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U.S. Government License Plates

 

   
   
Federal Government Plates and Permits
  Before 1942: Plates and Permits Procured and Issued Independently By Agencies
  Federal Permits for Privately-Owned Vehicles
  Since 1942: Uniform Federal Government License Plates
  Federal License Plate Numbering
  Diplomatic Plates Issued Since 1984 (separate page)



World War II-era U.S. Dept. of Agriculture plate no. A9060
c.1950s U.S. Dept. of Agriculture plate no. A-58097
   
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture 1980s base no. A193958
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture 2001 base no. A 332064
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture 2009 base no. A 350225

Evolution of U.S. Dept. of Agriculture License Plates Since 1942


Introduction and Historical Summary

Although today's federal government plates have a uniform appearance, there are a large number of agencies and branches for which distinctive plates are issued, which might cause an observer to consider their distinctiveness similar to that of plates from different states. Prior to the adoption of a uniform plate design in 1942, although there were fewer agencies than today there were still enough of them that the number of plate types and styles is presently impossible to quantify, or even to estimate. Unfortunately there is no known authoritative documentation about the history of license plates displayed on U.S. government-owned vehicles, so most of what is known and documented on this page is based upon surviving examples and plates shown in photographs.

The earliest plates displayed on vehicles operated by federal government agencies were procured and issued independently of other agencies or a central federal vehicle registration office. A uniform plate was introduced in 1942, in some cases with agencies indicated by letter prefixes. This basic system is still used today. Separate from these federal plates is a relatively short-lived series of plates issued by the D.C. government for federally-owned vehicles. Exactly how these vehicles differed in their use and oversight from vehicles upon which distinctive U.S. government plates were displayed is unknown.


District of Columbia and State Plates for Federal Government Vehicles

When letter prefixes began to be used on District of Columbia license plates in 1927 the letter A was reserved for plates operated by the District and federal governments. (An example is shown here.) No evidence has been found to suggest that distinctively-marked D.C. plates were provided for government-owned vehicles prior to 1927. The types (D.C. and U.S. Government) had been separated by 1936, with the type name clearly embossed, a change that probably occurred in 1935 when the system of using letter prefixes to differentiate types was discarded.

1936 U.S. Govt. plate no. 11-097
1938 U.S. Govt. truck plate no. 132
Mid- to late 1950s U.S. Govt. plate no. 2914-S
     
1961 (exp. 3-31-62) U.S. Govt. plate no. 235
Undated U.S. Govt. plate no. 9089
Undated U.S. Government plate no G11 5256

Except for the two earliest examples, provision has been made on each of these plates for the identification of a particular federal agency. On the white-on-dark-blue plate the small letter S suffix, displayed on a tab, indicates State Dept. use. Based upon the year tab slots to the right of U.S. GOVERNMENT, this plate, with an unusual embossed red border, is believed to date from the mid- to late 1950s.

Some plates included two-letter agency codes, hence the two tab slots on some of these plates. Based upon the spacing of plate number 9089 and the lack of agency tab slots, perhaps the agency was to have been indicated on a decal placed to the right of the number. The G of the prefix on plate no. 5256 indicates assignment by the General Services Administration to its Interagency Motor Pool System, and the 11 indicates use on an intermediate or subcompact passenger car.

Special plates were issued for federal government vehicles in a relatively small number of the states, apparently mostly in the West. Note that the Arizona plate pictured was made 12 years after the U.S. Government began issuing its own uniform plates. The porcelain enamel California plate shown was used during 1919.

1919 California license plate for a U.S. Government vehicle
1954 Arizona license plate for a U.S. Government vehicle
1929 Nevada license plate for a U.S. Government vehicle
1933 New Mexico license plate for a U.S. Government vehicle

 


Before 1942: Federal Plates and Permits Procured and Issued Independently By Agencies

Agency-specific plates appear to have been issued almost as early as the first state-issued plates, which is to say that some porcelain-enamel plates made for government agencies are known. Vehicle registration apparently was addressed individually by the various federal agencies until the 1942 introduction of the government's first uniform baseplate (as discussed below). That many agencies were then using plates of their own design is confirmed in this passage from a newspaper article about the new 1942 plates: “Appearance of the Government's superduper insignia, which will replace some 40 miscellaneous designs previously in use, came simultaneous with radical changes of design in current plates of many of the States.”

