U.S Forces in Germany license plate

Rick Kretschmer's License Plate Archives 

U.S Forces in Germany license plate

A Pictorial History of U.S. Forces license plates

Including those mysterious "USA" plates

 

This page provides a narrative history, with accompanying photos, of various U.S. Forces in Germany plates issued from 1946 to the present. 

Latest noteworthy updates to this page
  • July 4, 2020  –  Brand new page! 

Introduction

What are these mysterious "USA" plates?  This is one of the most frequent questions asked by novice license plate collectors and non-collectors.  While these plates have no sentimental attraction to me, I decided to start collecting them and create this web page to display and describe them, so that such people had a ready way to find the answer to this question on their own. 

"U.S. Forces" plates are issued to members of the U.S. military for use on their personal vehicles while stationed overseas.  There are specific U.S. Forces plates for most, if not all, countries in which there are U.S. military bases.  Some of these plates make their purpose quite clear, and some are very subtle.  Some look like American plates, some look like plates from the host country, and some don't look like anything else.  Then, there are U.S. Forces in Germany plates, which are by far the most common, and in most cases, the most confusing to the novice.  In most years, these plates consisted of nothing more than the plate number and the acronym USA

The reason these plates even exist isn't hard to figure out.  Imagine the police in Germany or other countries trying to recognize plates from the various 50 states, and trying to keep track of how each state identified the date the registration expired, what plate types belonged on what vehicle types, and so on.  The U.S. Forces plates provide consistency that make these things easy for local law enforcement. 

U.S. Forces plates are readily found in the United States, because many members of the U.S. military brought them back from their tour of duty, either still attached to their personal vehicles that they had shipped back home, or at least as souvenirs. 

For now, this page is going to just address U.S. Forces in Germany plates, primarily passenger car plates from 1962 to the present, as these plates generate the most questions by far.  Eventually, I may expand coverage to include other U.S. Forces plates. 

If you find an error or have additional information, or can provide a plate or a photo of a plate that I'm missing, please send me an e-mail.  There's a link to my e-mail address at the bottom of every page. 

U.S. Forces in Germany plates

U.S. Forces in Germany, 1946-1949

(no picture available)

Private passenger car plates

1946 was the first year for U.S. Forces in Germany plates.  These plates simply said US 1946 at the bottom initially.  Plates were colored white-on-green and all passenger car plates had serial prefix letter E.  A revised design introduced in late 1946 changed the text at the bottom to read United States of America with no year.  Numbering continued where the original design left off.  The latter design was used through 1947; it's not clear whether the former design remained in use in 1947 or was replaced with the latter. 

An undated white-on-black plate was used for two years, 1948 through 1949.  This one also had United States of America embossed along the bottom, but passenger car plates used prefix letter C. 

Private motorcycle plates

Motorcycle plates were smaller than passenger car plates but colored the same.  They initally had the text US 1946 across the top and used prefix letter M.  I don't know what they did for 1947, but 1948-49 plates were undated and had the letters USA across the top, and used stacked prefix letters C/M. 

Private trailer plates

1946-47 trailer plates were full-sized and were just like passenger car plates, except they used serial prefix letter T.  I could find no information about 1948-49 trailer plates, but I assume they were either similar to passenger car plates or motorcycle plates.  Likely they used either prefix T or CT, possibly stacked. 

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U.S. Forces in Germany, 1950-1951

(no picture available)

Private passenger car plates

During these two years, U.S. Forces in Germany plates shortened the country name to US of America (without periods, 1950) or U.S. of America (with periods, 1951).  New plates were issued annually and the year was stamped on the plate.  1950 plates were colored black-on-white and had serial prefix C; 1951 plates were colored white-on-green and had serial prefix 1C. 

Private motorcycle and trailer plates

I believe that starting in 1950, trailer plates changed from being full-sized to motorcycle-sized.  Both had the text U.S.A. 1951 across the top during that year, and I presume 1950 plates were similar.  The 1950 motorcycle and trailer plates used stacked prefix letters C/M and C/T, respectively, and the corresponding 1951 plates used prefixes 1CM and 1CT, with stacking or unstacking unknown. 

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U.S. Forces in Germany, 1952-1959

(no picture available)

Private passenger car plates

Only during the ten year period 1952-61 was the phrase U.S. Forces in Germany actually stamped on the plates, making their purpose and use reasonably clear, at least for English speakers.  (To be precise, the 1952 plates didn't include the word "in".)  Through 1959, the entire phrase was located along the bottom of the plate.  New plates were issued annually and each year's plates had the year stamped on them.  In 1952, the year was at the bottom right, next to the word "Germany"; after that, the year was placed at the top center of the plate. 

