Have you ever seen people drive around cars with quirky license plates with tongue-in-cheek puns, upbeat mottoes, and pretty colors? You cannot have missed them. Some of them are borderline tacky, others are downright controversial, and some are simply gorgeous — but to each their own. In case you are thinking of getting one, here is a quick guide on how to get a custom license plate.
What Are Custom License Plates?
Custom license plates are also known as vanity, specialty, or personalized license plates. They allow you to get creative and express your support for a particular cause, affiliation with a profession or an academic institution, or simply your hobby or other interests.
Where Are Custom Plates Available?
Custom plates are available in all 50 US states and D.C. However, requirements vary across states, so make sure you check with your local DMV office before applying.
What Can You Put on a Custom Plate?
Vanity plates feature a custom serial, i.e., a sequence of numbers, letters, and/or other symbols. For the most part, it is up to you what that is, as long as it does not contain profane or obscene language or hate speech.
However, keep in mind that the standard for what is considered acceptable language varies widely across states. For instance, in Maine, there are no content restrictions, as long as the text doesn’t promote violence or hate. In contrast, Vermont recalled a plate with “SHTHPNS” in 2001, and Illinois doesn’t even allow foreign words — whatever that means.
In addition to letters and digits, some states such as New Hampshire and North Carolina allow custom plates to feature punctuation symbols. Motorists in California have the option to also order other symbols such as a hand, heart, plus sign, or star.
The state of Virginia goes even further and offers 200+ unique license plate designs. As a result, some 1.6 million or a tenth of all vanity plates in the US are registered in Virginia. That is the highest concentration of custom plates issued by any state.
Finally, one last thing to keep in mind is that certain serials, while perfectly legal, could still lead to unexpected difficulties. A hilarious real-life example is an L.A. custom plate with the serial “NO PLATE.” In 1979, its owner received a staggering 2,500 parking tickets. That was due to the fact that the DMV’s system wrongly matched his plate to citations for cars without license plates!
Other similar reported cases involved plates with the serials “MISSING,” “NONE,” “NOTAG,” “VOID,” and “XXXXXXX.”
As a general rule, there are four key points to consider when designing your custom license plate:
- Local content and censorship restrictions.
- Any restrictions on the types of symbols allowed, i.e., lower- and upper-case letters, digits, punctuation, other symbols, or spaces.
- The minimum and maximum number of symbols allowed on a custom plate in your state.
- Could your chosen serial cause misunderstandings and lead you into trouble with the authorities?
What Types of Custom Plates Are There?
Custom plates come in many different types. Examples include:
1. Military plates, such as:
- US military retirees (i.e., Armed Forces Retired or Merchant Marine Retired)
- Veterans (i.e., Cold War Veteran or Vietnam Veteran)
- Ex-Prisoners of War
- Honors and medal holders (i.e., Medal of Honor or Purple Heart)
2. Professions and professional organizations, such as:
- Police officer plates
- Firefighter plates
3. Academic institutions, such as:
- Alumni organizations
- Universities and colleges
- Fraternities and sororities
4. Sports teams and athletics.
5. Environment and wildlife, such as:
- Animal welfare
- Farmland preservation
- Marine education and research
- Energy-efficient vehicle plates
6. Charities, special causes, health awareness, and medical research, such as:
- Autism awareness
- Cancer research
- Organ donor awareness
7. Special interests and hobbies, such as:
- Family values
- Mountain biking
- Water rafting
8. Antique vehicle license plates for collector’s items,
which are typically available for vehicles that are at least 25 years old and with their original factory specifications.
- The state of Florida even offers Horseless Carriage plates for vehicles made before 1945.
How to Get a Custom License Plate
For detailed instructions on how to get a custom plate in your state, check your local DMV website, as the paperwork, requirements, and fees vary across the country. However, the process is more or less the same across all 50 states.
Step 1: Check Your Eligibility
While most types of custom license plates are widely available, certain categories require proof of eligibility. For instance, anyone applying for a disabled veteran or medal recipient plate must show proof of disability or their specific medal or award.
Depending on your state and type of plate you are applying for, there may be further eligibility requirements for your vehicle or the content of the plate.
Step 2: Check the Availability of Your Chosen Serial
Most states allow you to quickly check the availability of your symbol combination online. If it’s already taken, you cannot use it.
Step 3: Do the Paperwork
After you’ve made sure you and your vehicle meet all requirements, it’s time to fill in the application form. Many states now offer online application forms, so it’s a good idea to check your local DMV website.
In addition to the application form, most states also require further supporting documents, so make sure you know what these are.
Step 4: Pay the Fee
Some types of custom plates, such as those for ex-prisoners of war, are free of charge. However, most other types of vanity plates require you to pay a special license fee on top of any standard registration fees.
In terms of pricing, the standard fee across the country is around $20–30. However, there are exceptions: Delaware’s three- and two-digit plates can bring $50,000 to $400,000 at auction. Don’t even get me started on their single-digit plates — one fetched $675,000 in 2008!
As far as the payment options go, most states accept cash, checks, money orders, and credit cards, but make sure to double-check.
Step 5: Submit Your Application
Unless otherwise stated on your state’s DMV website, you can submit your application in person, online, or via mail. Some states even accept applications sent by fax.
To Wrap Up
Custom plates can be a great way to express your creativity and personality and even support a worthy cause along the way. However, the application process can be a bit of a hassle, so make sure you check all requirements in your state. Once these are taken care of, you’d be free to enjoy your shiny new custom plate.