Markers used to identify federally-owned vehicles may be segregated into three general categories: license plates, numbered permits, and unnumbered permits. Permits are not the primary evidence of vehicle registration, but supplement (and are usually attached to) the vehicle's license plate. We've made some assumptions as to whether certain numbered plates are license plates or permits based solely on their appearance, and welcome information and opinions on this subject.

Examples of License Plates      

 

 

Coast and Geodetic Survey

pre-1942 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey plate no. 244
 
pre-1942 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture plate no. 43-956

 

 

Dept. of Agriculture

         

 

 

Dept. of the Interior

pre-1942 U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Biological Survey plate no. 133
 
pre-1942 U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service plate no. 120

 

 

Dept. of the Interior



Examples of Numbered Permits      

 

 

Internal Revenue Service

Internal Revenue Service permit no. 120
 
1954 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey permit no. 468

 

 

Coast and Geodetic Survey



Examples of Unumbered Permits      

 

 

Internal Revenue Service

Internal Revenue Service permit no. 120
 
1936 U.S. Govt. plate no. 11-097

 

 

Secret Service

         

 

 

Dept. of Agriculture

Dept. of Agriculture permit
 
War Production Board permit

 

 

War Production Board

   
1936 U.S. Govt. plate no. 11-097
Like other permits, this U.S. Secret Service plate was used in conjunction with regular license plates when official business called for a vehicle to be conspicuously marked for government service. Pre-war photographs show these USSS permits being used on White House vehicles in which the president was a passenger. This particular example has metal strips fastened vertically on the back so that, according to a note taped to the back, it could be slid over and displayed in front of 1939 ("EX-2-29-40") D.C. auto plate no. 691.

 


Federal Permits for Privately-Owned Vehicles

A few federal permits were issued for relatively short periods to indicate compliance with federal regulations.

Interstate Commerce Commission permit no. 295-317Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). In 1935, Congress passed the Motor Carrier Act, which amended the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 to regulate bus and trucking companies as common carriers. Compliance with provisions of the Motor Carrier Act was shown with large metal permits, displayed in addition to the vehicle's license plate, that includes the letters ICC and a serial number. For how long metal ICC permits were issued is unknown, but long after they were discontinued the ICC continued to regulate motor carriers until it was abolished in 1995, by which time this responsibility had been transferred to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

 

1934 National Recovery Act Trucking Industry permit no. A-12-835
1935 National Recovery Act Trucking Industry permit no. E-19-337

National Recovery Act (NRA). The NRA was a New Deal agency created in 1933 designed to bring industry, labor, and government together to create "codes of fair competition" and set prices. The codes were intended to reduce what was perceived as "destructive competition" in various industries and to help workers by setting work and labor standards as well as prices at which goods could be sold. In 1935 the Supreme Court declared that the NRA law was unconstitutional, ruling that it infringed the separation of powers. Although the NRA quickly ceased operations in 1935, certain of its labor provisions resurfaced in the National Labor Relations Act, passed late in the year.

The NRA symbol, the Blue Eagle, appeared on signs displayed in businesses within industries operating under a set of negotiated codes. For the trucking industry, permits were issued for display in addition to the vehicle's license plate.

 


Since 1942: Uniform Federal Government License Plates

With just a few exceptions, including multi-year baseplates being introduced in the early 2010s, uniform license plates issued and used by the United States government have been undated and issued in relatively small quantities, making them difficult for today's hobbyist to date and collect. Plates that include DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA are considered to be D.C. plates, as opposed to federal plates to which the city name has been added, so the bases pictured above are not repeated below.

