– Why do licence plates in certain countries mean something?


What’s the benefit in knowing for the general public where a car is registered at (Germany, Austria, etc.) or when it was registered (UK)?

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Most of these systems are not intentional. Before the age of Internet with immediate access to a national database there was a danger of different offices registering cars under the same license as they did not know it was already issued. To prevent this license plates would be handed out in blocks based on a system to each registering office. Some countries issued large blocks to each office which would last them forever, for some values of forever. Others issued smaller blocks when needed and went sequentially, or at least systematically. So they did not intend for the license plate numbers to have any sort of meaning, it was just a convenient way to prevent double registrations on the same license plate.

However the information is used a lot by police and other officials. Just looking at a cars plates gives a lot of information which can be useful for determining if it is worth investigating more. For example an out of town plate on a car parked in spot which requires a residential permit might be worth checking out. Or an old license plate on a newer car might be a stolen plate. Some countries have also issued special EV license plates and similar for electric vehicles to make it easy to enforce parking and lane restrictions on those.

This is not primarily to give a benefit to everyone seeing the plate, but to make it easier to issue them.

Remember that these systems go back to before everything was done with computers networked to each other.

How would you ensure that the license plates are unique across the country? It is relatively easy for each district to ensure that they don’t hand out the same number twice, but to coordinate that across the country in the days before the Internet was difficult.

The solution is to simply have each district hand out plate numbers from different pools.

In Germany for example the license plates start with a 1-3 Letter code that stands for the town or district they are issued in.

This makes administering the plates much easier.

The fact that people can easily tell if a car is likely local or not, is just an incidental benefit.

Cities at this point have taken up their license plate codes as part of their identity and you frequently see those codes used as a shorthand for places nowadays, but that was never the main reason.

That isn’t for the general public. It’s for law enforcement. Just because you can see it doesn’t mean its meant for you.