Civil Aircraft Registration Numbers


The alphanumeric code you speak of is known as the registration number. Since this registration is typically displayed towards the back of the fuselage, it is often popularly referred to as the tail number. The registration number is used to identify civilian aircraft and is comparable to a military tail code or even an automobile license plate number. All types of civilian aircraft are required to have a registration number--including commercial airliners, business jets, personal aircraft, helicopters, former military planes in private ownership, gliders, ultralights, seaplanes, airships, blimps, and balloons. Even the new breed of privately-owned spacecraft like SpaceShipOne is required to have a registration number.

A French Concorde with the registration F-WTSA
A French Concorde with the registration F-WTSA

The rules governing aircraft registration are decided upon by a multinational body called the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This group dictates the first portion of a registration code that is known as the prefix or international prefix. This prefix is typically two or three characters in length but can be as few as one or as many as four. The prefix is specific to a particular nation or region and is usually followed by a dash and then a suffix made up of one to five characters. The structure of the suffix is typically determined by that country's aviation regulatory agency, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States.

Most nations have relatively simple rules for determining the suffix. This portion of the registration is most often made up of three or four letters. Some countries instead prefer four or five numbers while a few use a mixture of letters and numbers. Because of the large number of aircraft registered in the United States, the registration code in this nation is more complex than most others. This registration is of the general form:

N[c]-n[n][n][X][X]

where

  1. N = international prefix for United States
  2. [c] = optional category of aircraft, which is no longer in use on aircraft registered since about 1950, categories include:
  3. - = dash separating prefix and suffix, seldom used
  4. n = number (1 to 9)
  5. [n] optional number (0 to 9)
  6. [X] optional number (0 to 9) or letter (A to H, J to N, P to Z)
Note that the letters "I" and "O" are omitted from the registration to avoid confusion with the numbers "1" and "0." The shortest example of an American registration is of the form N1 while the maximum length is NX-999ZZ. This combination of codes makes it possible for up to 915,399 aircraft to be registered at once. However, the designations N1 to N99 are reserved for FAA aircraft only and NASA planes often use designations of the form NnnnNA where nnn is a number from 1 to 999.

SpaceShipOne showing its US registration number N328KF
SpaceShipOne showing its US registration number N328KF

Even countries with simpler registration schemes sometimes incorporate more complicated items of information into their numbers. Germany, for example, varies the structure of the suffix depending on the class of aircraft. This method is explained in greater detail below.

D-XXXX

where

  1. D = international prefix for Germany (Deutschland)
  2. - = dash separating prefix and suffix
  3. XXXX = four characters that can be either letters or numbers. Numbers (0001 to 9999) are reserved for gliders and sailplanes only. Letters (xAAA to xZZZ) are used for other types of aircraft, where the first letter (x) represents one of the following categories:
Like Germany, many other countries also register craft like gliders or ultralights with numbers even if the suffix consists of letters for other types of flying vehicles. The international prefixes and suffix patterns in current use are listed in the following table.

Nation					Prefix		Suffix Pattern
===========================================================================
Afghanistan				YA		abc 
Albania					ZA		abc
Algeria					7T		abc
Angola					D2		abc
Antigua and Barbuda			V2		abc
Argentina				LQ or LV	abc
Armenia					EK		12345
Aruba					P4		abc
Australia				VH		abc
Austria					OE		abc
Azerbaijan				4K		ab1
Bahamas					C6		abc
Bahrain					A9C		ab
Bangladesh				S2 or S3	abc
Barbados				8P		abc
Belarus					EW		abc
Belgium					OO		abc
Cameron Z-425 balloon registered in Belgium as OO-BYR
Cameron Z-425 balloon registered in Belgium as OO-BYR

Nation					Prefix		Suffix Pattern
===========================================================================
Belize					V3		abc
Benin					TY		abc
Bermuda Isles				VPB		ab
Bhutan					A5		abc
Bolivia					CP		1234
Bosnia and Herzegovina			T9		abc
Botswana				A2 		abc
Brazil					PP, PR, PT	abc
British Virgin Islands			VPLV		a
Brunei					V8		abc
Bulgaria				LZ		abc
Burkina Faso				XT		abc
Burundi					9U		abc
Cameroon				TJ		abc
Canada					C		abcd
Canary Isles				EC		abc
Cape Verde				D4		abc
Cayman Isles				VPC		ab
Central African Republic		TL		abc
Chad					TT		abc
Chile					CC		abc
China					B		abcd
Colombia				HK		1234a
Comoros					D6		abc
Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo)	9Q		abc
Congo (Republic of Congo)		TN		abc
Costa Rica				TI		abc
Croatia					9A		abc
Cuba					CUT		1234
Cyprus					5B		abc
Czech Republic				OK		abc
Denmark					OY		abc
Eurocopter EC-120B registered in Denmark as OY-HJN
Eurocopter EC-120B registered in Denmark as OY-HJN

