plates switched from yellow to blue backgrounds in the mid-1980s, newly-issued government vehicle plates also reversed colors to  reflective white on navy .  This color scheme continued to be issued for nearly four decades, although there were minor changes throughout this time.  As far as I know, these plates all had the state name along the bottom of the plate, and a sticker well in the lower left corner, which of course was never used. 

1984-present state government
State government
non-passenger vehicle,
version 1 (plate owner
kept confidential)
"Official Use" and so-called "Commerical" state government vehicles

State government plates start to get a bit complicated on this base.  All of them used either prefix or suffix letters PA

State government plates issued to trucks, trailers, etc. continued the PA-00000 numbering format from the previous, white-background base, with numbering starting in the mid PA-50000 series, above the highest number issued on that base.  These plates had the text Official Use at the top, and were issued as single plates.  Plate number PA-99999 was issued in about 2009, necessitating an additional format, described below. 

State government plates issued to cars were assigned a different format 00000-PA.  These also said Official Use at the top, but were issued in pairs and displayed on both the front and back of vehicles. 

In 2009, after plate number PA-99999 was issued, new state government trucks, trailers, etc. were issued plates with a new format PA-0000x.  The suffix letter advances after all the numeric digits.  These were also issued as single plates.  Most of these had the text Official Use at the top. 

However, about a thousand plates issued in 2010 and 2011, with plate numbers ranging from PA-1500A to PA-2499A, instead had the text Commercial at the top.  This is rather baffling, as there no indication other than the "PA" serial prefix and plate colors that these are government vehicle plates; in fact, the term "commercial" implied just the opposite, that the vehicle was being used for commerce, that is, by a for-profit business entity of some kind.  I think the state's intent was to identify that the plates were intended for non-passenger state vehicles.  Before trucks became popular for personal use, they were often refered to as "commercial vehicles" regardless of their actual usage.  Today, however, the term "commercial vehicle" is taken more literally, and is commonly understood to mean a vehicle of any type used in a for-profit enterprise. 

Pennsylvania quickly reconsidered its use of this confusing designation on its state government-owned vehicle plates, because in 2011, the legend Official Use resumed being used on newly-issued plates of this type.  However, the Commercial plates were not recalled and remained in use. 

1984-present municipal government
government vehicle,
version 3 (plate owner
kept confidential)

1984-present municipal government
government vehicle,
version 4
(plate in actual use)
Municipal government vehicles (full-sized plates)

Municipal government plates initially continued with numbering format MG-00000, picking up where the previous base left off, at about plate number MG-92000.  The text Municipal was moved back to the top of the plate, using the same wide dies as previous bases.  The same numbering formats are issued to all vehicles getting municipal plates without regard to the vehicle type.  That is, with the obvious exception of motorcycles.  Municipal plates are only issued as singles. 

After MG-99999 was issued, the numering format flipped to 00000-MG.  The wide Municipal dies continued briefly, but were soon replaced with narrow, harder-to-read dies for reasons unknown. 

About 2003, the second format was also exhausted, and a third numbering format MG-0000x was introduced.  The same narrow dies were used for the plate type legend at the top.  The suffix letter advanced after all of the numeric digits. 

Municipal government motorcycles

Municipal motorcycle plates on this base have the legends Municipal at the top and Penna at the bottom.  The serial format was initially again MG000; however, this format was exhausted in about 2007, and a new format MG00x was introduced and issued for the remaining life of this base, up to the MG00E series.  Blue-background municipal motorcycle plates continued to be 4-1/2 inches by 8 inches in size and have the state map outline. 


Government-owned vehicle plates, circa 2021-present

As part of the state's effort to convert all plate types to the standard, "Visa card" design, government vehicle plates also began to be issued with this design in about 2021.  I believe, but am not certain, that the state replaced the the previous blue and white government plates at this time. 

"Official Use" state government vehicles

(no picture available)

Coinciding with the introduction of "Visa card" state government plates, several transportation-related state government agencies began using agency-specific plates.  Other state agencies use generic state government plates.  All of these state government plates display a graphic logo on the left side of the plate similar to organizational member plates issued to indiviual motorists, but otherwise have no text to identify the agency.  Instead, they all have the text Official Use along the bottom.  Most agency-specific plates have both passenger car and non-passenger vehicle types, as do the generic plates. 

This list summarizes the various state government plate types issued on the "Visa card" base (excluding state-related universities, which are covered in a subsequent section further down this page): 

Municipal government vehicles (full-sized plates)

(no picture available)

Municipal government plates have no logo on the "Visa card" base; numering format continues where it left off on the previous base, at about M/G 9000J, with the suffix letter variable.  There is no distinction between plates for cars vs. trucks.  Despite the available space on the plate, the prefix letters M/G are now stacked.  The legend Municipal Government is printed at the bottom. 

