European license plates: what do the letters mean?

European License Plate - Czech

Jerry “Woody”/Via Flickr

If you find yourself in a tour bus on a highway somewhere in central Europe, looking out at the license plates of the cars passing by, you might think the system of European license plates was devised as a public way to grade drivers.

There are cars whose license plates bear an “A”; presumably they are the best drivers. Then there are those license plates marked with a “B”; good drivers still, one supposes, but could be better with more road practice. Before you know it, license plates marked “D” and even “F” pass by—with drivers either oblivious to their poor grade or defiantly refusing to let it bother them.

Suddenly, as you wonder why you haven’t seen a “C” driver all morning, an “E” drives by. An extra rung on the ladder of shame before hitting “F,” perhaps? Then a “P.” A driver graded on a pass/fail basis, maybe? Then an “NL.” Not Listed? No License?

If the grading-system hypothesis is beginning to feel like a stretch, it’s because it is. The letters represent the country the car (and driver) is from. “A” is Austria. “B” is Belgium. “D” is Germany (Deutschland). “E” is Spain (España). “F” is France. “P” is Portugal. And “NL” is the Netherlands.

It’s a Dutchman from those Netherlands that has put together a great website of European license plate pictures. Click on each country and see for yourselves. You’ll note that, just like in the United States, countries continue to use old versions of plates; only the newer ones bear the letter of the country, always on the left edge of the plate.

Two thoughts:

First, there appears to be a pecking order in Europe, or at the very least, letters were given out on a first-come, first-served basis. That’s the only way I can think to explain why Norway got “N,” and the Netherlands had to settle for “NL.” Or why Sweden got “S” and Slovenia has to contend with “SLO.” Or why Spain (España) got the “E” while Estonia must share “EST” with America’s Eastern Standard Time.

Second, country abbreviations are based on the country name as it is written in that country’s language. This often coincides with the English spelling, so the letters aren’t so mysterious to English speakers. For instance, “I” is the first letter of Italy and Italia, meaning that Americans and Italians alike can exclaim “Italy!” in their own language upon seeing an “I.” However, we’ve already seen where the local language throws you a letter curveball, as in “E” for Spain or “D” for Germany (or “CH” for Switzerland—CH comes from Switzerland’s Latin name, Confoederatio Helvetica). But Austria, with its “A”, confounds me, because Austria’s name in its native German is Österreich. The “A” comes from Österreich’s English name, Austria—leaving Österreich out in the cold. Did the two little dots over the O (called an umlaut, by the way) disqualify the official German spelling? I just don’t know.

Enjoy, and be sure to play some variant of the license plate game as your bus travels between countries on your next tour with EF Educational Tours.

Editor’s note (2021): This piece has been updated for clarity, accuracy, and relevance.

Topics: Culture

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