Getting a License Plate in Germany

If you’re a vehicle owner in Germany, obtaining the right license plates is a crucial step in the registration process. German license plates are not only functional but also offer an opportunity for customization.

Let’s explore the ins and outs of German license plates, European license plates, and the process of getting a custom European license plate.

German License Plates: An Overview

German license plates are an essential aspect of vehicle identification and registration, with embossed characters that stand out rising above the white background. They typically consist of a white plate with a combination of letters and numbers, with the initial letters indicating the city or region where the vehicle is registered.

The format commonly includes one or two letters followed by a dash and a combination of one to four numbers, such as “B-12345” or “M-AB123.” The font used is specifically designed to deter forgery, featuring deliberately disproportionate letters and numbers to complicate any attempts at straightforward modifications.

The area code on the plates indicates the district of registration and it’s a common guessing game in Germany to guess a vehicle’s origin. While cars need both a front plate and a rear plate, motorcycles and trailers only require a rear plate. The official seals on the plates denote their validity, supported by accompanying documentation.

Specifications and Dimensions

German license plates are rectangular and follow standard dimensions of 520 mm × 110 mm (20+1⁄2 in × 4+3⁄8 in) for cars, trucks, buses, and their trailers.

Plates with fewer characters may have a reduced length but must maintain the specified size and shape for the characters. For vehicles like cars, trucks, buses, and their trailers, plates arranged in two lines measure 340 mm × 200 mm (13+3⁄8 in × 7+7⁄8 in).

Motorcycles also feature plates in two lines, each with specific dimensions. “Large motorcycles” (engine displacement over 125 cc or power output exceeding 11 kW (15 bhp)) issued until 2011 have a size of 280 mm × 200 mm (11 in × 7+7⁄8 in) with characters of the same size as car plates.

Since 2011, these plates have characters of reduced size and measure either 180 mm × 200 mm (7+1⁄8 in × 7+7⁄8 in) or 220 mm × 200 mm (8+5⁄8 in × 7+7⁄8 in). “Light motorcycles” (the German word is “Leichtkrafträder”) up to 125 cc and 11 kW (15 bhp)) have a size of 255 mm × 130 mm (10 in × 5+1⁄8 in) with reduced-size characters.

This smallest size is also used for agricultural tractors with a maximum speed of 40 km/h (25 mph) and their trailers and may be issued as an exception for certain import cars when a regular-sized plate cannot be applied in the available space.

The characters on the license plate, along with the narrow rim framing it, are black on a white background. In the standard size, letters are 75 mm (3 in) high, and 47.5 mm (1+7⁄8 in) wide, while digits are 44.5 mm (1+3⁄4 in) wide.

Stickers on German License Plates

Registration plates gain validity through the attachment of an official seal of registration, represented by a 45 mm (1+3⁄4 in) diameter sticker. This sticker incorporates the area code and displays the seal of the respective German Bundesland in colors, along with the state’s name and the issuing district authority in print.

Earlier versions of these stickers were monochrome, featuring black on silver or white backgrounds and measuring a smaller 35 mm (1+3⁄8 in). These depicted either the Bundesland or city district seal. Vehicles utilized by federal institutions, such as the Bundespolizei, display the German Bundesadler instead of a Bundesland seal.

On the rear plate, positioned above the official seal, is the vehicle safety test sticker. This test, mandatory three years after initial registration and biennial thereafter, conveniently indicates its expiration month by its attachment orientation, with the month pointing upwards.

A black marking covers the sectors on either side of 12, aiding law enforcement in reading the expiration month from a distance. Similar to a clock hand, this marking aligns with a number on the clock face, simplifying the identification of the expiration month. The year for the next safety test is at the center of the sticker and is also reflected in the sticker’s color, which repeats every six years.

Between 1985 and 2010, a hexagonal sticker on the front plate certified the emission test. However, since 2010, the emission test has been integrated into the safety test, rendering the emission sticker obsolete.

