License Plate Fonts of the United States, Canada, and Mexico

License Plate Fonts of the Western World    Page:  Intro  |  North America (1)  |  North America (2)  |  North America (3)  |  North America (4)  |  North America (5)  |  North America (6)  |  Europe (1)  |  Europe (2)  |  Australia & New Zealand

Links to font downloads begin halfway down the page.

Background and History

Differences in design between North American and European fonts. License plate fonts used in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico tend to be narrower with a more tallish appearance than those in Europe. The narrowness in width is a necessity brought on by the standardized license plate size of 12x6” (305 mm by 152 mm) in North America. It’s more boxy (taller in proportion) than the horizontally elongated 20.5x4.5” standard used in most of Europe (520 mm by about 110 to 120 mm, usually about 112 mm). This leaves less horizontal room for characters to fit. Consequently, more condensed characters to make the best use of the available space have been the inevitable result.

Oval and/or hand-wrought shapes vs. more constructivist European forms. North American fonts tend to share similar character designs across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, due to commonality in equipment suppliers and/or plate manufacturers. The designs of North American license plate fonts have a higher probability of including oval-shaped (as opposed to circular) curved character strokes, and there are fewer alphabets with squarish overall letterform construction than in Europe. While these are by no means hard-and-fast rules, even where the fonts are more squarish in appearance, they may have somewhat more organic, hand-wrought shapes compared to the more strongly geometric or constructivist flavor of European characters.

One common design characteristic of North American fonts used for license plates that tends to earmark them as such is monospaced font design. This mean all characters share a common character width, or perhaps in a very few cases at least a narrow range of widths. (European number plate fonts are often monospaced or near-monospaced as well. However, the greater width of European plates makes it easier to accommodate proportionally spaced fonts, and some countries have done so with their font designs.) This is an accommodation to the need for a predictable amount of space that a license plate number will take up on the plate, and it gives fonts the more “regimented” look that tends to telegraph an “official” feel. Also for this same reason, the M and W characters, which are normally the widest characters in a normal font, look very crunched in order to fit the common monospaced width shared by all characters in a license plate font.

Lack of centralized government control over font design, and commercial influences. Unlike much of Europe, governments in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have not legislated any particular fonts for use on tags. Further, in the U.S. and Canada, since the individual states rather than the federal government determine how license plates look, varying fonts around a similar overall theme, as well as a polyglot of graphics, have resulted. (Mexico’s state plates all used to share a common design determined by the federal government until 1998, after which time the states have taken over that function.)

Prison industries in the U.S. Another large factor shaping how license plate fonts look in the U.S. is the fact that historically license plate production has been a prison/ correctional industry. (Most U.S. plates are still produced in prisons.) In this area, the J.R. Wald Company of Pennsylvania has had a large impact on font or embossed “die” use, since they established themselves early in the 20th century as the major vendor and consultant to prison industries in the area of license plate manufacturing equipment and production systems, a strong influence that continues to this day. (The Pannier corporation is the other major U.S. supplier of embossing dies for license plates, although they are not involved with plate production itself.)

Largest commercial producers. Aside from J.R. Wald’s role in the prison system, commercially only a few companies produce license plates for U.S. states. Waldale of Nova Scotia serves both Canada and the U.S., while Irwin-Hodson of Oregon has been the primary independent U.S.-based producer in recent years. A spate of mergers has been occurring among license plate manufacturers worldwide in the last decade, though, including that of Waldale and Irwin-Hodson who merged in 2007, the former now owned by the latter, though still operating from its Nova Scotia location.

For an interesting historical discussion of how license plate manufacturing has evolved in the U.S. over the years, see License Plate Manufacture in the USA. (One interesting tidbit is that as of the article’s publication date of 2004, plates were still manufactured in prisons by 45 of the 50 states.)

Collectors’ examples. Thanks to the following sites on whose voluminous plate photos we relied for most of our research on North American license plates.

  • License Plates of North America, 1969–Present (15Q.net). Well-organized, well-written, concise, yet comprehensive chronological listing of each new general passenger plate issue for every state and territory of Canada, Mexico, and the United States since 1969. Good, nice-size photos of each plate issue, with accompanying commentary and pertinent tidbits of info about plate manufacturing details, embossing die changes, personal and/or public reactions to plate designs, legibility, etc.
  • Plate Shack. Largest publicly accessible repository of American — and perhaps Canadian — license plate photos on the planet, plus Mexico, Australia, and quite a few from other countries all over the world as well. Coverage is focused most comprehensively on the United States first, Canada second, and then Mexico and Australia third. The Y2K Page adds many more plate samples beyond the main base plate listings, including the latest state/ territory plate design changes and other plate samples that might be of interest. For the United States, these are usually up-to-date within about the last year for most of the 50 states.

