German vehicle registration plates (Kraftfahrzeug-Kennzeichen or, more colloquially, Nummernschilder) indicate the place where the vehicle bearing them is registered. Whenever the German owners of a motor vehicle change their main place of residence within Germany, they are required to re-register their vehicle(s) and buy new number plates. These can be valid for a full year or for between 2 and 11 months in any one year. The latter provision allows owners a financial saving in the case of vehicles (e.g. motorcycles) which they intend to drive only during one particular part of the year. As of 2007, new number plates normally cost around €30, while the cost of de-registering a vehicle and re-registering it with new plates is between €10 and €40. If ownership of a vehicle is permanently transferred to a new owner who lives in the same city/region then the registration number may remain unchanged. Administration fees are, however, still payable in respect of the necessary changes to the vehicle's official documentation.
The present German number plate format has been in use since 1994. As with many plates for countries within the European Union, a blue strip on the left shows a shortened country code in white text (D for Deutschland = Germany) and the Flag of Europe (12 golden stars forming a circle on a blue background).
The rest of the license plate uses black print on a white background. Just after the country code strip is a one, two or three letter abbreviation, which represents the city or region where the car was registered, such as B for Berlin. These letters usually coincide with the German districts (complete list); in some cases an urban district and the surrounding non-urban district share the same letter code. Where this happens, the number of the following letters and digits is usually different. For example, the urban district of 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. However, these different systems are being used in fewer cases, as many cities that share their code with the surrounding rural districts have started using all codes for both districts without any distinction; the city of Regensburg, for example, and the surrounding rural district Regensburg used different systems only until 2007.
The number of letters in the city/region prefix code mostly reflects the size of the district. The basic idea was to even out the number of digits on all license plates, because the largest districts would have more digits after the prefix for more cars. The largest German cities generally only have one letter codes (B=Berlin, M=Munich, K=Cologne (Köln), F=Frankfurt, L=Leipzig, S=Stuttgart), most other districts in Germany have two or three letter codes. Therefore, cities or districts with fewer letters are generally assumed to be bigger and more important. Reflecting that, most districts tried to get a combination with fewer letters for their prefix code.
Districts in eastern Germany usually have more letters, for two reasons:
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, reflected already in its prefix used between 1906 and 1945). Similar is the case of the cities of Bremen and Bremerhaven, forming the state Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, sharing the common prefix HB (1906–1947, and again since 1956), differentiated by the number of letters and digits added.
In 1956 also Lübeck received its former prefix HL, already used between 1906 and 1937, when its statehood was abolished. In analogy to these three northwestern cities, but without historical examples of formerly issued prefixes, four northeastern Hanseatic cities, Greifswald, Rostock, Stralsund and Wismar, chose the prefixes HGW, HRO, HST and HWI, since the shorter HG (Hochtaunuskreis, capital: Bad Homburg vor der Höhe), HR (Schwalm-Eder-Kreis, capital: Homberg (Efze)), HS (Kreis Heinsberg) and HW (Kreis Halle in Westphalia) were already taken by west German districts.
More west German districts have prefixes derived from the names of their capitals: Ammerland (WST, after Westerstede), Dithmarschen (HEI, after Heide in Dithmarschen), Harburg (WL, after Winsen upon Luhe), Herzogtum Lauenburg (RZ, after Ratzeburg) etc.
The letter "G" was reserved for the east German city of Gera, although it is much smaller than the west German Gelsenkirchen ("GE"). The letter "L" had been reserved for Leipzig, but in 1977 it was assigned to the newly formed rural district Lahn-Dill-Kreis. This casts some light on how unlikely a reunification was regarded at that time. In 1990, Leipzig claimed back the letter "L", and it was reassigned, and Lahn-Dill-Kreis had to change to LDK.
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".
For an extra charge of 10.20 Euro car owners can also buy personalized plates. Car owners can simply choose the numbers or letters instead of the random ones at the end, provided of course they are unique and not a prohibited combination. 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 Brake (capital of the district of Wesermarsch), Cham, Daun, Emden, Halle, Hamm, Heide, Herne, Hof, Kleve, Kusel, Lauf, Pirna, Plön, Regen, Ulm, Unna and Wesel) where the number plate can be the city name: 'KI-EL'.
Germany includes diacritical marks in the letters of some codes, that is the letters Ä, Ö and Ü. Such a thing is rarely done in other European countries, but also appears on regular Croatian (letters Č, Š and Ž), Serbian and Åland registration plates (letter Å), as well as on Swedish (letters Å, Ä and Ö) and Danish (letters Å, Æ and Ø) personal registration plates. However, in Germany there are no two codes where the only difference is that one letter is A and Ä, O and Ö or U and Ü. The same holds for the letters O and Q, while the only pair of codes with the letters I and J is IL for Landkreis Ilmenau and JL for Landkreis Jerichower Land.
Various combinations that could be considered politically unacceptable — mainly due to implications relating to Nazi Germany — are disallowed or otherwise avoided. The district Sächsische Schweiz uses the name of its main town, Pirna, in its code PIR, to avoid the use of SS, the name of the paramilitary organization; similarly SA is also unused. Although between 1945 and 1949 the French occupation force used the combination SA followed by the double-digit numbers 01 to 08 for the then seven rural districts in the Saar Protectorate and its capital Saarbrücken. In 2004 in Nuremberg, a car owner was refused a number plate beginning N-PD because of the connection to the political party the NPD. The combinations STA-SI, HEI-L and IZ-AN are also avoided, to avoid association with Stasi, with the Nazi salute and with NAZI backwards.
