Here's Why People Collect License Plates
Acquiring these bits of automotive ephemera can be affordable and satisfying.
A subset of the car-enthusiast community devotes time, energy, and storage space to collecting license plates. Although the average driver might pay little mind to these automotive identifiers, license plate collectors revel in details that make some plates more interesting (and consequently more worth collecting) than others.
Why would someone collect license plates?
Founded in 1954, the Virginia-based Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA) helps connect enthusiasts and offers a platform to exchange plates and historical details about them. The organization has more than 2,800 members in nearly 20 countries. ALPCA also publishes six issues per year of Plates magazine, which is focused on license plate history and member-to-member sales.
ALPCA says there are several reasons people collect license plates: Some seek out plates from specific states or countries, some are after plates from a certain time period, and others collect license plates that are emotionally meaningful. Someone who moves from, say, Reno to Dallas might keep a Nevada plate to hang in their garage after registering their car in Texas.
What kinds of plates are collected?
Beyond having sentimental value, plates are unique objects — you won't see a car with a plate and registration number identical to yours. Each state's plate design is also unique, and evolves over time. While older U.S. plates tend to feature simpler designs, newer plates often highlight the sights, historical monuments, or wildlife in a given state.
These differences can make assembling a license plate collection challenging in a rewarding way. Someone putting together a complete collection of California plates, for example, will have to find multiple designs dating back to the 1910s.
The significant size of the United States provides a different kind of challenge for plate collectors. If you live in Nevada and want to collect plates from every state, you'll likely find a plate from neighboring Utah fairly easily — but sourcing a plate from Maine could take a bit more work. For many collectors, the search is as thrilling as the object itself.
Special-interest plates add another layer of complexity. For example, Utah released a limited-edition plate design to promote the 2002 Winter Olympics. It was only offered until July 1, 2002, so it's more difficult to find than a standard Utah plate. While it's not the most valuable plate ever made, its Olympics-themed design might appeal to both collectors of Utah plates and collectors of sports-themed plates. Government- and manufacturer-issued plates are also harder to find than standard plates.
For certain enthusiasts, specific numbers or letters are more desirable. Some, such as popular car reviewer and YouTuber Doug DeMuro, are focused on license plates with very low numbers, while others seek out license plates with repeating numbers or letters — or those with a certain sequence of numbers and/or letters.
How much is a car license plate worth?
An expired U.S. license plate is often worth between $10 and $20 in acceptable shape, though ALPCA's grading standard can help provide a more accurate value estimate. License plates are relatively common and of little value to someone outside the collector community, so getting into the hobby is generally both easy and affordable.
Older and special-interest plates can cost significantly more, depending on their rarity. Due to their scarcity, for example, some pre-World War II plates in good shape trade hands for more than $100.
Vanity plates can cost more than the car to which they're fitted — or even the garage where that car is parked. California has issued just 35 two-letter plates, and one reading MM was listed for more than $24 million in 2021. A New York plate with the words NEW YORK was advertised at $20 million (a price that included the Volvo V70 it was attached to) that same year.