Everything you need to know about custom plates for your car

Your car is your baby. You put a lot of time, money and effort into finding the best car for you, and as such, it's an extension of you. Here's what you need to know if you're thinking about making a statement to the world with a personalized license plate.

You can't say THAT!

It should come as no surprise that states have certain restrictions about what your custom plates say - they can't be profane, obscene, or offensive. Other rules can vary by state. New York requires that you explain what your plate says or what it's supposed to convey, even if you think it's obvious. There may be rules about how many of these can be letters and how many must be numbers, or about using certain numbers in place of letters. You can't use zero for O in New York. Your request is usually subject to approval by state authorities.

Find out if the plate you want is available

No state will issue two identical license plates so you must make sure no one else has claimed your phrase. Many states, such as New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, offer search engines on their websites so you can find out if the custom plate you want is already in use. If your state doesn't offer such a tool, call the contact number to find out how you can go about determining if the plate you want is available.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation warns that although the letter/number combination you want may be available today, it's possible that someone else may grab it by the time you finish the application process. You might want to come up with one or more backup combinations.

Begin the application process

You may not be able to apply online, so be prepared to make a trip to your local transportation office. Your state might make this easier by letting you print out the application so you can complete it ahead of time. if you're the patient type, you may be able to mail it in and wait for the postal service to deliver your new plates.

Your state's website should tell you the exact details of the application process there. For example, Pennsylvania requires that your vehicle must already have a valid, current license plate - unless, of course, it's new. If you just purchased your car, it must be titled and registered first.

Expect to pay more

Most states charge more for personalized, custom plates. Call if your state's website doesn't specify how much it will cost you. The fee will probably vary depending on whether you want the plates for a car, truck or motorcycle, and whether you just want your letter/number combination printed on your state's regular license plate or a specialty plate. You can choose a specialty image license plate, such as one with a picture of a manatee in Florida, but that will cost you more, too. Some states also charge an additional, annual fee for retaining a special plate from year to year.

States can generate some serious revenue through their custom plates programs, so you might wonder exactly where all this extra money goes. This, too, can vary from state to state. Florida turns over the money it raises from specialty images to the cause the image it supports, but in most cases, the funds go toward maintaining transportation infrastructures and the state's department of transportation. California gives its money to its cities and counties. Call your state if you want to know what your custom plate costs are paying for and you can't find the information online.

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