3D vs 4D Number Plates

The more things change, the more they stay the same – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr


Since they were first introduced at the beginning of the nineteenth century, number plates have had the same legal objective. To identify, beyond a reasonable doubt, the make and model of a vehicle, its legal position, and who said vehicle belongs to.

Their appearance may have changed slightly, but for the most part, the standard number plate in the UK hasn’t really evolved much in the one hundred and eighteen years since it was first introduced.  It has always been a flat, square, or rectangular plate with a series of numbers and letters printed on it that serves as the vehicle’s individual means of identification.

The current format for number plates and the combination of numbers and letters that manufacturers have to use for vehicles has been in place since two thousand and one, and while the configuration of number plates changed in the immediate aftermath of the millennium, the materials that they were, and are made from didn’t.

Number plates are still made from cheap to produce, long-lasting acrylic which made, and makes them easy to manufacture and their uniformity makes them even easier to identify on camera and by the ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) system that police forces in the United Kingdom use to track and trace any motorist, and vehicle, that they believe may have broken the law.

The 4D/3D Number Plate Revolution

The introduction of both three and four “D” (the D being short for dimensional) plates was the single biggest change in the way standard number plates appeared since the private plate was introduced. While they adhere to the legal guidelines that the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) and the Road Traffic Act stipulate that they have to, there is a significant difference between standard and both 3D and 4D number plates.

Standard plates still use the same flat, printed, and painted numbers and letters, while 3D and 4D plates use raised numbers and letters instead.  It may not seem like much of a difference, but the small change made a huge impact among younger motorists who automatically saw them as a way to stand out from the crowd of passive motorists who were happy to use the standardized format.

The tiny, almost unnoticeable at first glance difference gave cars a more individual appearance and sense of personality. It was a more affordable way for motorists to indulge in the same sort of vanity that gave rise to and helped to encourage the popularity of private number plates during the nineteen eighties.

Most importantly though, because 3D and 4D plates still cling to the format that the standardized number plate is subject to in the UK, they are completely legal and can be used on, and fitted to, any road going vehicle that needs a number plate for the purpose of identification in the UK. It might be a small act of rebellion against an increasingly authoritarian system, but it was one that slowly, but surely took shape as 3D and 4D number plates became more and more popular.

3D And 4D Number Plates – What’s The Difference?

You probably noticed that we said that both 3D and 4D plates used raised numbers and letters rather than the standard painted and printed variety, and that’s absolutely true, they do. But if the only difference between 3D and 4D plates and the common garden ones that are found on every other car in the country is that the numbers and letters on them are raised, surely they’re the same? So what’s the difference between 3D and 4D plates?

At first glance, it is, admittedly, incredibly difficult to tell the difference between 3D and 4D number plates, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The devil, as some wise old soul once said, is entirely in the detail, and in the case of the number plates, the way that they’re made. It’s almost like comparing a Mclaren F1 to a Lamborghini Aventador. They both look similar and they’re designed to do the same thing, but the longer you look at them, the more you’ll gradually begin to see how different they are, and even though the differences between the two styles of plates are less distinct, they are there.

It’s all about the way that they look. The 3D version of the standard number plate has rounded, slightly raised characters, while the characters on the 4D version of the standard number plate are more angular and far more pronounced and raised. And even though they’re made using a similar process, the 4D version is more expensive to make, which means its less affordable to buy, and because it costs the average motorist more to buy a 4D plate than it does to buy a 3D plate, the latter is far more common than its more lavish and extravagant cousin.

Making A 3D Number Plate

The only way to make a 3D number plate is the same way that a 4D number plate is made, and that’s by hand. While the background plate is still fashioned from the same acrylic material as standard number plates are, the actual characters are made from polyurethane, which gives them a shiny, almost wet look and helps them to stand out from the plate, giving them their 3D appearance.

The characters are placed by hand and set using an alignment bar which ensures that they conform to the incredibly specific distances required by law.

They look, to the untrained eye at least, incredibly similar to a normal number plate, but once you’ve seen a 3D plate, it’s something that, much like the first time to see Jaws you’ll never forget it, or be able to unsee it in your mind’s eye. It’s a perspective realignment that’s as much about illusion and visual trickery as it is creating something new and unique.

Making A 4D Number Plate

Almost everything that we’ve just told you about making a 3D number plate also applies to the way that a 4D number plate is made. The characters are put in place by hand and spaced using an alignment bar so that they’ll fall within the strict parameters and legal guidelines that are monitored and maintained by the DVLA and the police. But what makes the plates different is the material that the characters are made from and the way they’re created.

