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.
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