Licence plates1 are plates attached to cars that allow to positively identify a car2. They are supposed to be unique for each individual car, making sure that no two vehicles have the same number on their plates3. In Germany, by the way, this uniqueness differs from the uniqueness of British cars. While a car sold and bought in London will keep its licence plate even if it is then sold five times to five different owners in five different places, ending up in Swindon, a German car would have six different licence plates (one for the first owner, and one for each of the five others).
What Do German Licence Plates Look Like?
German licence plates consist of a combination of letters and numbers as well as two stamps. They have a rectangular shape that is roughly 50 cm long and 10 cm high. The background is a white reflective colour while the numbers and letters are black. Unlike British number plates, the colour is the same back and front. Unlike American licence plates, there are no ornamental features and slogans on them. On the more recent licence plates, there is furthermore a blue block on the left hand side of the plate that features a white letter D4 below a circle of yellow stars, symbolizing the European Union. Older registration plates do not carry this adornment.
The combination of letters and numbers on a German licence plate always follows the same pattern. One, two or three letters are followed by a break that is filled with two stamps. Then come one or two letters which in turn are followed by one, two, three and sometimes even four numbers. Thus a typical combination might look like this:
|X ‡ XX 123|
This is a fictitious registration, by the way. Read on to learn why you will never see this on a real street.
What Does All This Mean?
The licence plates carry a fair bit of information that the informed reader is able to decipher.
The First Letter(s)
The first letter or letters of the licence plates indicate the place where the car is registered. That is, in the vast majority of cases, those letters tell you where the car comes from. The difference here is that some companies register all their vehicles in one city, no matter where that vehicle is actually based. Thus all cars and tow-trucks of the ADAC5 - a German service company that helps distressed drivers - are registered in the city of Munich, even if the individual truck never leaves, say, Hamburg, earning it the letter M6.
There are actually only a few such exceptions. Generally, the first letters designate the city where the car (and the owner) is from. This description, however, falls somewhat short of reality. To be really precise, it should be said that those letters do not so much indicate cities, but administrative districts. But if you think that this is getting needlessly complicated, let an example show you what is meant.
Imagine you see a car with a nice, friendly B as the only first letter. That takes you right to Germany's biggest city and capital, Berlin. Quite easy, isn't it? And remember, a few paragraphs up? There you learned that M stands for Munich, another big city. See the pattern emerging? K stands for Cologne, which is Köln in German, while D stands for Düsseldorf. All of which are big, important cities, and you can by now probably guess which letter you get for registering your car in Hamburg. And you would be wrong in thinking that H was the answer. H, in fact, designates the not so lovely city7 of Hanover. Hamburg got the double dose of H, HH. The reason for this is that the first H is in honour of the history of Hamburg as a member of the Hanseatic league, a union of merchant cities that dates as far back as the 13th century. The same H can be found in HL, Lübeck, or HB, Bremen.8
Cities that are not as big, or whose single letter was already taken by a bigger, more important9 city, often get two letters. There are quite many of those around, some are rather self-explanatory, as in GÖ for Göttingen, FÜ for Fürth, or CE for Celle. Others are not so easy to decipher. DD, for example, might make you think of Düsseldorf. But remember, Düsseldorf already got the prestigeous D. DD, as a matter of fact, goes to the lovely city of Dresden. Other places are more mysterious, still. AA is for Aalen, while AC is for Aachen. HR is for Homberg, HX for Höxter, and HO for Hof. As you can see, if you know enough cities in Germany, you might be able to guess the city from the registration letter - or you might not: chances are that you would not have foretold AW designating Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler. Would you?
With the big cities covered by mostly one-letter registrations and the not-so-big cities by two-letter registrations, the three-letter variety goes to all the rest. To the small, the unimportant - the rural areas. People living in the cities of Rostock or Wismar will now certainly protest, both of them being big enough to earn a two-letter licence plate. However, these places opted for the HRO and HWI plates, taking the Hanseatic league H as Hamburg had done. Exceptions like these aside, three-lettered registration plates are often described as "potato plates", in reference to their origin in rural, agrarian areas.
Due to the very nature of rural settings often resulting in many smaller towns, three-letter plates are often very hard to read. MÜR is easy enough if you know about lake Müritz, but who would think that BLK is for a district that is composed of the former districts Naumburg, Nebra, Zeitz and Weißenfels? These four districts were united to form Burgenlandkreis10. Rivalry between the formerly separate districts was so great that none would accept carrying the name (and licence plate) of the other places while giving up its own name. They ended up looking for an alternative where everyone would have to give up their names and resorted to naming the new district for the fact that there are quite a few old castles scattered around in this area.
The Fun Parts
You will have realized by now that vanity plates are not really possible in Germany. Vanity plates are licence plates whose letters or numbers form words, dates, etc. In the US, you will come across vehicles with "SKOOL SUX" or "DADDYSGIRL" or "MYPORSCHE" as their registration. No such thing can be done in Germany. What you can do is, either stick with any combination that the registration office gives you, or, for a price, ask for a certain combination. As the first letters are not open to discussion, your two main options are words that can be formed with the given letters, or dates you can form with the numbers.
Imagine you live in Berlin. Your licence plate will therefore begin with a B. Now, if your name happened to be Max Mustermann11, and you happened to be born on November 11th, you migh ask for the registration B - MM 111112. Or if you, Max Mustermann, were married to Jane Doe, and you had got married on May 1st, you might ask for B - MJ 0105 or B - JM 0501 or similar combinations, depending on your degree of politeness and your choice of date format.
