The present number plate format, used since 1994, uses black print on a white background and first provides information about the country where the car is registered within the European Union. German licence plates show a D (for Deutschland=Germany) on the blue strip on the left, which shows the European Union's flag, 12 golden stars in a circle on blue ground.
After that, there are between one and three letters which show the city or region where the car is registered, such as B for Berlin. These units usually coincide with the German districts, in few cases an urban district and the surrounding district share the same letter code. Usually if an urban district and a rural district share the code, the number of the following letters is different. For example, the urban district (Straubing) SR has one letter after the code (SR - A 123). The surrounding district Straubing-Bogen has two letters (SR - AB 123) after the code. It depends on the number of registered cars (or citizens) whether the City or the district has two letters, because there are more possibilities with two letters, so the part with more citizens usually has two letters. For example, the urban district Regensburg has more citizens than the rural district Regensburg, so the city has two letters after the code R.
The number of letters in the city/region prefix code mostly reflects the size and location of the district: the largest German cities generally only have one letter codes (B=Berlin, M=München (Munich), K=Köln (Cologne), F=Frankfurt), most other districts in Germany have two or three letter codes. Districts in eastern Germany usually have more letters, for two reasons:
This is only a rule of thumb, there are a number of exceptions e.g. Germany's second largest city Hamburg (HH, Hansestadt Hamburg, because of its historical membership in the Hanseatic League) or the west German district Ammerland (WST, Westerstede is the capital of the district).
The reason for this scheme is however not to display size or location, but simply to have enough combinations available within the maximum length of eight characters per plate.
After the location name there are the emission test and vehicle safety test stickers (see below), followed by one or two usually random letters and one to four usually random numbers. The total quantity of letters and numbers on the plate is never higher than eight. One letter with low numbers are normally reserved for motorcycle use since the plate space of these vehicles is smaller.
A problem with this scheme is that the space is a significant character and must be thought of when writing down a number. For example B MW 555 is not the same number as BM W 555. The confusion can be avoided by writing a hyphen after the city code, as in the old number plates, like B-MW 555. For this reason, the police will always radio the location name and spell out the next letters using the German telephone alphabet, which varies somewhat from the English one. Thus, B MW 555 would be radioed as "Berlin, Martha, Wilhelm, fünf-fünf-fünf" and BM W 555 as "Bergheim, Wilhelm, fünf-fünf-fünf".
If a car owner would like to buy personalized plates, they tend to cost around €12 more than standard ones, depending on the region. Personalized plates must be applied for and must conform to the standards above. Car owners can choose certain numbers or letters instead of the random ones at the end. For example, people living in the town of Pirna might choose PIR-AT 77, "Pirat" being the German for "pirate". Kiel is one of few places (others are Lauf, Heide, Regen, Daun, Brake, Baden, Ulm and some more) where the number plate can be the city name: 'KI-EL' (KI-LL is also often seen). Another possibility which many people choose is a combination of their initials followed by their year of birth, e.g. Peter Meyer born in April 1957 could try to get PIR-PM 57 or PIR-PM 457 when registering a car in Pirna. Almost every available combination with S-EX .... in Stuttgart and SE-X and SE-XY in Segeberg is in use as well. Also, some people choose a combination which reflects their car type. In Berlin, combinations like B-MW 1234 are common among owners of BMW cars. Other popular self-referential license plates include P-KW 123 in Potsdam and K-FZ 123 in Cologne: PKW is the German abbreviation for Personenkraftwagen ("car") and KFZ for Kraftfahrzeug ("motor vehicle").
Banned combinations include the Nazi abbreviations HJ (Hitlerjugend, Hitler Youth), NS (Nationalsozialismus, National Socialism), SA (Sturmabteilung), SS (Schutzstaffel) and KZ (Konzentrationslager, concentration camp). Some registration offices have overlooked this rule by mistake, however; there are a few cars registered carrying prohibited codes, such as B-SS 12. Some counties also allow these combinations if they are the initials of the owner (e.g., Norbert Schmidt might be able to get XX-NS 1234), but in this case, if the car is sold and re-registered in the same county by the new owner, the number can be changed (otherwise the number stays with the car until it registered in a different area).
During World War I the German Army was assigned the combination MK for "Militärkraftwagen des Deutschen Heeres", military vehicles of the German Army. After WWI, during the Weimar Republic, the German Army used RW for "Reichswehr". During the Nazi regime (1933-1945) new combinations were issued: DR, Deutsche Reichsbahn (Train Department), OT Organisation Todt (civil and military engineering), Pol Deutsche Polizei (Police), RAD Reichsarbeitsdienst (Labor Department), RK Deutsches Rotes Kreuz (Red Cross), SS Schutzstaffel ("protective unit", the most vicious of all Nazi organizations), WH Wehrmacht/Heer (German Army), WL Wehrmacht/Luftwaffe (Air Force), WM Wehrmacht/Kriegsmarine (Navy), WT Wehrmacht/Straßentransportdienst (Army, everything transport related).
