(NEXSTAR) – A vanity license plate can say a lot about you. It’s easy to tell what NBA team a driver with the plate ‘L8KRS F4N’ supports. Spot a plate that reads ‘DOG LVR’? Bet you can tell what kind of pet they have. 

Even if you don’t have a vanity plate, your California license plate can carry a message. 

A standard plate for a passenger vehicle will contain both letters and numbers. Since 1980, California has followed the same sequence: one number, three letters, and three numbers. The process began on 1AAA000, and, as of May 2023, has reached the 9EWZ000-9EWZ999 series. 

The state has been in the 9AAA000 series since late 2021 when the DMV began receiving plates stamped for that series, according to available data shared with Nexstar. So if you see a California license plate that starts with 9 and follows that pattern, it’s safe to say the registration is, at most, about a year and a half old. 

The date ranges below are estimated, since they indicate when the DMV received the plates from the California Prison Industry Authority’s manufacturing facilities. While we know California began using 1 Series plates in 1980, dates for Series 2, 3, and 4, weren’t readily available, according to the DMV. 

  • 8AAA000: Summer 2017
  • 7AAA000: Early 2013
  • 6AAA000: Summer 2007
  • 5AAA000: Late 2002

There are other features that may offer some insight into how old a California license plate is. For example, the oldest plates that are still valid in the state were issued between 1963 and 1970, and have a black background and chrome yellow characters, the DMV explains. Plates then switched to a blue background with yellow characters, which remained standard until 1982. 

That year, plates became white with blue characters, a sun graphic, and ‘California’ in red block letters. Five years later in 1987, California dropped the sun graphic and produced reflectorize plates with ‘California’ still in red block letters. 

In 1993, ‘California’ was re-written in red script. From 1998 to 2000, ‘SESQUICENTENNIAL – 150 YEARS’ was added to the bottom of standard plates in red block letters. Then in 2001, standard plates became white with blue characters and ‘California’ in red script with nothing at the bottom. This continued for 10 years until ‘dmv.ca.gov’ was added to the bottom of standard plates, a style we still see today. 

Outside of following the same pattern for over 40 years, and the cosmetic changes since the 1960s, there isn’t much rhyme or reason to California’s license plates. 

For example, you may have heard that the first number on your plate relates to your car’s model year. But, as mentioned above, it has nothing to do with the model year but could align depending on when you purchased the car. 

Plates in other states can share slightly more information. 

Montana is one of a handful of states that uses county codes on their standard plates. Each of the state’s 56 counties has a corresponding code that appears first on the standard-issued license plate. 

Other states using county codes on license plates include Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Massachusetts, Missouri, and West Virginia use state-specific codes – either a certain letter, number, or combination – to show the month in which the car’s registration expires. Like other states, though, they use stickers for the expiration year.

In California, license plates will continue to follow the aforementioned pattern – number, three letters, three numbers – until roughly 2027, when the sequence will end at 9ZZZ999. A DMV spokesperson tells Nexstar the agency is still considering its options for the next license plate configuration. 

So the next time you find yourself stuck in traffic on the 405 or traveling up to Yosemite, you can use this tidbit of knowledge to decipher the plates around you.