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Finding valid vanity license plates

January 31st, 2016

Vanity license plates are frivolous, but life is often made more enjoyable by frivolities. The biggest problem with obtaining such a license plate is finding a combination of letters and numbers that is desirable but not yet taken. It’s a task made harder by the states, many of which keep the availability of a particular combination a secret until you’ve gone through the hassle of applying for it. Worse, some states, such as Colorado, require that the application be on a piece of paper that’s physically mailed in, which means that the cycle between applying and getting rejected will take weeks at best.

A few years ago, I decided I wanted a custom plate for Sam, my Subaru, in honor of the epic road trip I was about to undertake with him. I was living in Minnesota at the time. When I had renewed the registration for my other Subaru, I had noticed that the registration tax could be looked up using just a license plate. If the plate was unregistered, an error would be returned to that effect. Bingo! I went through a few words, and soon I discovered a great option: “EXPLORE”.

Sam the Subaru with his

Sam, caked in Canadian bugs, with his “EXPLORE” vanity license plate

Jump ahead to last summer. I tried to find a similar trick for Colorado, but none of the official state websites would give up any information with only a license plate. I didn’t want to go through the cycle of application and rejection multiple times by mail. Fortunately, another option became apparent.

I had purchased an “unlimited” subscription to Carfax for vehicle history reports when I was looking for a Porsche to buy. A report could be obtained by entering a car’s VIN or — critically — by entering a car’s license plate. I immediately recognized the potential. I pulled up a list of Colorado’s vanity plate requirements and started trying various real words and clever corruptions.

After many attempts, I found a few options that would have worked for Sam or for the Porsche, like “FLAT6”, and a few others that would have been great for one of them, like “SUBARU”. I filled out the paper application, mailed it in, and a few weeks later… got rejected. The reason given was, roughly, “Not an allowable combination.” In other words, the combinations did appear to be available, but they were considered invalid. The fact that they clearly met the vanity plate requirements was apparently lost on the person processing the requests.

Maybe I’ll try again this year.

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