Municipal government motorcycles

(no picture available)

Municipal motorcycle plates on the "Visa card" base continue with the previous base's numbering format, but apparently started at M/G 00G, skipping suffix letter F for unknown reasons.  Like the corresponding full-sized plates, there's no logo, and therefore plenty of space for full-sized prefix letters, but they're nevertheless stacked on this base.  Plate dimensions are now the standard 4 inch by 7 inch size. 

Pennsylvania fire department and emergency vehicle plates

Fire Department plates were issued to firefighting and rescue apparatus, ambulances, and other vehicles such as fire chief cars.  As far as I know, these plates were issued to vehicles owned by either municipal government fire departments or non-profit fire companies and rescue squads.  Emergency Vehicle plates were and are issued not only to the same municipal and non-profit vehicle types, but also to commercial, for-profit ambulances. 

Please note that Fire Fighter plates with an embossed maltese cross, and graphic plates showing the logo and name of a specific fire company, are organizational member plates issued to individual firefighters for use on their personal vehicles.  See these on the History of Pennsylvania specialty plates page. 

Fire Department vehicles, circa 1968-2007
1968-2007 fire department
1968 fire department vehicle

Apparently in 1968, Pennsylvania began issuing distinct plates to firefighting apparatus.  Other than the colors, and the Fire Dept. legend at the top, these plates were of the same design as various non-passenger plate types introduced in 1968 with a wildly distorted state map outline.  Numbering format was always FD-00000.  Like most such plates, the plate shown at left has a debossed "68" in the sticker well under the undated Permanent sticker.  Probably later issues don't have the debossed "68".  Late issues have a dash separator rather than the keystone separator on the plate shown. 

I believe these plates were issued to all firefighting apparatus and vehicles, whether owned by cities, towns, or other municipalities, or by non-profit volunteer fire companies.  I believe they were also issued to ambulances and rescue apparatus owned by same, but not to commercial ambulances.  Unlike other 1968-era plate types, Fire Department plates continued to be issued and used well beyond the early 1970s; by one account, they were issued all the way to the mid 1980s.  I'm guessing they stopped issuing them when either the white-background or, more likely in my opinion, red-background Emergency Vehicle plates (described below) made their debut.  Those Fire Department plates still in use were finally replaced with tri-color, solid band Emergency Vehicle plates, also described below, in 2007. 

Emergency vehicles, circa 1978-2007
circa 1990s emergency vehicles (plural)
circa 1990s emergency
vehicles (plural)

Initially, emergency vehicle plates were made with a reflective white background and no sticker wells, similar to the late 1970s / early 1980s municipal and "official use" plates, but with embossed features painted red instead of blue.  The state name was at the top of the plate, and the text Emergency Vehicle ran the entire width of the plate along the bottom edge.  Numbering format was EV-00000, and numbering apparently began at EV-10000. 

Subsequently, probably in the mid-1980s or so, the colors were reversed on newly-issued emergency vehicle plates, to white features on a painted red background.  At the same time, the state name was moved to the bottom of the plate and the plate type text Emergency Vehicle was moved to the top.  Numbering continued from the previous version, starting in about the middle of the EV-10000 series.  Early issues were non-reflective and had no sticker well, but a short time later, the white areas were made reflective using glass beading, and the plates sprouted a sticker well in the lower left corner. 

Emergency vehicle plates numbered in the mid EV-20000 series inexplicably had the plate type text modified to the plural Emergency Vehicles, but those numbered in the upper EV-20000 series reverted back to the singular.  Numbering got up into the very low EV-30000 series before this design was discontinued in 2007. 

Most emergency vehicle plates were used without expiration stickers.  I believe those that were were used without stickers were issued to municipal fire departments; those that had stickers were issued to private, commercial ambulance companies.  I'm not sure whether non-profit volunteer fire companies would have had expiration stickers on their plates.  Sticker usage on these plates seems to be inconsistent and may have changed over the years. 

Emergency vehicles, 2007-present
2011 private emergency vehicle
2011 commercial emergency
(plate in actual use)

2017-present emergency vehicle
2017-present government
or non-profit emergency
(plate in actual use)

In 2007, Pennsylvania began issuing emergency vehicle plates on the standard tri-color, solid band base.  These plates differed from all other solid band plates in that the embossed characters were printed with red ink, rather than dark blue ink.  These plates have the embossed text Emergency Vehicle across the bottom of the plate, and always use prefix letters "EV" in the plate number.  With the introduction of this plate type, all of the various red-on-white and white-on-red fire department and emergency vehicle plates were then replaced. 

There are two distinct subtypes of emergency vehicle plates on the solid band base.  Those issued to commercial, for-profit ambulances are issued plates in the EV-30000 series; these used normal expiration stickers through 2017, after which stickers were discontinued for all plates.  Emergency vehicle plates issued to municipal or non-profit fire or rescue organizations are issued plates in the EV-50000 series and higher, and only sometimes used expiration stickers.  If I were to guess, I'd say that non-profits were required to display expiration stickers, while municipal governments are not.  However, I haven't seen enough of these in use to have much confidence in that theory. 

