Illinois passenger car license plate

Rick Kretschmer's License Plate Archives 

Illinois passenger car license plate

A Pictorial History of Illinois License Plates

Passenger car plates dated 1979 to present


This page presents the history of Illinois passenger car license plates, from 1979 through the present day. 

Latest noteworthy updates to this page
  • March 27, 2024  –  Added photos of a 2024 expiration plate and an outgoing 2001 base pate with a yellow "T" sticker temporarily extending validation.  Added a placeholder for a 2025 expiration plate.  Added 2025 sticker colors.  Updated discussion of newly-issued plates stamped with North Carolina dies.  Other minor text updates. 
  • November 9, 2023  –  Added a photo of a 2017 base plate with a number that was originally issued on the 2001 base. 
  • September 2, 2023  –  Added discussion of newly-issued plates with numbers stamped using North Carolina dies.  Acknowledged that numbering format xxx 000 plates were issued starting in 1974, not 1983. 


This page addresses sequentially-numbered Illinois passenger car plates dated from 1979 to the present.  From 1912 until 1978, Illinois license plates were issued annually and displayed the year of issuance.  Though the plates tecnically expired on December 31, motorists were given a 45-day grace period, and so plates were actually valid through February 14 of the following year.  The last non-staggered passenger car registrations were dated 1978 and could be used through February 14, 1979.  Staggered registrations were introduced at the start of 1979, with the earliest expirations at the end of September 1979.  Illinois has always issued passenger plates in pairs. 

So why do I even have Illinois plate pages on my web site?  Well, I spent four months in Illinois in 1982 on a temporary work assignment, and met my wife while there.  She's an Illinois native and her family still lives there, so I've been returning to Illinois on a regular basis ever since.  Also, there's not a whole lot of detailed information already on the web regarding Illinois license plate history.  And so, while I make no claim of being an expert on Illinois plates, I do feel like I can make a contribution by documenting what I do know.  I sincerely hope that you find this information useful. 

If you find an error or have additional information, please send me an e-mail.  If you have, or can take, a digital photo of a plate from a year not shown below, send it to me in an e-mail attachment.  I'll add it to this page, and will credit you for submitting it. 

Illinois passenger car plates, 1979-1986

1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 plate needed
1979 through 1983 natural expirations. 

1984 four-digit
Four-digit passenger car
natural 1984 expiration

Illinois' first modern multi-year base plate made its debut in December 1978.  The last annual plates, dated 1978, were replaced with blue-on-white plates with sticker wells in the upper corners, and the year "79" screened in the upper right sticker well.  The 1979 base plates would have worked fine without expiration stickers if the state had continued with all registrations expiring simultaneously at the end of the year.  But, Illinois chose to convert to staggered registrations at the same time.  Motorists were given the choice between an initial expiration date in late 1979 or in 1980.  The actual expiration months were pre-determined based on the last two digits of the 1978 plates. 

Only a single expiration sticker was issued for each pair of plates.  Obviosly, the expiration sticker was affixed to the rear plate, while the front plate remained unstickered.  It appears that motorists were instructed to put odd year expiration stickers in the left sticker well and even year expiration stickers in the right sticker well.  Of course, not everyone follows instructions, but the majority of rear plates seem to be stickered this way.  This resulted in plates expiring in 1979 displaying both a 1979 expiration sticker and the screened year "79". 

Both all-numeric and two-letter prefix numbering formats continued from the previous annual plates, as did the limited number of xxx 000 format plates in the first half of the Axx series that were issued in 1974.  Illinois does not use leading zeroes in its plate numbers, and so the number of numeric digits varied, but the plates had a maximum of six characters.  Low-numbered all-numeric plates were inconsistent regarding whether or not they had a space separator between the hundreds and thousands digits.  You might also notice that the first two plates shown above have thicker plate numbers than the next three plates.  These sorts of differences occur because Illinois is one of the few states that doesn't make its own plates in a state prison, and further, outsources its plate production to multiple sources.  There tend to be minor differences between plates made by various manufacturers.  This practice continues to the present day. 

Being the first modern multi-year base, it didn't take long for all of the available plate numbers in the two numbering formats to be used up.  As that became imminent, Illinois resorted to issuing new plates with two-letter prefixes containing letters combinations that had been previously skipped.  These included specific combinations with letters I, O, Q, T, U, and Z in position 2.  Why these had been previously skipped or were now chosen to be issued, I have no idea. 

Once those were all issued, the state resumed issuing regular passenger car plates with three-letter prefix numbering formats.  In anticipation of the upcoming 1983 base picking up in the Axx series where the 1974 plates left off, new three-letter plates were issued on the 1979 base in the range of XAA to ZZZ.  Eventually, this entire range was issued as well.  Then the state inexplicably issued plates with serial prefixes in the PXA-PZZ and NVA-NZZ ranges.  Other three-letter prefixes are "reserved number" or personalized plates and were not sequentially issued. 

