Aluminum vs. Plastic License Plates: What You Need to Know

Ever wondered why every state in the U.S. continues to manufacture its official license plates from aluminum, despite the wide availability of plastic car tags today? On the other hand, auto dealerships often brand the cars for sale on their lots with custom auto tags made from plastic instead. Why the difference and which is better?

The reasons to choose one or the other are simple, and you’ll want to apply them to your own decision whether to buy custom license plates made from plastic or aluminum:

  • What purpose are you buying them for?
  • How should they look?
  • How long do they need to last?

Keep in mind: In general, you get what you pay for.

Plastic license plates:
polyethylene vs. polystyrene

Plastic plates are cheaper to produce and purchase. That’s their advantage, of course. It comes with a tradeoff, though: Tag life for plastic car tags is less than for aluminum.

Can you live with that fact? It depends. Plastic tag life can vary, and here’s the reason why. The important thing to remember is that there are two types of plastic used to produce inexpensive plastic tags:

  • Polystyrene plastic plates are a cheaper and significantly less durable grade of plastic under outdoor conditions, making them suitable only for very short-term use. We therefore don’t recommend them for longer-term identity or promotional campaigns. As they age, two things happen with tags made from polystyrene:
    • Yellowing takes places with exposure to UV or the ultraviolet rays in sunlight, which is an inherent property of polystyrene itself.
    • Curling and warping are common, especially so with thinner grades, with cracking also possible, and occasional breaking, particularly for example in cold weather where the risk is highest.
  • Tags that yellow, curl, or crack look bad and project a poor image, of course, while tags that break become unusable and have to be replaced.
  • Polyethylene plastic plates, by contrast:
    • Don’t yellow in sunlight, and
    • Won’t crack or break under common conditions (barring mistreatment, etc.) as polystyrene can, don’t curl, and any potential warping will be minimal.

Compared to aluminum, of course, both types of plastic are very flexible and don’t have the same degree of rigidity or dimensional stability.

Plate material life. Compared to polystyrene, polyethylene plates are much more durable. While there are no definitive service life ratings when it comes to plastic car tags, .055-gauge polyethylene plates can last up to perhaps 5 years in decent condition, and thinner .035-gauge may last 2 to 3 years. While that range is half or less the potential life of aluminum plates, even the lower end of the range is at least twice the serviceable life of polystyrene plates, some of which we have seen curl up or begin to yellow after just several months of outdoor exposure.

Polyethylene is the only type of plastic plate we carry, since we want a tag we can feel good about selling for identification and promotional use that will last at least a few useful years at a minimum. Plus, with special high-gloss polyethylene like we offer, you’ll project a more professional image.

One final observation. If you are shopping around and (a), the type of plastic is not mentioned, or (b), you cannot get a good answer, or (c), the price seems too good to be true, more often than not it will be polystyrene. Those offering polyethylene will be more likely to mention that fact and want you to know.

Up-front vs. true lifetime cost

Up-front cost isn’t everything, of course, and this brings up the true lifetime (or per-year) cost spent on the car tags. It’s equal to price divided by number of years that you’ll be using the license tags.

You’ll need to look at this if you’re buying custom license plates for long-term name identification and ongoing awareness, because here you’re looking at the economics of lifetime tag cost as opposed to up-front cost. If you’re a church, school or sports team, business, or other group, you often want your auto tags to continue promoting your organization for a number of years down the road. On the other hand, license plates are often used as fundraisers, with the long-term promotional value a secondary bonus, and in this situation up-front cost may be the primary consideration.

Only you can determine which is more important. In weighing your promotional effort, keep in mind that tag life and durability will impact your frequency of tag repurchases, the image you project, and the effectiveness of your exposure to the public.

Aluminum license plates

Aluminum’s advantages stem from holding its integrity for longer. It doesn’t yellow, crack, curl, warp, or break, and it won’t rust or corrode. Screen-printed aluminum auto tags will last a minimum of 5–7 years in terms of the non-fade ink life, and often longer. With aluminum it’s more the non-fade ink life that’s of concern, since the aluminum plate itself can last 10 years or more.

Small cost difference vs. plastic over long-term. Aluminum does cost more up-front. When you need long tag life, however, there may not be much difference in cost over the long run. You buy aluminum auto plates once, they last long, and it will be a long time before you have to buy again.

Reduced purchase frequency. Put another way: If you expect that your custom license plates will be out on the road promoting your organization for the better part of a decade or longer, if you choose not to buy aluminum, you will likely have to buy another set of car tags before that period is up. Consider here if it’s worth going through the buying — and possibly design and approval and promotional — process with your group all over again.

Is image important? Cost isn’t the only criterion, of course. Aluminum simply looks better. That’s important when the image projected by the tag is a priority. You get a glossy surface for a first-class appearance, and a flat rigid surface that won’t warp. They’re license tags you’ll be proud to own and point to, and they make your organization look better. (Note: While most plastic plates on the market have a matte (non-gloss) finish, Leeward Productions’ special polyethylene plates have a glossy finish with close to the surface sheen that aluminum has, a feature you won’t usually find with plastic plates elsewhere, even if polyethylene.)

Fundraising considerations. If the auto tags will be used as a fundraiser, you’ll be reselling them to members of your organization. Depending on their average income level, the initial extra cost may or may not be a significant factor compared to the long-term promotional value, depending on your goals. The cost will be spread among numerous individuals who might be able to absorb the up-front difference in cost fairly painlessly, depending on their average income level and where you set the price.

The best fit for your needs —
with free design for either plate type

The above factors explain what you need to know about aluminum vs. plastic to assess what will work best for you. They explain why all the U.S. states still use aluminum auto tags (where durability is paramount), and why businesses wanting to project a first-class image for the long-term tend to go with aluminum plates. But they also explain why car dealerships, or organizations on a tight budget using car tags as fundraisers may understandably opt for plastic instead. And remember, the design of your plate will go a long way toward creating a professional look, and our free design service applies in either case. Our goal is to ensure a satisfied customer and that you end up happy with your purchase, so think it over, and choose carefully.

To help out with that, be sure to check out our handy price and features comparison chart listing the different types of license plates we offer. We’ve pulled together all the key characteristics to consider in a single table where you can scan things at a glance to make it easy.

When you’re ready, give us a call at 8 00-33 0-82 47 or email us at with your organization’s logo, symbol, and/or information to get started on your plates. After that, your free design — created by experienced graphic designers — will be posted online for your review within just 3 business days. Then we can take things from there.