Some people collect postcards, others collect funny travel t-shirts. I collect car license plates from the places I go.
It Christmas time 2011 and I was visiting Prague for the very first time. Just like any other backpacker in his early 20s, I was more interested in getting a immerse into the Czech nightlife than following the life of Charles III or learning more about Czech exquisite cuisine.
The night after Boxing Day, before heading to the vibrant district of Můstek and start another night of local beers and cheap vodka, I was looking for an open restaurant around Prague’s main train station. Just like most other cities in Europe during these holiday days, it was difficult to find food and I had to get lost in the city alleys in order to find something quick.
This was also the very first time I found a car license plate. Just lying on the sidewalk, I saw a solitary and in very good shape Czech license plate. Without an owner on the sight and being seen by most people as simply trash, I decided to take it back home and keep it as a souvenir – 10 years later, this late Christmas present turned into one of my favorite collecting objects when traveling.
A very rewarding collection
Today I have original car license plates from all 5 inhabited continents and around 15-20 different countries. Unlike most souvenirs a traveler can get abroad, I can’t simply buy original license plates at the airport duty free or find them on the street.
This is one of the most difficult collections a traveler can do and beside some skills and basic knowledge about the politics of the country, you simply need luck.
At the same time, this is also one of the most rewarding collections a traveler can have. “Collecting a license plates means bringing home a little piece of a country’s history”, said to me the owner of an antique shop in Asunsion, Paraguay, some years ago.
Read more: BBC News – The man with 7,000 license plates
Where do I find these license plates
Depending on which country you are, getting a car license plate to take home can be as easy as getting a postcard, or as complicated that you have to do calls for several days.
While in countries like Panama or Bahamas I could simply buy them at souvenir shops or local markets, in the tiny archipelago of Palau I had to register a non-existent car and wait a couple of hours in an office.
These are some of the most common places to get an original license plate as a souvenir:
Souvenir shops and local markets
Due to its myriad of colors or beautiful designs, old and invalid license plates are considered a souvenir for travelers passing by in some countries. You can easily find them easily for anything between 5 and 20 EUR and you can probably even select between different cities, states, styles or even shapes.
I’ve found the license plates of Panama, Mexico, Canada and Bahamas at souvenir shops in large cities.
NOTE: In Germany’s Christmas markets you can almost always find US license plates being sold.
Antique shops and flea markets
This is usually a safe choice when the license plates belong to the owner of the car and not the state. I have seen almost every EU license plate at Berlin’s flea markets and got most of my South American license plates that way.
Unlike a souvenir shop, license plates at antique shops tend to be more expensive and sometimes even in worst condition.
Insider Tip: At the Sunday flea market of Montevideo, I saw license plates from all South American countries at a very reasonable price.
The simplest choice is sometimes the right one. Junkyards are usually a good place to ask and check out once you can’t find a license plate at the 2 other places mentioned. They usually have lots of abandoned vehicles and there is always one person who left the license plate there. Depending on the country, getting a license plate in a junkyard can be as cheap as for free and as expensive as the owner of the junkyard wants to ask.
In countries like USA getting a license plate from a Junkyard is not an issue. If you are politely and the owner is in good mood, there is a very big chance you will just get it for free.
Once the above options don’t work, asking the police is a very quick and easy way to find out if its possible to get an original license plate or not. People at the police stations are usually very friendly and like to be helpful.
Even though they might not give you a license plate for you to keep, they might tell you exactly how to get one: write a letter to some department, drop by at the transport ministry or like in my case in Palau, help me registering an inexistant car, so I can keep the plate and bring it back home
Ask a local fixer or tour guide
While police officers will help you to get an original car license plate in a more bureaucratic way, local tour guides will do everything to get you one.
They will negotiate with junkyard owners, ask friends and family and sometimes they go as far as give you their own plates.
While my driver in Honduras got me a license plate within one week after I asked him and who knows where it was from, my tour guide in Mauritania and my driver in Jamaica gave me theirs.
It is funny to think that two of my 30-something license plates were found on the street and without reason whatsoever. But sometimes you are just lucky. Maybe if you pay more attention to your surroundings, you might find a plate in a street corner, traffic light or trash area or simply on the sidewalk.
Read more: Are you in a relationship with traveling?
Here is a list of how I collected each one of my current licence plates:
While some were very easy to get and you can call it unspectacular, others required to ask for days around.
This was the very first licence plate I got. Believe it or not. I found this car plate next to the entrance of the bus station in Prague. Part of it was still attached to the front part of a bumper. The car was not there anymore. This could have been a stolen car they were destroying.