European License Plates

Beyond Germany, various European countries have their own license plate designs and formats. Each country’s plates have inspection and registration information and a unique serial number.

European license plates typically feature a registration seal and a combination of letters and numbers that help identify the origin of the vehicle. A European plate also features the European Union flag (12 golden stars forming a circle on a blue background).

While a regular Euro plate is limited to nine characters, custom plates can feature up to 15 letters or numbers by utilizing a smaller font.

Our story about getting a license plate in Germany

We had to say goodbye to our Swiss license number, and that is not that easy because my hubby inherited a super short number from his grandfather. There’s a possibility to suspend it for two years, but afterward, it will be available to someone else.

In Switzerland, it is quite a thing with the license numbers. The shorter the number, the more valuable it gets. Also, vehicle owners are willing to pay a lot of money for that because it is something you can show off. I think it is totally overrated, but whatever.

Well, our license number was the last visual thing that connected us to our homeland. Believe me, it makes a difference if you are driving in Berlin with a Swiss license number or if you are just one of thousands with a B xxx number on your ride.

Choosing a License Number for Our New Plates

But let’s start telling you our story about getting a German license plate. My hubby took care of it. He made an appointment at the Kfz-Zulassungsstelle in Kreuzberg. He had to wait for two weeks to get one and then D-day had arrived.

When it was his turn, and all the papers were found correct, the civil servant asked him if he had a wish number in mind. He did not know what she meant because in Switzerland, you cannot choose the combination of your license number, so he was a bit stumped for an answer and asked how much longer it takes to do a customized one.

The lady estimated another hour and 10 euros on top. He declined because he did not want to be late for work again. After paying, he was sent away, confronted with a new challenge. He had to go to get the tag for his license number right away. He hesitated and asked about the procedure. The lady told him he had to go to one of the shops in front of the office and just buy a tag. It was that simple!

Well, how much would it cost to produce a tag? “Ask someone you run across in the hallway; the prices are different, and I am not allowed to tell you what’s an appropriate price,” she told him. Thus, he did ask anyone he met carrying a tag, and the price range was from 20 to 70 euros.

When he was outside, he found himself in a bazaar-like situation. Tag dealers approached him and offered him a “very good price.” It was way too much, of course. What the hell was going on? Was he still in Berlin? Yes, he was, and he finally got his tag for an appropriate price and was happy to tick another to-do point off his list.

When he arrived at his office, he showed a picture of his new license to one of his colleagues. He was so happy that he made it in time and that he could go back to work. His colleague laughed out loud and said, “Did you choose that number yourself?” My hubby looked skeptical.

Well, he got BFC 123. For him, it was just a license number, but the guys in his office suggested he go back and redeem another one. Why? What was going on?

German License Plate Format Legend

Image credit

BFC represents a Berlin football club that tends to be right-wing extreme, and it is a statement when you have such a license number on your car.

The fact that my hubby is bald would make it even worse. Well, he first thought they were making fun of him, but then Google approved it. He got the Zonk! (Zonk is a well-known duffer from the German TV show “Geh aufs Ganze”).

A Fresh Start

When he came back home, he was mad and tried online to get another appointment at the “Kfz-Zulassungsstelle” to get rid of that unlucky license number. Well, due to the fact it was close to Christmas, he had to wait for six weeks to get another appointment.

However, there were two lovely side effects. We went back to Switzerland by car, so nobody paid attention to BFC, and we had enough time to think about the new number of our custom plate. After the holidays, my hubby went through that procedure like a pro, and we were all smiles when he came home with our new BZH 123 tag. (ZH stands for Zurich).