Four styles of semi-permanent baseplates have been issued:

  1. 1942 Federal Shield base
  2. 1950s Tri-Color base
  3. 1960s-2001 Blue-on-White base
  4. Since 2001: UNICOR Flat bases

1942 Federal Shield Base

1942 U.S. Govt. plate no. 124
1942 U.S. Govt. plate no. A9060
1942 U.S. Govt. plate no. J601
assigned to Jesse M. Donaldson,
U.S. Postmaster General
Dept. of Agriculture
Justice Department
     
1942 U.S. Govt. plate no. AE-4445
1942 U.S. Govt. plate no. I7982
1942 U.S. Govt. plate no. WA-753
Atomic Energy Commission
Dept. of the Interior
Water Authority

The 1942 issue is the first uniform federal government license plate. Our information about this plate comes from an Apr. 3, 1942, Washington Times-Herald article in which “Uncle Sam's new plates” are announced. At the time 19,000 pairs had been issued, out of a planned initial production run of 100,000. The 7"'x14" plates were made at Lorton Reformatory, where D.C. plates were made at the time. They are 20-gauge steel, a heavier material than used for plates intended to be used for only one year, because the intended period of use was five years. “Enameling is also extra heavy because we expect them to last the full life of the car,” said a spokesperson for the Bureau of the Budget, the predecessor agency to the current Office of Management and Budget.

The plate design, which was unlike anything being used in the United States at the time, was approved by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt. “The President liked the final design very much,” reported the Budget Bureau, “and the tag will be used on some of the White House cars.”

Numbering on these plates is either an all-number format or a one- or two-letter agency prefix followed by a serial number. The all-number plates are believed to have been equivalent to today's G-series Interagency Motor Pool series. Among letters observed on 1942 plates are A (Dept. of Agriculture), AE (Atomic Energy Commission), I (Dept. of the Interior), J (Justice Dept.), and WA (possibly the Water Authority within the Dept. of Interior). Many others undoubtedly exist but a complete list of codes used on this base has not been identified. The largest initial order, 10,000 sets, was placed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

All embossed features on some 1942 pates were painted dark blue before the registration number was masked and remaining features were painted again, this time in red, whereas on other plates there is no blue paint under the red. The two production methods provide noticeably different results.

A "large federal shield" plate on a vehicle involved in an accident.
1942 base D.C.-based motor pool plate #1178
(pre-GSA but similar application)

1950s Tri-Color Base

1952 (exp. 1953) U.S. Government plate no. 236
1950s U.S. Government plate no. 3859
D.C.-based motor pool (pre-GSA but similar application)
   
c.1950s U.S. Dept. of Agriculture plate no. A-58097
1950s U.S. Govt. North Atlantic Treaty Organization plate no. NATO-17
1950s U.S. Govt. North Atlantic Treaty Organization plate no. NATO-17
Dept. of Agriculture
Dept. of the Interior
North Atlantic Treaty Organization

This base continued the tri-color format of the federal shield base but in a more traditional format. Validation tabs were used for at least one year, as shown on plate no. 236, making it the earliest known uniform federal government plate with an expiration designation or any indication of its period of use. Dies used to make the Dept. of Agriculture and NATO plates pictured indicate that some plates of this base were made by Irwin-Hodson Co., of Portland, Oregon. Note their use of wide bolt slots instead of the small holes characteristic of Lorton-made plates.

This base is known to have still been in use as of 1957. By early 1963 it had been replaced by the blue-on-white base.

1960s-2001 Blue-on-White Base

U.S. Postal Service 1970s base no. P 07112   U.S. Dept. of Agriculture 1980s base no. A193958
U.S. Postal Service
 
Dept. of Agriculture

The longest-used federal government plate is the undated blue-on-white base, which was issued from the 1960s through Sept. 2001, with design variations made during that period such as the introduction of a reflective background. It was on this base that we first observed vehicle type codes used on the largest series of plates, those of the General Services Administration, which feature a G prefix followed by a two-number code to indicate the vehicle type.

When this base was introduced is unknown, but it was in use by early 1963. The broad font for U.S. GOVERNMENT was used through the 1960s and most if not all of the 1970s. The smaller font, evident on plate no. A193958, had been introduced on plates with a painted (i.e. non-reflective) background by 1981. The background was later switched to reflective white.

Since 2001: UNICOR Flat Baseplates

Completely flat plates made by the federal prison system's industries division, UNICOR, were introduced on October 1, 2001. There have been two variations of these plates, the 2001 and 2009 bases, both of which are made with DLP (Digital License Plate) technology. On both bases the size of registration number characters varies depending on the registration number format.