Nation					Prefix		Suffix Pattern
===========================================================================
Djibouti				J2		abc
Dominica				J7		abc
Dominican Republic			HI		123ab
Dutch Antilles				PJ		abc
Ecuador					HC		abc
Egypt					SU		abc
El Salvador				YS		abc
Equatorial Guinea			3C		abc
Eritrea					E3		abcd
Estonia					ES		abc
Ethiopia				ET		abc
Falkland Islands			VPF		ab
Fiji Islands				DQ		abc
Finland					OH		abc
France					F		abcd
French Antilles				FOG		ab
French Guyana				FO		abc
Gabon					TR		abc
Gambia					C5		abc
Gaza					4X		abc
Georgia					4L		12345
Germany					D		abcd
Ghana					9G		abc
Greece					SX		abc
Greenland				GL		abc
Grenada					J3		abc
Guatemala				TG		abc
Guinea					3X		abc
Guinea Bissau				J5		abc
Guyana					8R		abc
Haiti					HH		abc
Honduras				HR		abc
Hong Kong SAR				B-H, B-K, B-L	ab
Hungary					HA		abc
Iceland					TF		abc
India					VT		abc
Indonesia				PK		abc
Iran					EP		abc
Iraq					YI		abc
Ireland					EI		abc
Israel					4X		abc
Italy					I		abcd
Ivory Coast				TU		abc
Jamaica					6Y		abc
Japan					JA		1234
Jordan					JY		abc
Gulfstream IV business jet JY-RAY and Lockheed L-1011 JY-HKJ in Jordanian registrations
Gulfstream IV business jet JY-RAY and Lockheed L-1011 JY-HKJ in Jordanian registrations

Nation					Prefix		Suffix Pattern
===========================================================================
Kampuchea				XU		123
Kazakhstan				UN		12345
Kenya					5Y		abc
Kiribati				T3		abc
Kuwait					9K		abc
Kyrgyzstan				EX		12345
Laos					RDPL		12345
Latvia					YL		abc
Lebanon					OD		abc
Lesotho					7P		abc
Liberia					EL		abc
Libya					5A		abc
Lithuania				LY		abc
Luxembourg				LX		abc
Macau SAR				CR		abc
Macedonia				Z3		abc
Madagascar				5R		abc
Malawi					7Q		abc
Malaysia				9M		abc
Maldives				8Q		abc
Mali					TZ		abc
Malta					9H		abc
Marshall Islands			V7		abc
Mauritania				5T		abc
Mauritius				3B		abc
Mexico					XA, XB, XC	abc
Micronesia				V6		abc
Moldova					ER		12345
Monaco					3A		abc
Mongolia				MT		1234
Montserrat				VPL		ab
Morocco					CN		abc
Mozambique				C9		abc
Myanmar					XY or XZ	abc
Namibia					V5		abc
Nauru					C2		abc
Nepal					9N		abc
Netherlands				PH		abc
New Zealand				ZK or ZL	abc
Nicaragua				YN		abc
Niger					5U		abc
Nigeria					5N		abc
North Korea				PIC		123
Norway					LN		abc
Oman					A40		ab
Pakistan				AP		abc
Panama					HP		1234abc
Papua New Guinea			P2		abc
Paraguay				ZP		abc
Peru					OB		1234
Philippines				RPC		1234
Poland					SP		abc
Portugal				CS		abc
Qatar					A7		abc
Réunion Island				FOD		abc
Romania					YR		abc
Russian Federation			RA		12345
Be-12 amphibious firefighting plane with the Russian registration RA-00046
Be-12 amphibious firefighting plane with the Russian registration RA-00046