Pennsylvania state-related university vehicle plates

Four "state-related" universities in Pennsylvania have distinct license plates for their vehicles.  The term "state-related" has a specific legal definintion, and basically means that these formerly-private universities now have some characteristics of being state-owned, but still have some characteristics of private institutions.  It's apparently because of these institutions' unique semi-public status that necessitates issuing their vehicles distinct license plates.  Other state universities in Pennsylvania are wholly state-owned, and I presume their vehicles are issued generic Official Use state-owned vehicle plates. 

Please note that graphic plates showing the logo and name of a college or university, with either an embossed or screened logo, are organizational member plates issued to alumni and other supporters for use on their personal vehicles.  See these on the History of Pennsylvania specialty plates page. 

Pennsylvania State University vehicles
circa 1983-84 Pennsylvania State University
Penn State University
version 1 (circa 1983-84)

You would think that Penn State, which is regarded as Pennsylvania's flagship state university, would be fully state-owned and state-controlled, but it's not.  It was founded as a private institution in 1855, but began to be treated as state-related in 1863, though that legal term did not exist then.  It wasn't until 1989 that legislation officially made Penn State a state-related school.  Penn State's main campus is located in the town of State College in the north-central part of the state. 

Penn State university-owned vehicle plates were reportedly introduced in the early 1980s and were colored white-on-blue, like the subsequent generic government plates that came out in the mid-1980.  These are the school colors, of course.  They had the text Pennsylvania across the top and State University across the bottom, leaving it somewhat ambiguous whether these plates are specifically for Penn State University vehicles (which they are), or for state university vehicles in general.  Numbering format was A00*00P, with the prefix and suffix letters both constant, and the asterisk representing a large, hollow, embossed keystone similar to that used on 1977-1984 yellow passenger car plates.  The first version of this plate had two sticker wells in the upper corners, implying that it was issued during the era of the yellow plates.  The second version had a single sticker well in the lower left corner, like the blue plates of the mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s, but these continued to be issued and used until about 2019.  The sticker wells were not actually used.  These plates were issued in pairs. 

In about 2019, Penn State University vehicle plate transitioned to the current "Visa card" design.  The numbering format continued unchaged, starting at about A4700P.  There is no longer any kind of separator between the characters.  The bottom of the plate now reads Pennsylvania State University.  These are reported to be issued as single plates. 

Temple University vehicles

(no picture available)

Temple University is located in Philadelphia and became state-related in 1965.  Through about 2019, there was only a single version of license plates for its vehicles.  These were colored white-on-red, read Temple University across the top and Pennsylvania across the bottom, had an unused sticker well in the lower left corner consistent with mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s plates, and were issued in pairs.  Numbering format was T0000U, with the prefix and suffix letters both constant; there is no separator or space between any of the characters. 

In about 2019, Temple University vehicle plate also transitioned to the current "Visa card" design.  The numbering format continued unchaged, starting at about T0500U.  The text Temple University is now at the bottom of the plate.  These are reported to be issued as single plates. 

University of Pittsburgh vehicles

(no picture available)

The University of Pittsburgh, or "Pitt", became state-related in 1966.  Pitt vehicle plates conform to standard plate colors and designs, and there are multiple versions.  All of them use numbering format U0000P, with both letters constant, and with no space or separator. 

The first version had yellow characters on a blue background, University of Pittsburgh embossed across the top in mixed-case characters, the state name embossed across the bottom in all-capital letters, and a sticker well in the lower left corner, which wasn't used.  Apparently these were replaced with tri-color plates in the early 2000s.  Initially, the fade band base continued with the mixed-case school name, though along the bottom edge of the plate.  On the fade base, this was subsequently changed to use upper-case dies where the first letter of each word is larger than the others.  These school name dies continued onto the solid-band base with a sticker well in the upper left corner.  All of these versions were issued in pairs. 

About the same time that the solid-band base did away with the sticker well in favor of the state map outline, the school name became screened rather than embossed, and the plates began to be issued as singles. 

Lincoln University vehicles

(no picture available)

Lincoln University is a historically-black university located in Chester County in southeastern Pennsylvania.  It became a state-related university in 1972.  Lincoln University vehicle plates also use standard colors and designs and multiple versions have been issued.  These plates have numbering format L0000U, with both letters constant, and with no space or separator. 

Apparently, Lincoln University vehicle plates were introduced on the yellow-on-blue base, but no surviving plates or photos are known.  They're reported to be similar to the blue Pitt plates, described above.  On the tri-color fade base, the school name is stamped along the bottom edge with mixed-case dies, and the plates were issued in pairs.  Until 2023, there were no reports of this plate being issued with other dies or on the solid band base. 

In 2023, Lincoln Univerity plates began showing up on the solid band "Visa card" base with the state map outline in the upper left corner, and with the school name screened on at the bottom. 

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