2001 Base. On earlier UNICOR-made plates the American flag background graphic is blue. These plates have a blue border and no expiration date. Additional examples are pictured within the prefix code list that appears below.

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture 2001 base no. A 332064   U.S. GSA Interagency Motor Pool 2001 base no. G13 0263A
Dept. of Agriculture
 
GSA Interagency Motor Pool

2009 Base. The flag graphic on more recent plates uses both red and blue, and there is a red border and an expiration date. This plate style was introduced in 2008 or 2009 in conjunction with the 2008 creation of the Federal Motor Vehicle Registration System within the General Services Administration. These plates are marked with an expiration month and year that is eight years after the date of issuance.

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture 2009 base no. A 350225   U.S. GSA Interagency Motor Pool 2009 base no. G13 0994H
Dept. of Agriculture
 
GSA Interagency Motor Pool




U.S. Capitol Police vehicle parked at the Capitol.
Each of the U.S. Capitol Police vehicles in these photographs is
registered with GSA Interagency Motor Pool plates of the 2009 base.
U.S. Capitol Police van parked at the Capitol.



Federal License Plate Numbering

When uniform federal government plates were introduced in 1942, some were marked with a letter prefix to indicate the agency to which the vehicle was assigned. Today, all federal plates are numbered in this fashion. G-series plates, which are assigned by the General Services Administration (GSA) for its Interagency Motor Pool, comprise the majority of federal plates. GSA plates include a numeric code following the G prefix, presented diagonally, to indicate the vehicle type.

Agency Prefix Codes

Lists of the federal vehicle registration agency codes have been published throughout their 50+ years of use, and codes are added and removed from the roster of active codes as the structure of federal agencies is changed. When complete, this list will include all codes identified as ever having been used, but some may now be obsolete. Information presented in bold comes from a Jan. 2006 GSA list, the most recent list obtained directly from a government source. In instances in which more than one agency is listed for a single prefix code, the 2006 list code is the most current. Several of the single-letter codes date back to 1942, making them the oldest still in use.

Prefix
 
A
Dept. of Agriculture
AC
Air Coordinating Committee - agency created Sept. 1946, abolished Aug. 1960
ACT
ACTION - agency created July 1971, abolished April 1994
AF
Air Force
AFIS
American Forces Information Services
AOC
Architect of the Capitol
ARC
Appalachian Regional Commission
 
BPR
Bureau of Public Roads - agency created 1949, abolished 1967
 
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers c.1990s base no. CE27805   U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2001 base no. CE1270
c.1990s base Army Corps of Engineers
 
2001 base Army Corps of Engineers
   
C
Dept. of Commerce
CA
Civil Aeronautics Board - agency created 1940, abolished 1985
CE

Army Corps of Engineers, Civil Works

CF
Commodity Futures Trading Commission
CM
Defense Information Systems Agency
CP
U.S. Capitol Police
CPSC
Consumer Products Safety Commission
CS
Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia
CS
Civil Service Commission - agency created 1872, abolished 1979
   
D
Dept. of Defense
DA
Defense Contract Audit Agency
DECA
Defense Commissary Agency
DHS
Dept. of Homeland Security
DIA
Defense Intelligence Agency
DISA
Defense Information Systems Agency
DLA
Defense Logistics Agency
DOT
Dept. of Transportation
 
U.S. Dept. of Energy c.1980s base no. E-29812   Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 2001 base no. EEOC 0001
c.1980s base Dept. of Energy
 
2001 base Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission
   
E
Dept. of Energy
EC
Enrichment Corporation
EEOC
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
EO
Executive Office of the President
Council of Economic Advisors
National Security Council
Office of Management and Budget
EPA
Environmental Protection Agency
 
FC
Federal Communications Commission
FCA
Farm Credit Administration
FD
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
FM
Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
FRB
Federal Reserve Board
FTC
Federal Trade Commission
 
G
General Services Administration fleet
GAO
Governmental Accountability Office

GP

Government Printing Office
GS
General Services Administration
 
HHS
Dept. of Health and Human Services
HUD
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development
 