These plates were last issued in 1983 with natural 1984 expirations.  All 1979 base plates were replaced over a three year period as they expired in 1984, 1985, or 1986, depending on the plate number.  However, some plates were issued a yellow sticker with a large black "T", which allowed the motorist to continue to use the plates after their final expiration date on this base.  When Illinois replaces its plates, it normally issues new plates bearing the same plate number as the old plates they are replacing.  In instances where the old plates were about to expire but the new plates with the same number were not ready yet, the state instead issued the yellow "T" sticker that validated the old plates until the new ones arrived. 

1979-1980 conversion to staggered expiration dates

Individuals renewing their 1978 registrations for 1979 were given the option of a short registration period expiring in the fall of 1979 or a long registration period expiring in 1980.  In both cases, the specific expiration months were determined based on the last two digits of the 1978 plate number.  1979 expirations could be in September, October, or November.  1980 expirations could be in March through November.  Starting in 1979, individuals newly registering a car were also given 1980 expiration months in March thorugh November.  If the month of registration was March through November, the expiration was at the end of the same month a year later.  I don't know how expiration months were assigned for cars being registered by individuals in January, February, or December. 

Cars owned by corporations, including rental cars and leased cars, did not have their expiration months staggered.  Those plates continued to expire in December each year and so were initially given December 1979 expiration stickers.  There were no January or February expirations, at least for the first decade or so after staggered expirations began. 

1979 base plate sticker colors
1979 –  white-on-blue sticker  
1980 –  white-on-red sticker  
1981 –  white-on-green sticker  
1982 –  white-on-brown sticker  
1983 –  white-on-orange sticker  
1984 –  white-on-purple sticker  
1985 and 1986 – No naturals, renewals only; see subsequent section for sticker colors. 

Illinois passenger car plates, 1983-2002

1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
1983 through 2002 natural expirations. 

1983 base three-character
(unstickered front plate)

1988 four-digit
Three- and four-character
passenger car plates

In August 1983, Illinois introduced a revised plate design for new registrants.  The numbering format on this base was initially xxx 000, beginning in the Axx series beyond where the 1974 Axx-prefixed plates left off. 

These new plates retained the blue-on-white color scheme, but the Land of Lincoln slogan was moved to the top of the plate, while the two small sticker wells in the top corners morphed into a single, wide sticker well at the bottom center.  To help motorists with proper sticker placement, the text "83/85 STICKER" was screened in the left half of the well, and "84/86 STICKER" was screened in the right half.  This text was omitted on plates issued after the first few years.  In reality, there weren't many of these plates issued with '83 stickers.  The most likely situation was if a car owned by a corporation was newly registered during 1983; such vehicles had fixed December expiration months.  Probably the only other scenario where an '83 sticker would be applied to this base was if a new plate were issued as a replacement for a lost or stolen plate and the 1983 expiration date of the old plate was retained. 

Between 1984 and 1986, motorists with plates on the previous base were issued new plates on the current base as their registrations expired.  In most cases, the new plate number was the same as the old.  Therefore, many plates with all-numeric plate numbers and two-letter prefixes were issued during this three year period. 

Beginnning with the 1987 expiration sticker, wide stickers that took up the entire sticker well were issued.  The practical effect of this was that it discouraged motorists from putting the 1987 sticker on their previous base plates, which of course usually had plate numbers that matched the new registration card.  The 2002 sticker was again more square-shaped, as it was also used on the 2001 base on which the sticker was placed in the corner. 

The numbering sequence on plates issued to new registrants is far from clear.  As best as I can determine, the three-letter format was interrupted at about the middle of the alphabet, and then dormant numbers from the all-numeric and two-letter formats were issued to new registrants in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  It then appears that the three-letter format resumed, but going backwards from ZZZ 999, issuing never-used numbers as well as dormant numbers from both the 1979 base and the 1983 base.  It would seem that for numbers early in the xxx 000 format, the same number might have been issued on the same base to two different motorists.  They weren't used at the same time, but still... 

replacement plate
Replacement plate
(unstickered front plate)
2002 with temp sticker
2002 expiration with "T" sticker
extending validation

Once the three-letter format was exhausted in about 1995, the state began issuing passenger car plates with a single prefix letter.  Previously, single prefix letters had been used exclusively on non-passenger plate types.  First, selected prefix letters were issued with five or fewer numeric digits.  Then, most of those same prefix letters were issued with six-digit numbers.  Prefix letters B, C, D, F, J, S, T, Y, and Z were issued in that sequence with five or fewer digits; then the same prefix letters were issued in the same sequence with six-digit numbers, with the exception of S and Z.  Most of the six-digit formats had half spaces after the letter and between the third and fourth numeric digits.  Late issue Y-series plates had the same number spacing as plates on the upcoming subsequent base, with only a full space between the second and third numeric digit.  This base was discontinued before the entire Y series with six-digit numbers was issued. 