Nation					Prefix		Suffix Pattern
===========================================================================
Rwanda					9XR		ab
Saint Helena				VQH		ab
Saint Kitts and Nevis			V4		abc
Saint Lucia				J6		abc
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines	J8		abc
Samoa					5W		abc
São Tomé and Príncipe			S9		abc
Saudi Arabia				HZ		abc
Senegal					6V		abc
Senegal					6W		abc
Seychelles				S7		abc
Sierra Leone				9L		abc
Singapore				9V		abc
Slovakia				OM		abc
Slovenia				S5		abc
Solomon					H4		abc
Somalia					6O		abc
South Africa				ZS, ZT, ZU	abc
South Korea				HL		1234
Spain					EC		abc
Sri Lanka				4R		abc
Sudan					ST		abc
Surinam					PZ		abc
Swaziland				3D		abc
Sweden					SE		abc
Switzerland				HB		abc
Pilatus B4 sailplane registered in Switzerland as HB-1252
Pilatus B4 sailplane registered in Switzerland as HB-1252

Nation					Prefix		Suffix Pattern
===========================================================================
Syria					YK		abc
Tahiti					FOH		ab
Taiwan					B		1234
Tajikistan				EY		12345
Tanzania				5H		abc
Thailand				HS		123
Togo					5V		abc
Tonga					A3		abc
Trinidad and Tobago			9Y		abc
Tunisia					TS		abc
Turkey					TC		abc
Turkmenistan				EZ		a123
Turks and Caicos Isles			VQT		ab
Tuvalu					T2		abc
Uganda					5X		abc
Ukraine					UR		12345
United Arab Emirates			A6		abc
United Kingdom				G		abcd
Uruguay					CX		abc
United States				N		12345, 1234a, 123ab
Uzbekistan				UK		12345
Vanuatu					VJ		ab1
Venezuela				YV		123
Vietnam					VN		1234
Yemen					7O		abc
Yugoslavia				YU		abc
Zambia					9J		abc
Zimbabwe				Z		abcd
The advantage of the international prefix codes is that the registration number immediately identifies the nation of origin. Though many of the codes do not appear logical, the ICAO does make an attempt to base the prefix on the name of the country in its native language. Some of the most obvious examples include OE for Austria (Oestereich), F for France, D for Germany (Deutschland), I for Italy, JA for Japan, and G for the United Kingdom (Great Britain).

It is not entirely clear why N was originally chosen for the United States when U and US were available and would seem more logical choices (A for America might also be a good choice but was used for Austria for some period of time). The prevailing theory as to why N was chosen dates back to the days of Morse code when an international conference agreed to identify various nations by a one-letter designation to avoid confusion. Since the US Navy had already been using N to identify its stations, it is believed that this letter was chosen to represent the entire United States. Many of these wireless communication codes were later adopted for aviation as well, so the N was carried over and has been retained to the present day.

We've also received a number of questions asking why India uses the code VT. You may notice that numerous countries and regions have codes starting with V, and many of these are now or once were British colonies. When the prefix code system was implemented by the ICAO, British possessions were given codes starting with V to indicate their status as part of the British Empire. The letter V was chosen to represent Viceroy, the title given to a colonial governor. Even after these nations gained their independence, many have retained the V prefix codes to the present day. Aside from India, the most recognizable example is probably Australia's VH. Exceptions include Pakistan, which gained the new prefix AP after splitting from India in 1947, and Hong Kong, which traded in its former VR for B upon its return to China. It is also noteworthy that a movement has been underway in India to request a prefix code change from the ICAO to something better representing the independent nation.

In addition to the international prefix codes in use today, many others have been discontinued. One example shown below is the CCCP (or SSSR in the Latin alphabet) once used by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A few other prefixes no longer in use are FC for the Free France movement during World War II, DDR for East Germany, RV for Persia (now Iran), J for Japan, 4YB for the Arabic Federation (Iraq and Jordan), M and X for Mexico, HMAY for Mongolia, CH for Switzerland, and YE for Yemen prior to its breakup in 1990.

Tupolev Tu-144 displaying the old Soviet-era registration CCCP-77107
Tupolev Tu-144 displaying the old Soviet-era registration CCCP-77107

In most countries, the registration number is displayed on the fuselage using a dash to separate the prefix and suffix. The dash is usually omitted when printed in a flight plan, however, and most private pilots use this registration number as the call sign when identifying the plane to air traffic controllers. Commercial aircraft do not follow this tradition and instead use the company name and flight number as their call sign, but airlines do sometimes use the registration number for tracking and maintenance purposes.
- answer by Joe Yoon, 15 January 2006

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