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As a Cambridge real estate agent, the city squares of Cambridge, Somerville and Medford and the town centers of Arlington, Watertown and Belmont, Massachusetts are my home turf. And as a lifelong New Englander who’s lived within twenty miles of Boston most of my life, I can introduce you to other nearby towns as we search for your new home. If you’re planning to sell your home in Cambridge, MA or nearby you’ll find plenty of info about the home selling process here too. Questions? Send me an email or call me at 617-504-1737.

Decoding Massachusetts License Plates

Decoding Massachusetts License Plates  Here’s a bit of mindless fun that just might come in handy someday – if only to keep the kids (of any age!) occupied during road trips.

This license plate sign for a Cambridgeport insurance agency is a long time favorite of mine.

This license plate sign for a Cambridgeport insurance agency is a long time favorite of mine.

One of the other real estate agents in my office turned me on to this trick.  We had both always been under the impression that the police were reading those little sticker tags on license plates to determine if a car had an expired registration.  There’s actually a better way – a method to the madness of the seemingly random string of digits and letters on Massachusetts license plates.

It turns out that the last digit on your automobile license plate – wherever it falls in the six character string – corresponds with the month that your registration expires.  Granted you may be off track because you reregistered late one year but this works for the original registration month which I think is typically your birthday month.

Here’s an example – If your license plate reads “F98 HEV” your registration expires in August – the 8th month – and the upper left corner of your plate will say “AUG”.

Or your plate might read “JK3 M92” – you have a plate that expires in February– and sure enough there’ll be “FEB” in the upper left corner of your license plates.

It doesn’t matter where in the string the number falls – just that it’s the last number.  There could be just one number followed by five letters (theoretically – I really don’t know the meaning, if any, of the letters) and that one number – which is both the first number and the last – would match the month.

Once you start checking on this as you drive or walk down the street it’s hard to stop.  Trust me – it’s not easy to do while you’re at the wheel unless you’re stuck in traffic.  But it does become almost irresistible. Anywhere there are cars you can play the game.

A few caveats – the system seems to have been put in place with the launch of the license plates with red lettering.  The old green plates that are being nursed along by their owners don’t follow this pattern.  Neither do vanity plates or the highly coveted low number license plates.

A hole in my understanding of the code is the method used for November and December birthdays.  I’m still assuming that registrations typically correspond with your birthday month. The code works for the first through tenth months – January through October. October license plates have a zero as the last digit.

But what about November and December?  My “research” reminded me that all commercial plates expire in December. I have a vague memory of learning this one year when I went to the registry in December for some reason (I’m a January myself) and the long lines were all commercial registration renewals.  The commercial plates all have “DEC” in the upper left corner but no corresponding number pattern that I’ve discerned.  And for the life of me I couldn’t find any “NOV” plates.  I’m still looking.

If you have a November or December birthday and can fill me in let me know.  Until then I’ll keep looking.


Decoding Massachusetts license plates is my hobby.  My work – and my passion – is selling real estate in Cambridge and nearby.  Let me know if I can help.

Categories: Everything Else

  1. Connie

    I thought the registry gave plates by the month and that the last number corresponded with the month when you get new plates. I just bought new plates Friday June 21 and received a May plate, 5 being the last number.
    I have a Nov. birthday. ????

  2. Elizabeth Bolton

    Hi Connie ~ I always thought it was your birthday month – I’m January and my registration expires in January (turns out the “I” on my plate is really a one). But my coworkers and I have been talking about this and they insist too that it’s the month you get your registration. Still haven’t found any plates expiring in November so I don’t know what they do when you go to the registry in Nov. or Dec. Thanks for your input – I’ve been asking everyone I know if they’re born in Nov or Dec so I appreciate it!!


  3. Jim


    You’re correct that the last number on the plate is the month of expiration. The registrant’s birthday is not a factor. It also makes no difference if you are late renewing the registration one year. It will still expire in the month indicated on the plate. Green plates follow the same rule but there is no month in the corner as with the red plates. When plates are issued, typically the number on the plate is one month behind. Not the current month. A good example is one of the posts above where someone mentions getting a May plate in June. This is done so the registration will expire at the end of a 2 year period. If the plate showed the current month, the reg. would run for 25 months. Confusing? Well, yes.

    There are no Nov/Dec expirations. Regstrations taken out in Nov-Jan receive October plates (ending in “0”) most of the time. The fee is prorated for the shorter registration period.

  4. Elizabeth Bolton

    Thanks Jim! Excellent explanation. No two ways about it – it’s a fun game to play while driving down the street – spot the final number and match it to the month. I find myself doing it all the time now that I know the trick.

  5. Jim

    Yup, me too. I can’t look at a plate without noticing the numbers! It’s a curse!