Illinois apparently allowed motorists whose plates were lost or stolen to retain their plate numbers.  In such cases, a replacement plate or plates were made with the same number and with a small letter "R" stamped on a corner of the plate.  One of these is shown at right; this is an unstickered front plate.  The original rear plate with this number, which apparently wasn't lost or stolen, is shown below that.  Anyway, I'm only aware of replacement on the 1983 base, for both sequential passenger car plates and vanity plates, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were also done on other bases as well. 

This base was last issued in 2001 with 2002 expirations.  They were apparently all replaced with the subsequent base as they expired starting in August 2001, most often with the same plate number.  Again, yellow "T" stickers were issued in cases where the new plates with the same number as the old plates weren't ready on time.  This was a fairly common occurrence as the 1983 base plates expired, due to the compressed one-year replacement cycle.  Shown at right is such a plate with a yellow "T" sticker. 

1983 base plate sticker colors
1983 –  white-on-orange sticker  (rare)  1990 –  white-on-orange sticker   1997 –  white-on-green sticker  
1984 –  white-on-purple sticker   1991 –  white-on-black sticker   1998 –  burgundy-on-gray sticker  
1985 –  black-on-light-green sticker   1992 –  red-on-white sticker   1999 –  white-on-orange sticker  
1986 –  black-on-orange sticker   1993 –  white-on-blue sticker   2000 –  white-on-blue sticker  
1987 –  white-on-blue sticker   1994 –  white-on-gray sticker   2001 –  white-on-red sticker  
1988 –  white-on-red sticker   1995 –  white-on-red sticker   2002 –  black-on-white sticker  
1989 –  white-on-green sticker   1996 –  blue-on-white sticker  
Passenger car plates, 2001-present

2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
2002 through 2018 natural expirations. 

2002 old format

2003 old format

undated old format

2003 old format
Older numbering formats
issued as 1983 base
2001 base with temp sticker
2001 base with "T" sticker
extending validation

In about July 2001, the state introduced what is called the "Abe" base, which featured a graphic image of a bust of Abraham Lincoln in the center of the plate.  Plates issued to new registrants used an all-numeric, seven-digit numbering format, which a space separator between the third and fourth digits from the left.  Starting number was approximately 100 0001.  These plates were apparently not issued as replacements in cases where a plate with a 2001 expiration was lost or stolen, as there was no suitable place to affix the long 2001 sticker. 

As the previous 1983 base plates expired between August 2001 and July 2002, they were replaced with "Abe" plates bearing the same plate number.  However, the spacing for seven-character, one-prefix lettter plates differed from the previous base.  Instead of format x 000 000 used on the 1983 base, 2001 base plates with these same numbers used format x00 0000

Somewhere in the mid 500 0000 series, the blue background was significantly lightened up.  This is most readily noticed by looking at Abe's collar.  Earlier plates had a sharp contrast between Abe's white collar under his right ear and the blue background.  On later plates, you can't tell where Abe's collar ends and the background begins.  This change to the background provides an easy way to distinguish between x00 0000 format plates that were re-issues of numbers from the 1983 base vs. were newly-issued numbers.  Re-isssued numbers in this format always had the high-contrast collar, and newly-issued numbers always had the low-contrast collar. 

The seven-digit, all-numeric format was exhausted in about 2005, and the state resumed issuing new plate numbers with a single-letter prefix and six numeric digits.  Letters that had not been issued on the 1983 base were used, in a semi-random sequence.  The order that new prefix letters were issued on this base were:  G, X, A, H, K, L, N, P, R, S, V, E, Y (with only high numbers not previously issued), Z, and Q. 

In 2016, once the Q series was exhausted, the single-letter format was discontinued, even though there were still a few unused prefix letters still available.  However, the state was preparing to introduce a new base in 2017 that would use a two-letter, five-digit format beginning with letter AA.  So, similar to what happended at the end of the 1979 base, the state began issuing two-letter, five-digit plates on the outgoing 2001 base, but starting with letters ZZ and going backwards.  The spacing on these two-letter plates was xx0 0000.  The two-letter plates were issued on the 2001 base in late 2016 and early 2017.  They got as far as ZU before this base was discontinued. 

By 2018 if not sooner, the state began replacing 2001 base plates with 2017 base plates bearing the same number, but this is a lengthy, multi-year effort, so there will be plenty of 2001 bases still on the road for the foreseeable future.  There's a schedule that calls for plates of a certain age to be replaced each year.  Again, yellow "T" stickers are being issued in cases when the old plate is due to be replaced but the new plate with the same number isn't ready by the time the old plate expires.  Shown at right is such a plate with a yellow "T" sticker. 