1952 through 1957 plates continued with two-character serial prefixes that consisted of the last digit of the year followed by the letter "C".  Starting in 1958, various single letter prefixes identifying the service members' duty stations were used.  Colors varied each year, except that the 1957 and 1958 plates were both black-on-dark-yellow.  Due to the change in numbering format in 1958, it was still obvious from a distance which was which. 

Private motorcycle and trailer plates

Through 1957, motorcycle serial prefixes were the last digit of the year followed by the stacked letters C/M, while trailer prefixes consisted of the last digit of the year followed by stacked letters A/T (rather than the previous "CT").  Starting in 1958, motorcycle and trailer plates switched to using stacked prefix letters M/C and T/R, respectively, with nothing to indicate the service member's duty station. 

Like passenger car plates, motorcycle and trailer plates had the phrase U.S. Forces in Germany stamped on the plate (without the word "in" in 1952), but across the top of the plate.  The four-digit year was split between the two bottom corners of the plate.  These plates had bolt slots at the bottom but not at the top. 

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U.S. Forces in Germany, 1960-1961

(no picture available)

Private passenger car plates

Starting in 1960, U.S. Forces plates were made in the 12"-by-6" dimensions that had become standard in North America in 1956.  The smaller plate width necessitated splitting the phrase U.S. Forces in Germany between the top and bottom of the plate, with the word "Germany" followed by the four-digit year going on the bottom.  In 1960 only, the duty station letter code was a suffix rather than a prefix. 

Private motorcycle and trailer plates

The design of 1960 and 1961 motorcycle and trailer plates continued unchanged from 1958 and 1959. 

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U.S. Forces in Germany, 1962-1965
1962-65 USFG passenger
1962-1965 USFG passenger
Private passenger car plates

For the four year period between 1962 and 1965, U.S. military stationed in West Germany used undated white-on-red plates with the only text identifier being the acronym U S A at the top center of the plate.  The red wasn't a typical bright red; it was a more subdued shade that I would call "brick red".  Numbering formats x-000, x-0000, and x-00000 were used, with the letter prefix continuing to be a code identifying the service member's duty station.  I don't have a list of what letters were used or which military bases they signified.  Evidence of current registration was provided by means of a windshield decal indicating a staggered expiration date. 

The extremely long bolt slots in all four corners continued, but despite this, many of the red-background plates, in particular, are found with additional holes drilled in them in order to align with the holes in German license plate brackets. 

Private motorcycle and trailer plates

Both motorcycle and trailer plates were smaller than passenger car plates.  Motorcycles used stacked prefix letters M/C and trailers used T/R.  These also had the letters U S A at the top center.  Both types continued to have bolt slots at the bottom only.  I'm not sure whether these plates ever had expiration stickers applied to them; the ones I have seen did not. 

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U.S. Forces in Germany, 1966-1973
1966-74 USFG passenger
1966-1975 USFG passenger
Private passenger car plates

In 1966, the red plates were replaced with silver-on-green plates that used a new numbering format xx-0000.  Aside from the colors and numbering format, these plates were otherwise similar in appearance to the red plates they replaced.  The letter prefix on most green plates had no special meaning; they were issued sequentially starting at AA and ending towards the end of the E-series.  However, senior officers could get plates with their two initials as the prefix letters and numbers 0001-0099.  Warrant officers and senior non-commissioned officers could get plates with prefix letters WA and SM, respectively.  Everyone else got sequential plates with numbers 0100 and above. 

Again, windshield decals were used to show registration was current.  However, in 1972, plate stickers were issued for this purpose, showing 1973 expiration dates.  These plates were replaced as the expired in 1973. 

Private motorcycle and trailer plates

Both motorcycle and trailer plates were smaller than passenger car plates.  Motorcycles initially used stacked prefix M/C, but ran out of numbers.  After that, the first letter remained M but the second letter became variable.  Trailers continued to use stacked prefix letters T/R.  Plate expiration stickers were used at least during some years, possibly all years, since neither vehicle type had a windshield to apply a decal to. 

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U.S. Forces in Germany, 1973-1983
1977 USFG passenger
1977 USFG passenger
Private passenger car plates

In 1973, the silver-on-green plates were replaced with black-on-green plates.  These new plates had numbers progressing from the JA series, skipping first letters F, G, and H for no apparent reason, and with the text U S A offset to the left.  Non-sequential prefix letters and low numbers for specific ranks were abolished, and plate numbers for all letter series began at 0100.  Plate stickers were used to indicate the expiration month and year. 

The expiration stickers used on these plates were a curious biligual mess.  They had the expiration months' English abbreviations in large letters in the center of the sticker.  In all fairness, though, the German names of the months are very similar to their English names, so the English month abbreviations were likely easily understood by Germans.  The small text at the top of the sticker reads Expires (Verfaellt).  As one might assume, "verfaellt" is the German translation of the word "expires".  The expiration year is indicated in small numbers at the bottom of the sticker. 