From 1945 to 1956 there were lettering combinations assigned by the allied forces. Examples: BY Bayern 1946–1947, AB Bayern 1948–1956, B Bayern 1950–1956. HE Hessen 1946–1947, AH Hessen 1948–1956, H Hessen, 1950–1956. AW Württemberg-Baden 1948–1956, W Württemberg-Baden, 1950–1956, WB Württemberg-Baden 1950–1956. GF Berlin 1945–1946, BG Berlin 1945–1947, GM Berlin 1945–1947, KB Berlin 1947–1948, GB East-Berlin 1948–1953, KB West-Berlin 1948-1956. MGH Hamburg 1945, H Hamburg 1945–1947, HG Hamburg 1947, BH Hamburg 1948–1956. BD Baden 1945–1949, FB Baden 1949–1956. WT Württemberg-Hohenzollern 1945–1949, FW Württemberg-Hohenzollern 1949–1956.
In 1956 the current system was introduced in West Germany, replacing the post-war system which was based on occupation zones.
As West German districts were extensively rearranged in the early 1970s, many prefix codes were expired and new ones were created at that time. However, number plates issued before these rearrangements remain valid, providing the vehicle is still in use and has not been reregistered since. So it is still possible, if rare, to see a classic car with registration codes of administrative units that haven't existed for over 30 years (e.g. EIN = Einbeck).
When originally planned, the system included codes for districts in Eastern Germany which were to be reserved until reunification. That included the territory of the GDR as well as the territories annexed to Poland and the Soviet Union after World War II, which West Germany's government still claimed in that era until about 1970. When reunification came in 1990, the reserved codes (e.g. P for Potsdam) were indeed issued to East German districts as originally planned and as they existed at that time. However, districts in East Germany were rearranged again in the mid-1990s, thus many of these codes have expired, but can likewise still be seen on older vehicles.
One example of a reserved code being reused before reunification was the letter L which was originally planned for Leipzig, but was given to the newly formed Hessian district Lahn-Dill-Kreis in the 1980s as hopes for reunification faded away. After the rather unexpected reunification the L was returned to the city of Leipzig and the Lahn-Dill-Kreis was issued with LDK instead after a transitional period when L was in use in both districts.
The Versicherungskennzeichen ("insurance plate" ) used for mopeds and other small, low-power vehicles (such as vehicles for the physically handicapped, with a maximum speed of 25 km/h) is much smaller than the plates for normal cars and is only valid for one year from 1st April to 31st March. This plate replaces the official proof of registration since this type of vehicle is registered through the insurance company. There are four colors used: red for temporary use such as testing (very rare), black, blue, green for normal plates. The latter three colors are changed every year in order to make it easy to check whether the vehicle has the latest plate and hence is insured. Furthermore, the year is printed on the bottom line. Using the same colour plate three years later when the same color is again valid does not work since the police can check the combination by radio and see whether the plate is valid for the current year or not. The system is three digits on the top and three letters beneath. The number and the letters are chosen randomly so personalizing the plates is not possible (except by choosing from a small selection the insurer has in his office). Licences can be purchased with insurance companies who give them out together with a paid insurance.
Emission test (front plate) and vehicle safety test (rear plate) stickers are also attached to the plate. The expiry date can be figured out as follows: The year is in the centre of the sticker, and the stickers are attached with the month of expiration pointing upwards. The black marking on the side (near the 12) thus makes it easy for the police to see the expiration month from a distance. Imagine a clock, then the marking shows the same position as the face of the clock. For example the black marking is on the left side, so it is the ninth month (or 9 o'clock) and hence the expiry date is 30th September. The colors are repeated every 6 years.
The lower sticker is the official "seal" of registration. It always carries the seal of the respective German Bundesland, mostly with the place or district of issue being added in print.
All these stickers are specially treated to be easily transferred onto the license plates, but hard to be removed without damaging the plate itself, making them relatively counterfeit-proof.
Cars found in a public place where the owner did not pay insurance for more than three months (as reported to the police by the insurance company) may get entstempelt, that means, unstamped: The police will remove the state's official seal using a scratching tool (mostly a screwdriver), damaging the plate beyond repair, and it will be illegal to even leave that car parked on public ground, unless insurance will be paid and new plates will be issued.
Motorcycles carry only the rear plate.
Colours of the emission test and vehicle safety test stickers:
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