The characters on a 4D number plate are made from the same material that the rest of the number plate is made from, acrylic, but they’re cut using a laser.

This means that the characters can be much thicker, bolder, and angular than those used by their 3D counterparts. If you hold a 3D and 4D plate together and look at them, you’ll instantaneously be drawn toward the 4D plate as it will appear to be more substantial and solid than the 3D plate. The problem, however, is that appearances can often be deceptive.

The Three And Four-Dimensional Durability Issue

Remember what we just said about appearances being deceptive? Well, even though 4D number plates appear to be hardier and stronger than their 3D counterparts, the opposite is actually true. They may be exponentially more expensive and look better but 4D number plates aren’t as tough or as durable as 3D number plates are. And it’s all due to the materials that they’re made from.

The polyurethane that 3D characters are made from have more flex and give, and aren’t as likely to be damaged by stones, gravel, and the ephemera and detritus that covers the surfaces of motorways and minor roads striking them as the characters on 4D plates are. The characters on the 4D plates might be bigger and bolder, but because they’re made from acrylic, the characters on a 4D plate are far more likely to chip and shatter if, and when, they’re hit by something that flies up off the surface of the road and strikes the number plate.

The simple truth is this, neither 3D nor 4D plates are as durable as a standard number plate is, but if you want to make sure that the plate that you’re purchasing for your car will last as long as possible, then choose a 3D plate. It won’t look as good as a 4D number plate will, but it’ll cost you less and won’t chip and crack every time a stone hits it while you’re stuck in slow-moving traffic on the M25.

Customization And Appearance


Part of the appeal of 3D and 4D number plates has always been the fact that because they’re hand made, they’re easily customizable and a lot of manufacturers were able to use their flourish and flair to make them, as long as they remained legal and didn’t infringe upon the road traffic act. Some of the more popular options for both were:

4D Number Plates – The height of the letters that the plates used could be set anywhere between three and five millimetres and the material they were made from could include gel as well as the more common acrylic. The colours available were also slightly customizable and included Krystal, Carbon, and Glitter, which helped to add to their individuality and appeal among younger drivers.

3D Number Plates –  While the material that 3D number plates were made from didn’t differ, the colour schemes that could be used to make them included Carbon, Carbon Brickwork, Carbon Gel, Carbon Glitter, Gel Glitter, and Black, Yes, they’re a cheaper option than 4D plates are, but just because they’re more affordable, it doesn’t mean that they can’t look as good as the more expensive option. At least it didn’t until the DVLA proposed a new set of regulations that are due to come into effect in September of two thousand and twenty one.

The Changing Legal Position –

3D And 4D Number Plates After September 2021

 For some unknown reason, the legal position governing both 3D and 4D plates is going to change in September two thousand and twenty one. Even though there is, undoubtedly, some bona fide reason why the law governing the plates is going to change, the reluctance of either the police or the DVLA to properly explain it, or why the position is changing is a little unnerving and doesn’t exactly bode well for any possible future changes that can, and probably will be made without public consultation.

Both the police and the DVLA have gone to great lengths to assure the general public that 3D and 4D number plates will still be legal when the new regulations come into effect and that the new laws will have absolutely no effect on plates made before September two thousand and twenty one, which can be identified by the code BSAU 145d that is present on all 3D and 4D plates. It’s a manufacturing code that allows the police to identify when the plate was made, and whether or not it is legal. As long as your number plate has this code on it, it will still be legal after September two thousand and twenty one.

However, after September two thousand and twenty one, all 3D and 4D plates will have to have the code BSAU 145e on them, which again refers to their year of manufacture (or rather the regulations governing their manufacture), which effectively limits the colour and shade that the characters on the plate can be made from. The older carbon and brickwork patterns will be illegal, as will any of the glitter imbued shades when the new regulations come into effect and the only colour that will be legal for the characters on 3D and 4D number plates will be the same black that’s used on every standard number plate.

The same change in the law also makes it illegal to use any font on a standard number plate that might give it the appearance of, or the illusion that it could be a 3D number plate. Again, we have no idea what prompted the changes in the law, but they should, and will have no bearing on any plates produced before that date. It just means that if you do need to replace your 3 or 4D plates after September two thousand and twenty one, your choice of colours will be slightly more limited.