  6. MaryBeth

    I had to turn in my green plates (they were 27 years old!) last year and my new red plates indicate the month my registration expires with the month or an abbreviation of the month in the upper left-hand corner. Mine is March, even though I got my car in July. My first car and thus first registration was in March, and my old green plates had the number 3 as the last number in my tag. Since I carried my plates over to my newer car each time, regardless of when I got a newer car, the March registration expiration continues.

    With the red plates, I see all months of the year except for November and couldn’t figure out why that was–did no one in MA buy and register a car or truck in November ever? I see plenty of December plates, but now that I think about it, I think they are mostly commercial vehicles. I’ll have to look for cars and other trucks on my commute home. But no Novembers, which still seems very strange.

  7. John Webb


    I’m curious where you had the large license plate sign made.


    John Webb

  8. peter munro

    Trying to figure out which MA license plate is lower. My plate is 0637. My brother has 2D. I have been trying to find info on the order in which MA issued these plates. Both plates have been in my family for years. Any info you might have on the numbering order of MA plates would be appreciated.


  9. Elizabeth Bolton

    Hi Peter – You’ve got some great license plates – wish I could weigh in and settle the score. Unfortunately your guess is as good as mine.

    Truth be told, until I figured out that the expiration month and final digit corresponded I thought the last character on my plate was an “I” – but it’s actually a one for January. So I’m no expert at this!

    There are people who are *really* into license plates. I used to know somebody who was an avid colllector /expert but in NH plates. Somebody out there has to know…


  10. Mary

    Hi Liz,

    Do you know what the squiggily lines represent on some license plates? They appear in the middle of the plate, vertically. Most plates don’t have them, some plates have more than one line. I’ve also seen them in the state of Rhode Island.


  11. Elizabeth Bolton

    Wow Mary! Now I’m going to be searching for those squiggly lines as I drive! I have no clue but perhaps someone who knows more than me will chime in here.


  12. Sean

    I think trailer plates are the November expiry winners.

  13. jack

    Sean is correct — from my limited knowledge, trailers expire in Nov., as well as campers and vanity plates. I guess November must be a fun time to be at the RMV — trying to decode some vanity plates can be a pain.

  14. jack

    oh, and i forgot to add. the squiggly lines are simply there for security; it makes plates harder to counterfeit. they don’t mean anything. there are also a series of round dots that appear on some plates if you shine a light on them at the right angle. i think mass. has them.

  15. RV


    Maybe you can help me? Some one hit/bumped my car while I was in the grocery store. A witness left her phone number and a license plate number and description. She said the person was pulling out of the parking lot and backed out without paying attention to my car (which was parked in the adjacent parking spot, ramming into it and driving away. I called the Danvers, MA police dept, but they said they could not trace the plate. Could this be an out of state license plate? Its for a blue minivan and the license number is: 017237. Thats all the info I have. I called my insurance company. I have a 300 dollar deductible. So, I would really like to find out who this car belongs to. Thanks.

  16. Marc

    The decoding doesn’t always work on this site, I did a mid-registration change from a standard Red Mass Plate that expired in August, to the Spay & Neuter Animal plate and my plate still expires in August but the numbers on the plate are 9 & 5

  17. JC

    re: squiggly lines
    I know this is a late update, but Jack mislead you as he did not know the answer but tried anyways and failed. The squiggly line is a ham radio operator license plate.
    that is all.

  18. Andrew

    Vanity plates, trailers, taxis and ambulances all expire in November. As far as registrations go, the RMV will give you plate with close expiry as to when you purchased the car. If you buy a car in November or December you may get an October or January pate with at a prorated cost.

  19. Krystal

    Its confusing because I’m October but my birthday is in July and i registered my car in June

  20. Elsa

    Hi my friend has a license Number of “FHE-834
    What year did they change this style ?
    Thanks, Elsa

  21. George Biscari

    I have a Nov. Birthday..
    but i leased a car in April of 2014….however my plate ends i 1..so i just renewed Jan.26th…
    I also wonder how you determine November
    and December deadlines..you have explained Dec…but November is still a mystery to me..and i play the license pkate game also..and i have seen at least 5 autos that are past their deadline… i would get pulled over..but not them..lol
    Thank you for the info.. a legal driver

  22. Carolyn

    November plates for renewals are vanity plates and I think motorcycles. All commercial vehicles are December.

  23. David

    I have just been denied an inspection sticker because the inspector says my Registration doesn’t match my plate number. I have had the plate for years so this doesn’t make sense to me. My plate includes the numeral 1, which is what the registration shows but the numeral appears on the plate as a straight line and the inspector claims that it is an I. I have looked at other plates and the majority with the numeral 1 appear with a slanted top and a straight bottom, but there are also plates that clearly have the letter I with both a top and a bottom.

    Any explanation ?? Did they change the font with respect to the numeral 1 ?

    Thanks, Confused

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