License Plate Fonts of the Western World: History, Samples, and Download Info

by W ard Nic holson

Last updated February 2011: Help us keep the internet’s only comprehensive central listing of license plate fonts from around the Western world up to date and complete. If you’re aware of a license plate font we’ve overlooked, or have corrections or suggestions about something else to include, email: .

License Plate Fonts of the Western World    Page:  Intro  |  North America (1)  |  North America (2)  |  North America (3)  |  North America (4)  |  North America (5)  |  North America (6)  |  Europe (1)  |  Europe (2)  |  Australia & New Zealand

Introduction and Contents

“What’s that license plate font they use on official state plates and where can I get it?” As designers of custom license plates, it’s an inquiry we hear regularly. If you’re asking this question, it’s likely for one of these reasons:

  • In many cases you’re a graphic designer wanting to achieve a realistic portrayal of a license plate for a project you’re working on.
  • Or perhaps you’re a license plate collector who already knows something about the embossing dies that have been traditionally used to stamp plate numbers, but you’re interested in finding out about the fonts used on plates simply to gain further knowledge.
  • Otherwise you might be the occasional customer who wants to create custom front license plates (in states that allow them) for your organization that look like real state-issued “vanity plates,” sporting a pithy message promoting your group with “official”-looking letters.
  • Or you might even be someone from your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles dealing with the transition from traditional embossed plates to the newer flat digital license plates coming on the scene. And you’re wondering how you can obtain a more authentic-looking license plate font than the plain-vanilla default digital typeface offered by the equipment manufacturer that just doesn’t look right, or somehow looks “fake.”

Many variations on a theme in the U.S. The short and perhaps surprising answer to the above question — for those who aren’t plate collectors or familiar with plate manufacture — is that in the United States there is no single official license plate font, and there never has been. (The answer is usually different for European countries and abroad, which we’ll get to later.) However, it’s certainly true that the typical fonts used by the American states and elsewhere on traditional embossed plates do tend to have a rough consistency in look and feel that in most cases clearly telegraphs what one could call the “official license plate font” look.

Here we feature all the realistic-looking license plate fonts used in the Western world that we’ve researched and have been able to track down. For each font, we’ve provided annotated commentary plus links for download, purchase, or further information for easy reference. Our survey of the Western world’s license/ number plate fonts and exploration of related topics covers:

  • North American License Plate Fonts (United States, Canada, and Mexico). In our review of publicly available fonts resembling those used on license plates in North America, we first look briefly at the characteristics that distinguish their appearance from European fonts. Since there is for the most part no clear separation in fonts/ embossing dies used between the three countries in terms of style, the fonts listed are covered for the countries as a group rather than separately, in contrast with our country-by-country coverage for Europe and Australasia.
  • The 4 Basic North American License Plate Font Design Types. The kinds of tools used to design fonts go a long way toward determining the way they look. In this section we first briefly review how fonts in the mainstream graphic design world are created, and then compare that with the quite different way fonts in the license plate industry have traditionally been designed and constructed. The difference explains why license plate fonts look the way they do, and also suggests a simple yet logical classification scheme grouping North American license plate fonts into 4 different categories. With this scheme, quite a bit of sense can be made of the hodge-podge of fonts used by different states, uncovering some interesting patterns shared between them.
  • Flat Digital Plates in the U.S. — End of the Embossed Era? In the U.S., roughly a third of the 50 states have now switched to flat digital license plates since about the year 2000 for most or all of their production. Since digital plates are making inroads and have been controversial, we’ve devoted a large portion of our survey to the issue, beginning with this section.
  • 3M’s Default Digital License Plate Font: Why It’s Bad for Looks and Legibility. A large part of the controversy over digital license plates has to do with objections by the public to how they look. This has been due not just to the flat-surfaced plates, but to the fonts used on them so far, which often look worse and are harder to read than traditional embossed license plate fonts. Since the 3M corporation’s plate production systems have the largest share of the digital license plate market and have largely defined the look of digital license plates to this point, we focus on 3M’s default font and its problems including poor legibility at a distance.
  • Embossed License Plate Fonts vs. 3M’s Default Font for Flat Digital Plates — Comparison Chart. Here we show in a side-by-side, point-by-point chart format the specific differences between a traditional embossed license plate font replica vs. 3M’s default digital font, and why the former is better. We also discuss a potential commercially motivated reason that may have led to 3M’s less-appealing and less-legible font.
  • Going Beyond 3M’s Default Font for U.S. Digital License Plates. Here we look at the few states who’ve not only employed digital plates but are also using fonts that resemble previous-era embossed plate fonts, or are replicas of their own state’s embossed plate font in digital form. We’ll look at what they did right and wrong, which state did the best job, and what can be learned from their efforts.
  • European Number Plate Fonts. In addition to surveying publicly available fonts that replicate those used on European license plates, we cover the history of a typeface with origins as a Prussian Railways typeface from 1905 that eventually became the basis for a font still used today on many European countries’ number plates.
  • Australian & New Zealand Number Plate Fonts. These two countries’ number plate fonts combine both American and European influences, but with results that are somewhat different than either.

