Airplane Registration Resource

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Every registered vehicle on the road has a license plate with a unique combination of numbers and letters.  Each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or vehicle licensing body assigns that code of numbers and letters to the vehicles as a way to identify them. Aircraft have a similar means of identification, called an aircraft registration.

All aircraft must be registered with the FAA or other national authority, and assigned an alphanumeric code. And in the same way that a car must display it’s license plate, proof that the aircraft has been registered must be on the craft at all times. The Certificate of Registration is a legal document that shows that the aircraft has been registered.  Aside from being on the aircraft, most countries legally require the registration code to be displayed on a plate on the outside of the plane.  The plate must be fireproof with the numbers and letters imprinted onto the plate, in case the aircraft should crash or catch on fire.  While the Certificate of Registration that’s kept inside the craft could burn and be lost, the plate imprinted on the outside makes it possible to identify the craft.

Facts about Aircraft Registration Numbers

Aircraft registration numbers were first used as callsigns in 1913. Those familiar with aircraft terminology have probably heard an aircraft registration number referred to as a tail number.  The number got this name because of where it is usually displayed, in the back just before the tail of the aircraft.  Sometimes in the United States, the number is also called the N-number, because US aircraft registrations all start with an N.

The aircraft’s registration number can change if it’s sold to a new owner, registered in a different state than it was previously or the owner wishes to have a special number assigned, much like a vanity plate on an automobile. Some countries reuse registration numbers once a craft is no longer operating with that number.


The first two letters of the aircraft registration number represent the country.  Each country’s prefix is unique. Most countries require the numbers to be painted on the fuselage, with a dash after the country prefix.  In the United States, the painted numbers do not contain a dash. 

Private aircraft often use their registration number as a callsign when communicating with radio towers, but commercial aircraft typically use a company callsign or code given them by the ICAO.

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