U.S. Dept. of the Interior c.1990s base no. I269048   U.S. Dept. of the Interior 2001 base no. I411694
c.1990s base Dept. of the Interior
 
2001 base Dept. of the Interior
   
I
Dept. of the Interior
IA
U.S. Information Agency
IBB
International Broadcasting Bureau
 
J
Dept. of Justice
JB
Judicial Branch
 
L
Dept. of Labor
LA
D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency
LB
Legislative Branch
LC
Library of Congress
 
MC
Marine Corps
MSPB
Merit Systems Protection Board
 
NASA 2001 base no. NA 000775   U.S. Navy 2001 base no. N94 71249
2001 base NASA
 
2001 base U.S. Navy
   
N
Navy
NA
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NEA
National Endowment for the Arts
NG
National Guard Bureau
NGA
National Gallery of Art
NL
National Labor Relations Board
NP
National Capital Planning Commission
NRC
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
NS
National Science Foundation
 
OPM
Office of Personnel Management
   
P
U.S. Postal Service
PBG
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
PSA
Pretrial Services Agency
PT
Presidio Trust
   
RR
Railroad Retirement Board
 
U.S. Senate 2001 base no. SAA 007   Smithsonian Institution 2001 base no. SI-708
2001 base U.S. Senate
 
2001 base Smithsonian Institution
   

S

Dept. of State
SAA
U.S. Senate
SB
Small Business Administration
SC
Defense Security Cooperation Agency
SE
Securities and Exchange Commission
SH
Soldiers' and Airmen's Home
SI
Smithsonian Institution
SS
Selective Service System
 
T
Dept. of the Treasury
TV
Tennessee Valley Authority
 
UPC
Peace Corps
 
VA
Dept. of Veterans Affairs
 
W
Army


Non-Passenger Plates

Small-format plates for use on motorcycles and trailers are made, although some trailers have been seen with regular plates on them, and there are also 6"x12" trailer plates. Distinctive federal government motorcycle plates presumably date back to 1942 but we only have photos of more recent examples. Numbering may be distinguished from regular plates with a type designation prefix or suffix letter.

Capitol Police 2001 base Trailer plate no. CP030T   Capitol Police 2001 base Motorcycle plate no. CP038M
2001 base Capitol Police Trailer (left) and Motorcycle

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture 2001 small-format Trailer plate no. A16591   U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security 2009 Motorcycle plate no. DHS 0002
2001 base
Dept. of Agriculture
Trailer
 
2009 base Dept. of Homeland Security Motorcycle


GSA Vehicle Classification Prefix Codes

License plates affixed to vehicles registered in the Interagency Motor Pool of the General Services Administration begin with a code used to indicate the vehicle type. This numbering format is thought to have been introduced in the mid-1960s. These are the codes (including the G agency indicator):

Prefix
Vehicle Type
G10
compact sedan
G11
midsize sedan
G13
subcompact sedan
G14
large sedan
G20
subcompact station wagon
G21
compact station wagon
G22
midsize station wagon
G31
ambulance
G32
bus
G41
light truck, 4x2, under 6,000 GVWR
G42
light truck, 4x2, 6,000 to 8,499 GVWR
G43
light truck, 4x2, 8,500 to 12,499 GVWR
G61
light truck, 4x4, under 6,000 GVWR
G62
light truck, 4x4, 6,000 to 8,499 GVWR
G63
light truck, 4x4, 8,500 to 12,499 GVWR
G71
medium truck, cab and chassis
G72
medium truck, cab with stake body
G73
medium truck, stake dump
G74
medium truck, cab with van body
G75
medium truck, cab with refrigerator van
G76
medium truck, cab with utility-maintenance body
G77
medium truck, multi-stop van, FC
G78
medium truck, cab with dump body
G79
medium truck, tractor with cab
G80
heavy truck, 4x2 gasoline
G81
heavy truck, 4x4 gasoline
G82
heavy truck
G85
heavy truck, 4x2 diesel
G86
heavy truck, 4x4 diesel
G87
heavy truck, 4x6 diesel
G88
heavy truck, other
G90
special equipment

 



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This page last updated on August 22, 2016

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