In a similar way, you may try to find meaningful words that can be formed with the mandatory letters. Berliners might want to go for B - H 1234 or B - RA 1234, where BH is the German equivalent to the English word that has just been formed. Inhabitants of Hildesheim could end up with HI - RN 1234 (brain) or HI - LF 1234 (help!) or even, if they are less lucky or just don't know or care, with HI - V 1234. If you like your pint of ale every now and then, you might consider moving to Pinneberg and getting a PI - NT registration. If you are a fan of German author-hero Johann Wolfgang Goethe and happen to live in Göttingen, you could go for GÖ - TE 1234 and thus heavily misspell the name. Maybe GÖ - RE 1234 would be better suited for you, as the resulting word translates a brat.
Rarer than you might think are folks from Bad Segeberg who ask for an X or an XY, which would give them SE-X or SE-XY13.
Most people, however, do not really have this option. Living in Mainz (MZ), Gelsenkirchen (GK), Neubrandenburg (NB) or Bernburg (BBG), you will find precious little14 words that begin with these letters. You will just have to resort to the numbers game, or to...
Rivalries between neighbouring cities have not been unheard of. Little wonder, then, that sometimes the inhabitants of such cities find ways of slinging insults at one another in novel ways. One such way is making new sense of the licence plate letters. People from the Rheinisch-Bergischer Kreis district and its major city, Bergisch Gladbach, have been labelled gottlos, i.e. god-forsaken, matching their plates' GL. In a similar vein, the people of Frankfurt's (F) neighbouring city, Offenbach (OF) are often accused of driving ohne Führerschein - without a driving licence. Being somewhat smaller than its giant neighbour, Hamburg, Hanseatic Lübeck (HL, as you will recall from above) is sometimes taunted as Hamburg, Land - rural Hamburg.
Hey, What Happened To "Why Can't X-XX 123 Be A Real Licence Plate"?
Why can't it, then? The truth is that, in fact, X-XX 123 can be a real licence plate. It just is not one you are very likely to see unless you are working for NATO forces in Germany. X-licence plates are reserved cars of the international headquarters of NATO states. The letter has not been derived from any city or district, it was merely assigned by random.
And while we are at it - you may encounter cars that carry a Y-registration. Those cars are usually green, big, smelly and equipped with ICBM launchers, or at least with a holster. Y-licence plates are for vehicles of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces. As with the X, this registration letter has not been derived from anything. It simply reflects the fact that all meaningful abbreviations were already taken by other places by the time that the Bundeswehr needed to have licenced cars. There are only a few people who claim that the Y was chosen to remind people that "Y is the end of GermanY."
A Few Miscellaneous Bits
The two stamps between the first few letters are important things to have when getting your car inspected by a friendly police officer for driving a tad too fast. One stamp indicates when the next Moment-Of-Truth check-up is due. If you are caught driving past that date (the stamp shows the month and year), you are in for a fine and some more thorough inspection by that friendly police officer. MoT-check-ups are due once in two years and should be taken seriously.
The second stamp carries the official coat-of-arms of the state (Bundesland) of the issuing city or district. If you do not recognize the letter combination, or if you do but cannot geographically locate the place, this stamp will at least give you a rough idea where the car comes from.
I See A Licence Plate With Green Numbers
Green registration plates are assigned to cars with a agricultural or forestry-related background. Such utility vehicles pay lower taxes.
I See A Licence Plate With Red Numbers
Red numbered licence plates are for cars in transition, as it were. They are not, strictly speaking, assigned to a specific car, but to a car dealer. If you have just bought a car, but have not registered it yet, you can get your car dealer's red licence plates and drive your new (but in most cases, used, battered and old) car to the registration office, or home, or to your auto body shop to have it repaired.
I See A Nice Old Car With An H As The Last Letter
If you see a car whose licence plate does not end in a number, but in the letter H, look again. You are likely to see a veteran car in very good shape. Those H-licence plates are for old cars that still have all the original parts. Again, H-licenced cars save money in taxes, but cost much more money in spare parts. Even if you exchange wiper blades, you have to make sure that you use exactly the same type of blades that was used when the car originally was made and sold. Finding original spare parts - and paying for them - is not for the squeamish.
I See A Licence Plate That Looks A Few Letters Short
Sometimes you may come across a car with a registration that looks like this one: SH-3300. In this case, the SH stands for the state of Schleswig-Holstein. The lack of other letters makes this car a police vehicle. Registrations that only have a city designation followed by a number are not that rare. This always means that the car is in some way official - be it a police car, the mayor's limousine, or the refuse collection service.
I See A Licence Plate that looks More Than A Few Letters Short
Specifically, you see a car (most likely a Mercedes Benz) with the simple registration of 0 - 1. Well, get out your camera, and do not look dangerous. You are just looking at the car of the President of Germany. Like the British monarchs, the President does not have any real power, but he does represent Germany to other countries and is often looked to for guidance in times of crisis.
I See A Licence Plate That Says "CIA 1-23"
Don't worry, the Central Intelligence Agency is not looking for you - or if they are, they haven't just found you, or rather, if they have just found you, their agents are (probably) not sitting in that CIA-registerd car15. What you see there is a car that was registered way back in East Germany. East German licence plates looked similar to their West German counterparts, which in turn basically look like today's, minus the blue box on the left side. The East German system consisted of two or three letters followed by a one or two digit number, a dash, and another one or two digit number. The first of the letters indicated which of the 15 East German administrative districts the car was from.
The transition of East German cars to a West German registration after the reunification on October 3rd, 1990, was made easy by the fact that when the West German system was devised, it had already reserved all possibly necessary combinations for East German cities and districts. For a while after the reunification, East German streets were teeming with mixed registrations, but eventually the new registrations replaced the old ones. If you see such a car today, it was probably just discarded illegally years back and never officially de-registered.