North American License Plate Fonts

Proportional vs. monospaced replicas. All of the fonts below are proportionally spaced except Pennsylvania. (License Plate and Penitentiary Gothic are very nearly monospaced, but deviate a few units out of 1,000 per em from a common character width value.) With fonts intended for general graphic design use, which represent most of those here, character widths are normally individually tailored for precise letterfit for the most professional appearance.

Alphabet specimens. The “one-liner” font samples below intentionally show just key uppercase font characters and numerals, since those are the typical characters of interest with license plates. Click font name link or font image for a full character showing, additional information, and download links.

Legend:  Font Name  |  Year Designed, Designer, Permitted Use. Additional notes then follow.

Driver Gothic  |  2008, Patrick Griffin, commercial. Based on Ontario, Canada’s license plate font, which is constructed using semicircular curves on the top/bottom of characters joined to straight strokes on left/right. Same or similar in appearance to many U.S. fonts designed on the same model. Several stylistic alternates included for character variants seen on different states’ plates.

Driver Gothic font specimen

First USA  |  Mid-1990s, Brand Design Co./House Industries, discontinued, included for historical interest.

First USA font specimen

Garage Gothic  |  1992, Tobias Frere-Jones, commercial. Three weights, Bold shown. Based on parking garage ticket lettering but very reminiscent of license plate characters.

Garage Gothic Bold font specimen

Keystone State  |  1999, Anuthin Wongsunkakon, commercial. One of two fonts in this list based on Pennsylvania’s license plate font (see also “Pennsylvania” a littler further below). Keystone State “Relative” (shown immediately below) is a cleaned-up version of the typeface, while the original “Native” style is rougher and more idiosyncratic to realistically replicate the actual plate lettering.

Keystone State Relative font specimen

License Plate  |  2005, Dave Hansen, free. Replica of Washington state’s font, and also similar to font designs of other U.S. states and Canadian provinces that use semicircular curves as opposed to oval-shaped or “boxy” ones.

License Plate/Washington font specimen

Misproject  |  2001, Eduardo Recife, free. Grunge font made from scans of an assortment of license plate characters.

Misproject font specimen

Motorway  |  2004, Vic Fieger, free. Semi-grunge font with built-in relief shadow to simulate embossing.

Motorway font specimen

Penitentiary Gothic  |  2003, Andrew Leman and Richard Lucas, commercial. Replica of California’s font. Five styles including three-dimensional embossing effects. Plain “Fill” weight shown here (embossing effects reproduce well only at larger sizes).

Penitentiary Gothic font specimen

Pennsylvania  |  2000, Christian Schwartz, commercial. Based on Pennsylvania’s license plate font. Four weights including lowercase plus corresponding small-caps styles, and suitable for use in both text and display. Regular weight shown.

Pennsylvania font specimen

Plate.fsh  |  1999, John Arnstrom (aka Zacadeb), free. For use with the Need for Speed: High Stakes auto racing video game for Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Windows.

No alphabet sample available. Click font name above for further explanation and link to screenshot of font depiction within the game environment.

Refrigerator Deluxe  |  2009, Mark Simonson, commercial. Based on the industrial look seen in mechanically derived block-style typefaces from the mid-20th century. Bears a close resemblance to the shapes of license plate fonts that feature straight sides with rounded square corners, such as North Carolina’s. Four weights including lowercase as well as numerous stylistic alternates, Regular weight shown.

Refrigerator Deluxe Regular font specimen

SAA Series “A”  |  1980, designer unknown, digitized by URW staff, commercial. Very similar in design to the various fonts based on oval-shaped curves used by many U.S. states and Canadian provinces. Seven weights, “Series A” shown.

SAA Series A font specimen

SNV Extra Condensed  |  1972, designed by Verein Schweizer Straßenfachmänner foundry, distributed by URW, commercial. Resembles fonts of U.S. states that use straight strokes for the left and right sides of characters that would otherwise be curved, as used by various U.S. and Canadian states. Three weights, Extra Condensed shown.

SNV Extra Condensed font specimen

Vehicle  |  2009, Jeff Levine, commercial. Apparently inspired by Florida’s standard passenger plate, but not a direct replica. Similar also to Michigan and New Jersey’s fonts, which share the same sheared square corner construction with only minor differences.

Vehicle Regular font specimen

Zurich Extra Condensed  |  1990, Bitstream staff, commercial. A slightly modified clone of Adrian Frutiger's well-known Univers from 1956, utilized by 3M corporation as the basis for the default fonts for its digital license plate system sold to U.S. prisons. Two weights as used by 3M, Extra Condensed shown here.

Zurch Extra Condensed font specimen

Next: The 4 Basic North American License Plate Font Design Types (North America, cont.)

Previous: License Plate Fonts of the Western World — Intro

License Plate Fonts of the Western World    Page:  Intro  |  North America (1)  |  North America (2)  |  North America (3)  |  North America (4)  |  North America (5)  |  North America (6)  |  Europe (1)  |  Europe (2)  |  Australia & New Zealand