2001 base plate sticker colors
2002 –  black-on-white sticker   2008 –  black-on-white sticker   2014 –  black-on-white sticker  
2003 –  black-on-gold sticker   2009 –  black-on-gold sticker   2015 –  black-on-gold sticker  
2004 –  black-on-magenta sticker   2010 –  black-on-magenta sticker   2016 –  black-on-magenta sticker  
2005 –  black-on-green sticker   2011 –  black-on-green sticker   2017 –  black-on-green sticker  
2006 –  black-on-yellow sticker   2012 –  black-on-yellow sticker   2018 –  black-on-yellow sticker  
2007 –  black-on-orange sticker   2013 –  black-on-orange sticker  
2019 and beyond – No naturals, renewals only; see subsequent section for sticker colors. 


Passenger car plates, 2017-present

2018 version 1 2017 version 2 2018 version 2 2018 version 3 2019 6-digit 2019 version 3 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 plate needed
2017 through 2024 natural expirations.  Three 2018 plates are shown with different spacing and shading of the Lincoln graphic to improve legibility.  The all-numeric, six-digit plate is how the state used up the remaining dark jacket sheeting without sacrificing legibility. 

2020 old format
Older numbering format
issued as 2001 base

On January 3, 2017, Illinois introduced a new base featuring half of Lincoln's image on the far left side of the plate and the Chicago skyline in the background.  The xx0 0000 numbering format introduced the prior year was continued, but starting at prefix letters AA and going forward.  The final 2001 base plates and the earliest 2017 base plates were issued simultaneously during the first few months of 2017.  The May 2017 expiration (AG prefix) plate shown above would have had to be issued sometime between January and April 2017 as a replacement for a lost or stolen plate.  December 2017 expirations on this base would be far more common; all corporate-owned cars including rentals and leases are given fixed December expiration dates. 

It didn't take long for the state to realise that these new plates had legibility issues.  The first two changes to fix this were to move the space separator to between the letters and numbers, starting at the beginning of the AG series, and to use a darker shade of red ink for the plate number.  I'm not sure at what point the ink was darkened, or whether it was an attempt to improve legibility or just a variation between two different plate manufacturers.  In any case, these changes helped some, but not enough.  The main problem was that the leftmost character was difficult to read due to Abe Lincoln's dark jacket.  So, Abe was significantly lightened up on subsequent orders of sheeting, and the "Abe's ghost" plates began in the AP 76000 series issued in the spring of 2018.  Meanwhile, the state used up their remaining supply of the older sheeting by reissuing dormant six-digit, all-numeric plate numbers, where all of the digits were stamped to the right of the Abe Lincoln graphic. 

The state is in the midst of replacing all of the 2001 base plates with the 2017 base, and standard Illinois practice is to replace outgoing plates with new plates bearing the same number.  Therefore, more and more new plates with old numbers are being seen on the road.  Most of these old-number remakes are on the newer "ghost" plates, but some of them were made on the original darker plates.  This plate replacement process is expected to take many years. 

The 2023 expiration stickers are worthy of mention.  Unlike all previous stickers, they don't indicate the month of expiration.  They also don't have the plate number or even a sticker serial number printed on them.  Therefore, there's no way to know if the 2023 sticker actually belongs on a given plate, or when the registration actually expires, without accessing the state's registration database or seeing the vehicle's registration card.  Visually, it looks like all plates with 2023 stickers are valid through the end of the year, but of course, that's not really true.  I've been told that there was some sort of difficulty in printing stickers that were specific to a given vehicle, but I don't know the details.  They apparently resolved whatever the problem was, as the 2024 stickers do have expiration months on them. 

In mid-year 2023, plates started appearing with very different-looking plate numbers.  These are being stamped using the same dies that have been used to make North Carolina plates for decades, and which have also recently started being used on Alaska and Utah plates.  I understand these plates are being made using a new manufacturing process which involves printing the plate numbers on the reflective sheeting before the number is stamped.  At first, these were only seen on remakes of numbers that had been issued on the previous base.  It took them a while to work through the inventory of old-die plates with new numbers issued to new registrants, but new-number plates with the new dies began to hit the streets in early 2024, starting approximately in the EP series. 

2017 base plate sticker colors
2017 –  black-on-green sticker   2023 –  black-on-green sticker  
2018 –  black-on-yellow sticker   2024 –  black-on-yellow sticker  
2019 –  black-on-orange sticker   2025 –  black-on-orange sticker  
2020 –  black-on-white sticker  
2021 –  black-on-gold sticker  
2022 –  black-on-magenta sticker  

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