German License Plate Codes

Here is a list of some popular German license plate codes to give you an idea. Just keep in mind that some of these codes have already expired:

  • B – Berlin
  • BA – Bamberg
  • BRB – Brandenburg BRG
  • CB – Cottbus
  • DD – Dresden
  • DE – Dessau
  • DO – Dortmund
  • EB – Eilenburg
  • EIS – Eisenberg
  • EL – Emsland
  • EF – Erfurt
  • HL – Hansestadt Lübeck
  • HM – Hameln
  • L – Jerichower Land
  • K – Köln
  • MHL – Mühlhausen
  • MI – Minden

Prohibited Combinations

Combinations considered a “Verstoß gegen die guten Sitten” or “offense to moral and customs” are either disallowed or actively avoided. This primarily pertains to abbreviations related to Nazi Germany, such as NS (National Socialism), KZ (Konzentrationslager, concentration camp), HJ (Hitlerjugend, Hitler Youth), SS (Schutzstaffel), and SA (Sturmabteilung). Consequently, these two-letter combinations are generally not issued in any district.

Additionally, specific city districts like Nuremberg, Cologne, and Stuttgart avoid issuing one-letter plates that could result in combinations like N-S, K-Z, S-A, S-D, and S-S. Prefixes that are excluded as middle letters were also omitted from the list of possible area codes when the current system was introduced.

Even during the period between 1945 and 1949, when the French occupation force used the combination SA followed by double-digit numbers 01 to 08 for the seven rural districts in the Saar Protectorate and its capital Saarbrücken, these codes were not considered for later use in newly formed districts in the former GDR.

For instance, the district Sächsische Schweiz used the name of its capital, Pirna, in its code PIR to avoid the use of SS. Similarly, when the districts of Torgau, Delitzsch, and Oschatz merged into Nordsachsen, they opted for the combined initials TDO instead of abbreviating Northern Saxony as NS.

How A German License Plate Differs from a US Plate

German and European license plates are different from US license plates in several ways:

Format: A German plate typically starts with one to three letters representing the city or region, followed by one or two random letters and one to four random numbers. US plates usually have a mix of letters and numbers that don’t necessarily signify a specific location.

Size and Shape: German plates are wider and less tall compared to the more square-shaped US plates.

EU Symbol: German plates include the blue band with the EU symbol and the country code ‘D’ (for Deutschland), which is not present on US plates.

Registration Indicators: German plates can include stickers indicating the expiration of the vehicle’s registration and TÜV (technical inspection), unlike US plates.

FAQs about German number plates and other Euro plates

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about license plates in Germany and other EU countries.

What is the format of German license plates?

German license plates typically follow a specific format: a combination of letters and numbers. The standard format includes one to three letters that represent the city or region where the vehicle is registered, followed by a dash and a combination of one to four numbers. For example, “B-12345” or “M-AB123.

What do the letters on a German license plate mean?

The letters on a German license plate indicate the city or region where the vehicle is registered. They are known as the registration code or city identifier. They help identify the local registration office responsible for the vehicle. For instance, “B” might stand for Berlin, “M” for Munich, and so on.

What is the cost of a custom European license plate?

The cost of a custom European license plate can vary depending on the country and specific customization options. Generally, a European license plate may include personalized combinations of letters and numbers. Prices for a custom plate typically range from around 50 to 200 euros or more, and additional fees may apply for specific designs or features such as custom text, optional frames, and screws.

Are European mounting frames necessary for all vehicles in Europe?

While not mandatory in all European countries, some may require specific mounting frames to adhere to regulations. A European mounting frame is often used for standardization, a more straightforward installation process and compatibility across different plate sizes and shapes in the region.

Summing Up: Getting a License Plate in Germany

When it comes to getting a license plate, Germany takes you on a journey that unveils unique aspects of regional identity and personal choices. From the functional aspects to the cultural significance of specific license plate codes, each element tells a story.

The experience of choosing a license number becomes an unexpected adventure, reflecting the quirks and nuances of the local context. 

As we bid farewell to our Swiss license number and embrace a new German identity, we realize that a license plate is more than a legal requirement—it’s a tangible connection to a sense of place and belonging.

If you’d like to know more about German culture, come check me out at SmarterGerman! We have blog posts and courses to help you improve your spoken German in a flash.