I found this licence plate in a trash can while walking on the streets of Istanbul.
I have around 10-12 USA licence plates. These are some of the easiest to get. You can get them in several flea markets in Europe for 5-10€ each or if you are in the USA, you can get them at the places where they destroy cars.
I got my Pennsylvania one from the Hilton hotel manager in some Hilton hotel I stayed in rural Pennsylvania. I told him about my collection and one hour later we came with one.
This one is the only licence plate I got from a grey area. In Qatar, vehicles lose their car plates due to sand storms. These are then collected and put next to traffic lights across Doha, where drivers can pass by and see if they find theirs. I stopped in one of these traffic lights and picked two.
Is it allowed or not, nobody at the hotel or at the airport seemed to be bothered.
I got it in an open air flea market for 10 EUR in Montevideo. They had several South American licence plates. Here I also bought Brasil, and I regret to not have buy Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
I got this one from a flea market in Buenos Aires. My Argentinean licence plate is from 1970s. I paid antique price because of it and I think it was 25 EUR in total.
I got this one in an antique shop in Asuncion. I paid 20 USD for it.
I got this licence plate from my driver in Jamaica. He gave me his old car licence plate. Unfortunately this one had no paint and looked from any other random country.
This is one of the easiest to get. You can get it at any souvenir shop around Panama’s tourists towns. I got a motorcycle and vehicle plate.
I got this one from my tour operator in Nicaragua. I didn’t find out how, but I think he either gave me his old plate or went to a car repair shop.
Mexican licence plates are easy to get in souvenir shops. They cost anything between 10-25 USD.
The Bahamas car licence plate can be easily get in Nassau at the tourists markets. However, the last time I went to Nassau in 2022 I noticed there were not many and it was kinda difficult to see original ones. Maybe they sold them all and now you can only get them at car repair shops,
Canadian plates are easy to find at souvenir and antique shops. I got mine at a shop in Quebec City. I paid 25 USD for it.
I got this one at the Mauerpark flea market in Berlin. Here you can get also most European car licence plates – including some from the DDR.
This was the most expensive car licence plate I got. I paid 50 USD and basically had to register a new car at the ministry of transportation.
A police officer sent me here and told me I can get one after signing up the form. A car was not needed.
I got this one at a car repair shop. I offered 5 USD for the first person who brings me one. Two young men ran and got me one in 10 minutes.
In Namibia you can personalize your car licence plate. I got one from a friend who just got his personalized one and still had the old one.
I got this one from the hotel owner of the Flat Dogs Safari Camp in South Luangwa. She gave me her old car licence plate.
I bought it at the central market of Maputo for 15 USD.
I bought it from a car repair shop for 5 USD. This is one of my favorite plates as it was not easy to get in a three day trip and required lots of asking from me and my guide.
I got this licence plate from my driver. He didn’t mentioned where he got it and after trying 10 days to get it without any luck, I don’t know exactly where it was from.
I got this one from an antique shop for 10 USD. I also got here a Yugoslavia licence plate.
Democratic Republic of Congo
I got this one from the police station in a village close to Bukavu, in east Congo. The police officer didn’t allow me to take a photo of the moment. Implying that it was not allowed for him to give me the car licence plate. They also took it from a crashed car and I had to pay 15 USD.
I got this one from my guide and good friend Marlon Read. He gave me the old licence plate from his previous expedition car.
I got this one from the border officials at the Senegal/Guinea Bissau border. They had a few hanging on walls and bought it for 5 USD.
I got this one from my driver. I guess he asked around and got it from a car repair shop.
I got this one from my driver. Also from a car repair shop.
I got this one from my driver. Also from a car repair shop.
I was exiting Monrovia when I saw it at a car repair shop. I stopped the car, negociated the price (5 USD) and moved on.
I got this one from my driver after he repaired his vehicle.
I got this car licence plate from a gas station in Dadane. I asked around and then a man sold me one he had extra. He was skeptical why I wanted it, but after showing some photos of my collection, he agreed.
I got this one from a friend in Almaty. She told me she got it from a friend of her who works at the police station. The plate is in excellent shape and I think it might even be brand new.
In Pakistan there are places where drivers can customize their licence plates. I stopped there and got one for 1 USD. Cheapest one ever.
I got the Afghanistan car licence plate at a car shop. I paid 25 USD for it and I carried it for 10 days, passed several Taliban control and even got checked a few times. First Taliban officials didn’t want me to keep it, but after showing photos of the other plates, they agreed is fine.
I got this one at an antique shop in Vientiane. I paid 15 USD for it.