Banned combinations also 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, and 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). However, the combination HH (used for Heil Hitler) is used for the city of Hamburg, however, first introduced in 1906.
The first German licence plates that had a lettering plan were issued from 1906 onwards. Berlin for example was using I A (I for Prussia), Munich II A (II for Bavaria), Stuttgart III A (III for Württemberg). Other German states used further Roman numbers such as IV (Baden), V (Hesse), and VI (Alsace-Lorraine; now France). Many states used prefixes derived from the state names, such as B (Brunswick), HB (Bremen), HH (Hamburg), and HL (Lübeck), the latter three used again for the same entities since 1956. Other bigger cities: IV B Baden (Heidelberg, Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Freiburg, Lake Constance), II N Cities of Nuremberg and Fürth. The Prussian provinces had the following prefixes: I E Province of Brandenburg (to a minor part now Poland), I C Province of East Prussia (now divided between Lithuania, Poland and Russia), I S Province of Hannover, I T Province of Hesse-Nassau (Today Frankfurt, State of Hessen and neighboring counties), I L Province of Hohenzollern, I Z Rhine Province (Cologne, Düsseldorf and other large cities in the Ruhr Area), I H Province of Pomerania (now prevailingly Poland), I Y Province of Posen (now Poland), I B Province of Posen-West Prussia (now Poland), I M Province of Saxony, I P Province of Schleswig-Holstein, I K Province of Silesia (now mostly Poland), I X Province of Westphalia, and finally I D Province of West Prussia (now Poland).
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 (German state railway); OT, Organisation Todt (civil and military engineering); Pol, Deutsche Polizei (police); RAD, Reichsarbeitsdienst (state labour service); RK, Deutsches Rotes Kreuz (Red Cross); SS, Schutzstaffel ("protection squadron"); WH, Wehrmacht Heer (army); WL, Wehrmacht Luftwaffe (air force); WM, Wehrmacht Kriegsmarine (navy); WT, Wehrmacht Straßentransportdienst (army transport service).
From 1945 to 1956 there were lettering combinations assigned by the allied forces. Examples: BY Bavaria (Bayern) 1946–1947, AB Bavaria (American Zone, Bavaria) 1948–1956, B Bavaria 1950–1956. HE Hesse 1946–1947, AH Hesse (American Zone, Hesse) 1948–1956, H Hesse, 1950–1956. AW Württemberg-Baden 1948–1956, W Württemberg-Baden, 1950–1956, WB Württemberg-Baden 1950–1956. БM (=BM, for motor bikes) 1945–1946, ГФ (=GF; cars, lorries, and busses) Berlin 1945–1946, БГ (=BG; cars, lorries, and busses) Berlin 1945–1947, ГM (=GM, for motor bikes) 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 then 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 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 was 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). Since late 2011 some districts allow reissuing on request of these expired prefix codes, e.g. instead of WES- in the district of Wesel, MO- as used for the former district of Moers.
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.
Modern German plates use a typeface called FE-Schrift ("fälschungserschwerende Schrift", tamper-hindering script). It is designed so that the O cannot be painted to look like a Q, and vice versa; nor can the P be painted to resemble an R, among other changes. This typeface can also more easily be read by optical character recognition software for automatic number plate recognition than the old DIN 1451 script.
Certain types of vehicle bear special codes:
This style of plate is no longer issued, but many official vehicles which were registered before 2006 still carry this type of plate.
A similar style of issue is used by some municialities to consular or diplomatic vehicles in the form Aaa-9NNn (example: D-921). Unlike the other style of diplomatic/consular plates isued in Berlin and Bonn, this plate does not indicate the nationality of the mission.
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 50 km/h). 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. Plates are much smaller than the plates for normal cars and is only valid for one year from 1 March till the end of February the following year. Those plates are sold by insurance companies, so the fee included both the registration, and the cost of one year's insurance for the vehicle. There are four colours used: black, blue, green for normal plates, and red for temporary use, such as testing (very rare). The first three colours are changed every year in order to make it easy to see whether the vehicle has the correct plate and insurance.
|RAL 9005 (black)||1990||1993||1996||1999||2002||2005||2008||2011||2014|
|RAL 5012 (blue)||1991||1994||1997||2000||2003||2006||2009||2012||2015|
|RAL 6010 (green)||1992||1995||1998||2001||2004||2007||2010||2013||2016|
Emission test (front plate) and vehicle safety test (rear plate) stickers are also attached to the plate. The expiration 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. Like a clock, the marking shows the same position of a number on the face of a 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 30 September. The colours are repeated every 6 years. Emission test stickers are no longer used for tests done since beginning of 2010: The safety test sticker covers both.
The lower sticker is the official seal of registration. It always carries the seal of the respective German Bundesland, with the place or district of issue being added in print. Some seals carry the German Bundesadler instead of a Bundesland's seal, e.g. numberplates used on Bundespolizei vehicles.
All these stickers are specially treated to be easily transferred onto the licence 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), leaving the plate without a valid seal, and it will be illegal to even leave that car parked on public ground, unless insurance is paid and plates are fitted with a new official seal.
Once a plate is invalid, the seal of registration is defaced by law. After that, the plates are often sold to collectors on online shopping sites, such as eBay.
Motorcycles carry only the rear plate.
Colours of the emission test (before 2010) and vehicle safety test stickers:
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