NOTE: There is a lot of extra information located on the specimen pages for each font beyond what’s covered in the main narrative. (These are the pages you get to by clicking the font names/ alphabet samples listed sequentially in the main discussion.) The write-ups should be of interest to typophiles and others with an enthusiasm for typefaces. For both the main discussion and specimen pages, considerable time and research were put into digging up and pulling together numerous tidbits of information scattered all over the web, including tracking down and studying plate collector photos. We have included links to such sources for further exploration in relevant sections.

About the Fonts Covered

Why traditional license plate fonts are hard to find. A perhaps odd thing is the actual fonts that have been used traditionally on official license plates are not available commercially to the general public except perhaps in a couple of cases in Europe. You might think this wouldn’t be the case, given the explosion in typefaces and fonts in the last couple of decades since the desktop publishing revolution began in the mid-1980s. And the absence in availability isn’t for any legal reason either, at least in the U.S. It’s simply that the plate-making equipment used to produce official tags is very expensive and highly specialized (in part because of the embossing process traditionally used for many official plates). These machines use fonts or embossing dies that are either unique to each machine/ manufacturer, or are made separately for each installation depending on the desires and requirements of each state.

Fidelity of replicas to originals. Most license plate fonts are created first as AutoCAD files (at least in the U.S.) and then directly incorporated into the embossing dies or other manufacturing equipment used to produce plates, so the actual original fonts are not generally available to the public. The fonts shown here are the closest-looking publicly available fonts to the real ones used on official plates. (Links to plate collector sites with photo galleries have also been included so you can check out the fonts on actual plates.)

In many cases these fonts available publicly have been directly inspired by, or are based on close study or research of an actual font used by one or another state or country. In some cases, they are “replicas” that adhere closely enough to the original font used as a model that it would be difficult to tell any difference. In other cases, the original model was used as a starting point, but while the end result is fairly close, there may be intentional variations to make the font’s features more consistent and harmonious, more graphically pleasing, or to offer greater versatility in use with mainstream graphic design and publishing software. (Expanded character sets such as the addition of lowercase alphabets are a good example.)

Range of fonts shown. A few have been designed by some of the most talented and renowned typeface designers in the font business, others by amateur enthusiasts with a simple love for the raw vernacular. They cover the gamut from fully fleshed-out typeface families of multiple weights all the way to single-weight grunge fonts. Hopefully, you’ll find that perfect license plate font you’ve been looking for. We also hope you enjoy this up-close look at a slice of everyday history that sits right in front of you on the backside of the next car in front of you at your local 4-way stop or main street traffic light.

Font use and licensing issues. Along with the creation year and font designer noted after each font name, we’ve listed the font license carried by the typeface, which indicates permitted use. “Free” means the font can be used for all purposes whether personal or commercial. “Free for personal use” means use of the font is restricted to noncommercial purposes, and its designer must be contacted for commercial license terms (normally meaning payment will be required). “Commercial” means the font is available by purchase only, which normally permits all uses except redistribution or sale of the font. (Occasionally some font vendors may not permit PDF font embedding, or not without an additional license fee.) “Shareware” means you can download and try the font for free, but if used beyond a trial period, payment is required.

Help us maintain a complete list. If we’ve missed a font that you know of, email and we’ll add it to the list if it fits our criteria for a realistic license plate font. These links not only help those looking for such fonts, they help support the font foundries and individuals who have created them. Such people deserve your recognition and/or monetary compensation for their efforts to keep history alive in this often-forgotten little corner of the font world. Font design — done well — is a challenging and tedious task even with the best software tools. Without your encouragement and support, a talented designer may create a few very nice fonts, then give up due to the lack of monetary support, and not be heard from again. Culturally that makes us the poorer for it, so we encourage you to compensate their efforts.

Next: North American License Plate Fonts (U.S., Canada, and Mexico)

License Plate Fonts of the Western World    Page:  Intro  |  North America (1)  |  North America (2)  |  North America (3)  |  North America (4)  |  North America (5)  |  North America (6)  |  Europe (1)  |  Europe (2)  |  Australia & New Zealand