These plates were issued and used until they expired between the summers of 1982 and 1983.  Numbering got as high as the RU series. 

Private motorcycle and trailer plates

Both motorcycle and trailer plates were smaller than passenger car plates.  Motorcycles continued to use stacked prefix M/x, with the second letter variable.  Trailers used stacked prefix letters T/R.  However, the text U S A remained centered along the top of the plate. 

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U.S. Forces in Germany, 1982-1998
1983-98 USFG passenger
1983-1998 USFG passenger
Private passenger car plates

Starting in June 1982, U.S. Forces in Germany plates began a slow but steady shift away from resembling American plates.  The design introduced in 1982 was colored black-on-white like many if not most European plates of the era.  The letters USA became much smaller and less obvious, were stacked vetically, and were used as separator between the serial letters and numbers.  Also, the expiration stickers disappeared from the plates and were replaced with windshield decals. 

The numbering format remained two letters followed by four numbers.  The lowest number in each series was 0100.  Plate numbers started over in the AA series and got as high as the late K series in mid-1989 when they stopped being issued.  However, these plates were not quickly replaced by the next base as had been done previously.  The 1983 base was allowed to continue to be used as late as 1998. 

Private motorcycle and trailer plates

Both motorcycle and trailer plates were smaller than passenger car plates.  Motorcycles continued to use stacked prefix M/x, with the second letter variable.  Trailers used stacked prefix letters T/R.  Even though these plates were colored black-on-white like passenger car plates, they continued to have the text U S A at the top center of the plate.  Also, expiration stickers continued to be used, since neither vehicle type had a windshield to apply a decal to.  This design continued to be issued through 2001 and used through 2002. 

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U.S. Forces in Germany, 1989-2002
1989-2002 USFG passenger
1989-2002 USFG passenger
Private passenger car plates

In 1989, the 1983 base was tweaked slighlty, with thick black bands addded along the top and bottom of the plate.  The apparent intent of these black bands was to make the plate appear smaller and shaped differently than 12" X 6" North American plates, even though it actually wasn't.  Numbering began about where the previous base left off, somewhere in the late K series, and is reported to have gone up to the very early V series.  Earlier versions of this base had a thin black line running horizonatally near both the top and bottom of the white section; later versions, including the one shown at left, did not have these lines.  Again, numbering began at 0100 in each letter series. 

In July 2000, the next base was introduced, but between then and the end of 2001, service members newly registering their vehicles were give a choice between the old and new bases.  However, the old 1989 base plates were replaced as they expired in 2002 with the new base. 

Private motorcycle and trailer plates

The previous design with a solid white background continued to be through 2001 and used through 2002.  There were no trailer or motorcycle plates with black bands at the top and bottom. 

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U.S. Forces in Germany, 2000-present

In July 2000, a completely new plate design that strongly resembled the German plate design was introduced.  For the first 18 months, service members could chose between this plate or the previous black-band design.  Starting in 2002, this new design was required for new registrants and it replaced black-band plates as their registration expired. 

The most obvious difference between this U.S. Forces design and the German plate design was the blue band on the left side or upper left corner of the plate.  In this blue band, German plates have the European Union logo consisting of 13 gold stars arranged in a circle, with the letter "D" (for Deutschland, the German name for Germany) in white underneath.  U.S. Forces plates have the NATO (North American Treaty Organization) four-pointed star logo in white, with the letters "USA" in white underneath. 

These plates came in two different sizes, a long narrow one with the same dimensions as regular German plates, and one similar in shape to North American plates, but slightly smaller, with the same dimensions as German plates issued to North American cars that can't accommodate the long plates; I'll refer to these as "compact" plates.  The compact plates measure about 13.25 cm high by 25.75 cm wide, or about 5-1/4 inches high by 10-3/16 inches long.  For comparison, North American plates measure 6 inches high by 12 inches long.  The compact size is far more common one for U.S. Forces plates, since most service members bring their U.S.-spec vehicles with them to Germany. 

On German plates, the first letter or group of letters is a district or town code.  U.S. Forces plates use two-letter prefixes that were not used for any German districts or towns, but which otherwise had no meaning.  On this base, motorcycles and trailers are issued single compact plates of the same size and with the same characteristics as compact passenger car plates.  The only way to distinguish them is by the third letter in the plate number, always "M" for motorcycles or "T" for trailers.  It should also be noted that none of these German-looking U.S. Forces plates are manufactured with bolt holes or slots, and so many of them have had holes drilled in them to provide a means of attaching them to U.S.-spec vehicles.  All of these plates used numbering format xx xx 000, with numbering starting at 100 in each letter series. 

