Registration Plates and National Identifiers

UPDATE: This post was amended from the original which referenced GB as the country code, since the announcement that as from 28 September 2021, the UK is changing its International Vehicle Registration Code from GB to UK. I have correspondingly updated the advice in line with the guidance applicable from 28 September 2021.

This is more of a ‘public information’ kind of blog entry.

There is a lot of confusion and misinformation going around following the UK’s departure from the European Union and the ramifications of this in relation to what drivers and riders need in terms of national vehicle identifiers.

The oft-touted general advice is that since the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union it is now a requirement for UK drivers/riders to display a white oval sticker comprising the national identifier in black on their vehicle while travelling in the EU, but this isn’t the case.

Vehicle national identifier guidelines are set out under the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic of 1968 – an international treaty, concluded at the United Nations Economic and Social Council’s Conference on Road Traffic in Vienna on 8 November, 1968 and which entered into force on 21 May, 1977.

It is an agreement which predates the EU adoption of EU registration plates and applies not just outside the EU, but outside Europe too: Brazil, Chile, Kenya, Mexico, and Pakistan, among many others, are signatories.

Since this treaty was concluded, citizens of any signatory state which has ratified the treaty have been allowed to incorporate into the registration plate nationally-approved national identifiers and optional flags or symbols of recognised supranational organisation to which the countries belong.

Registration plates which incorporate approved versions of these negate the requirement to display the white national identifier oval whilst travelling in other countries which have ratified the treaty.

Several countries already implemented the country’s national identifier and flag into their registration many years ago, from Norway to Iceland to Belarus.

For the last few years, UK owners have been able to drive or ride in other signatory states without the requirement for an oval sticker, so long as their registration plate incorporated the GB national identifier and EU flag.

It’s important to note that Spain, Cyprus, and Malta have not ratified the 1968 Vienna Convention, but whilst they didn’t officially recognise the integration of national identifiers on a national basis, they did as members of the EU.

The UK did not ratify the Vienna Convention until 2018, during the process of withdrawal from the EU, but it was an initial signatory back in 1968.

So what are the ramifications of the UK’s relatively recent ratification of the Vienna Convention?

Essentially, UK owners of vehicles with EU flag symbols on their vehicle registration plates now require a separate white UK oval sticker on their vehicle when traveling abroad.

Old GB EU Registration Plate
The outgoing EU plate can no longer be fitted legally and existing vehicles with these plates require a UK sticker when travelling abroad.

The only officially-recognised format of the UK registration plate which meets the treaty requirements and therefore negates the need for a UK oval sticker in fellow signatory states is the UK national identifier with Union Flag. Any other national identifier (e.g. GB, England, ENG, SCO, etc.) or flag (St George flag, Saltire, etc.) requires a separate UK oval sticker.

UK Registration Plate
The UK and optional Union Flag plate is now officially recognised under the 1968 Vienna convention and vehicles with these do not require a white oval UK sticker when travelling abroad in countries which have ratified the treaty.

As of the beginning of 2021, the fitting of new EU plates in the UK is no longer permitted. Considering travel abroad, there are four variations of approved registration plates. Registration plates can:

  • Have the UK identifier and Union Flag and require no UK oval sticker in treaty signatory states.
  • Retain an existing EU plate, which remains valid indefinitely where fitted, and affix an approved, separate UK oval to the vehicle.
  • Incorporate a UK-only, nationally recognised identifier which isn’t the internationally recognised UK country code (i.e. GREAT BRITAIN, Great Britain, or GB; UNITED KINGDOM or United Kingdom; CYMRU, Cymru, CYM or Cym; ENGLAND, England, ENG, Eng; SCOTLAND, Scotland, SCO or Sco; WALES or Wales) and affix an approved, separate UK oval to the vehicle.
  • Have a plain plate, incorporating no national identifier or emblem and affix an approved, separate UK oval to the vehicle.

In all cases, UK drivers must affix a separate UK sticker when driving/riding in Spain, Cyprus, and Malta, since these three countries have not ratified the treaty.

And to dispel another bit of misinformation, motorcyclists are not exempt from these rules on national identifiers, irrespective of how often people have anecdotally had no problems while travelling abroad. The treaty explicitly references motorcycles.

Further Update

I wrote to my MP for an explanation for the change in national identifier from GB to UK and this was the fowarded response from the appropriate minister.