Here’s a guide all about the fonts used on UK number plates, including some little known information regarding the name of the font used.
UK number plates have used a variety of fonts since inception, but for this article I’m going to focus on the font used on legal number plates today (since 2001).
What is the UK number plate font?
The font used on UK number plates is often referred to as “Charles Wright”. Ask any purveyor of number plates and they’ll probably tell you the same thing.
But they would be technically incorrect.
If you refer to the official UK Government legislation document entitled The Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001 there is no mention at all of a font called “Charles Wright”.
You can also refer to the DVLA’s own INF104: Vehicle registration numbers and number plates document and, likewise, find no mention of a font called Charles Wright – or any font name at all for that matter.
So what font are you allowed to use?
No particular font name is actually ever specified because this font has no official name – but what you must do is use a font that adheres to the example characters given in the legislation document.
Here are the characters extracted directly from the legislation – referred to therein as the “prescribed font”:
What often happens is the software used by number plate makers is simply pre-loaded with a font called Charles Wright, hence it becomes known as the “industry-standard” option.
But it does mean that other fonts by different names can actually be used. There’s a section within the legislation as follows:
(2) Except in a case to which paragraph (1) applies, each of the characters of the registration mark must either be in the prescribed font or in a style which is substantially similar to the prescribed font so that the character is easily distinguishable and in particular, but without prejudice to the generality of those requirements, characters must not be formed in any way described in paragraph (4) or in a manner which is similar to any of those ways.
The interesting part of that quote is “…must either be in the prescribed font or in a style which is substantially similar to the prescribed font…“.
The wording “substantially similar” opens up the possibility of differing interpretations of the prescribed font, providing they are still similar to the character examples given, and within the size boundaries.
Are other fonts available?
Yes! An alternative font is called Mandatory produced by Keith Bates at K-Type. As quoted, the differences from the standard Charles Wright font are as follows:
There is improved stroke separation on the M and W which are pointed at the centre, and the tail of the Q is thinner and clearer.
K-Type also produce a version of the standard Charles Wright font too, including a historical “1935” font style.
This ultimately means that, depending upon which font your number plate manufacturer has chosen, you may be able to tell some very slight differences between your number plate and the plates of other road users.
What are the differences between these fonts?
There are many very subtle differences between the characters in interpretations of this font, but here I’ll show you one of the most obvious to spot.
One point of contention among typeface designers is what to do with the middle stroke of the W and M characters.
If you refer back to the legislation’s prescribed font above, you’ll notice that both the M and W characters have a cropped, or squared off, middle stroke.
What you may sometimes see though is a pointed middle stroke instead, as demonstrated in the Charles Wright font produced by K-Type. Here’s an example:
This is what K-Type have to say regarding this change:
The apexes of the M and W are pointed (as in K-Type Mandatory) though slightly rounded to be easy on the eye and ease congestion. The middle strokes of both letters are more open and clearer than other Charles Wright 2001 fonts where the cropped M and W appear too heavy and tightly packed.
Next time you spot a number plate with an M or W character, take a moment to see if the middle is cropped or pointy. It may help you deduce what font is being used.
Do the Government or DVLA have a preferred font?
In doing the research into writing this article I discovered an interesting alteration made to the DVLA’s INF104 document in recent years, which is the official legal guidelines as to how a number plate should be displayed.
Document INF104 was originally published in 2009, and has been frequently updated throughout the years since. The most recent change being in February 2021 as of writing.
I’ve extracted the examples from each document. Take a look:
Can you spot the M and W again? In the most recent INF104 document, it’s using the pointed version found in K-Type’s Charles Wright or Mandatory font.
Look closely and you can probably spot other minor differences in each character too.
The legislation document still uses the cropped middle stroke in its example, so this further supports that there is room for a little deviation in the structure of the font characters, whilst still remaining entirely legal.
Interestingly, although the DVLA have changed the font they use in this INF104 document, if you visit the DVLA registrations website (where personalised registrations can be purchased) the original cropped font style is still in use.
Likewise with all the media they share on their social networks.
Know someone with the first or last name May❓
🗣 TAG them because this registration is available from October 20th at our next auction!
— DVLA Personalised Registrations (@DVLAPersReg) October 9, 2021
So to summarise, there doesn’t appear to be a single recommended font in use.
The origin of Charles Wright
If it’s not the official font, where does the Charles Wright font name come from?
In summary, way back in 1935 a company by the name of Charles Wright Ltd was commissioned to create a typeface for use on the registration plates of UK vehicles. This unnamed typeface then became known as the “Charles Wright 1935” font.
Then in 2001 when the updated legislation came into law the original Charles Wright 1935 font was modified to meet the new rules in regards to character sizes.
Again no specific name was given to this updated font, but it became known as “Charles Wright New” or “Charles Wright 2001”.
K-Type have a great article on the origins of the Charles Wright typeface which you may read here to add further details to the points I’ve touched on above.
Why is there a specific font?
As we’ve discussed, there is very strict legislation concerning the type of lettering used on a numberplate. But you’ve more than likely seen the occasional car on the road sporting a different font style, maybe with italics. These are highly illegal.
But why can’t we legally just use any type of font on our number plates?
It’s simply a matter of standardisation. Having all number plates adhere to the exact same font requirements simply means that they’re easy to read and decipher.
This means ANPR cameras can read them reliably when you’re travelling at speed on the motorway.
It also means members of the public or even emergency services can easily read them in case of a vehicle related incident.
Another reason is to make it harder to misrepresent characters as others. For example, using an 8 instead of a B – it should still be immediately obvious as to what character is being used.
It is an offence to drive with incorrectly displayed number plates, including font alterations, and you may be fined up to £1,000. Repeated offences may result in your number plate being revoked – meaning your personalised number plate could no longer be used.
And of course your vehicle will fail an MOT if an incorrect font is used on your plate.
The following references were used in the creation of this article.