(no picture available)
Plates issued for use in Germany, 2000-2007

Originally, prefixes AD and AF were used on the long plates and compact plates, respectively, issued to personal vehicles.  The AF prefix was only issued for two or three months; it was discontinued due to people associating those letters with the words "air force", "allied forces", or "American forces".  Instead, compact plates with the prefix HK were issued.  The HK-prefixed plate in the next section is a visual example of what these plates looked like. 

There were also two types of U.S. Forces plates issued to non-personal vehicles on this base.  Official U.S. military vehicles intended for street use (sedans, etc.) were issued plates with prefix letters IF. These came in both long and compact versions.  Non-approprated funds (morale, welfare, and recreation) vehicles were issued plates with the same prefix letters as personal vehicles, but with the third serial letter "N".  I believe these also came in both sizes. 

On German plates, two stickers (or as the Germans call them, seals) are affixed to each plate.  The larger seal is round and has a graphic coat-of-arms which identifies the German state.  On the front and rear plates, respectively, smaller stickers indicating the registration expiration date and inspection due date are affixed.  The date stickers use numbers to indicate the twelve months.  Two different date stickers are used on the front and rear plates; the registration sticker on the rear is round, while the inspection sticker on the front is hexagon-shaped. 

On U.S. Forces plates, a sticker resembling a German state seal was used.  Around the outside edge of this sticker are the words STREITKRĂ„FTE DER VEREINIGTEN STAATEN VON AMERIKA IN DEUTSCHLAND, which translates to "Armed Forces of the United States of America in Germany".  Round expiration date stickers were used on both the front and rear plates.  On earlier plates, these looked just like German registration seals, except that the first letter of each month, rather than the month number, was used.  Also different from German seals, a hole was punched through the expiration month. 

In December 2005, U.S. military members stationed in Germany began being issued actual German plates for their personal vehicles.  Or at least plates that are virtually indistinguishable from actual German plates.  However, the "USA" plates continued to be used well into 2007, through November 2007 according to some accounts.  During this two-year transition period, service members likely had to replace their U.S. Forces plates as they expired with German plates.  I presume that official military vehicles and non-appropriated funds vehicles also were switched over to use German plates as well. 

2010 USFG motorcycle
2010 expiration
USFG temp motorcycle

2010s USFG temp passenger
2010s USFG temp passenger
Plates issued for transit to the next duty station, 2006-present

German plates apparently have to be surrendered when the service member is transfered out of Germany.  So, from about 2006 to the present, U.S. Forces plates have been issued as temporary plates for personal vehicles leaving Germany, to give the service member time to get his or her vehicle registered in their home state or the jurisdiction of their next duty station.  These temporary plates were only necessary if the service member had been issued German plates, so likely not many temp plates were issued until 2007 or 2008.  These temp plates can occasionally be seen in use in the United States, especially near military bases.  As far as I know, only compact-sized plates have been used as temp plates for vehicles returning to the U.S. 

At first, these temp plates used the same "state" and expiration date stickers as did U.S. Forces plates intended for use in Germany, and there was no way to tell them apart except possibly by the expiration date.  At some point, U.S. Forces plates began using expiration date stickers with numeric months, indistinguishable from German registration seals.  The HK-prefixed plate at left has such a sticker, with a 2010 expiration daate.  But later, plates were issued with only one of the two stickers, and eventually they stopped putting any stickers on the plates. 

When the HK prefix was exhausted circa 2009, as best as I can tell, subsequent plates were briefly issued with prefix letters SH, and then since about 2010, with prefix letters QQ.  I don't know why the SH prefix was discontinued.  I believe that all HK- and SH-prefixed temp plates, and some early QQ-prefixed plates, were issued with two stickers.  I've only seen QQ-prefixed plates with only one sticker or with no stickers at all.  Also, the QQ plates all seem to have the letters "USA" much larger than on the earlier plates, but I don't know exactly when that change occurred. 

Summary of U.S. Forces in Germany letter codes since 2000
(used on personal vehicles except as noted)
Key to first two serial letters:
  • AD - long plates, issued 2000-2005; used through 2007
  • AF - compact plates, issued 2000 only; used through 2007
  • IF - both long and compact sizes, for official U.S. military vehicles
  • HK - compact plates, issued 2000-2005; used in Germany through 2007;
    then used for temp use for returning to U.S. only 2006-2009
  • QQ - compact plates, issued 2010-present, temp use for returning to U.S. only
  • SH - compact plates, issued 2009-2010, temp use for returning to U.S. only
Key to third serial letter:
  • M - motorcycle (compact plates only)
  • N - non-approprated funds (morale,
    welfare, and recreation) vehicles
  • T - trailer (compact plates only)
  • all others - regular motor vehicles

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