Vehicle license plates are introduced in Grand Theft Auto III with the player's ability to explore in a three-dimensional environment making plates viewable. The feature has very little use aside for cosmetic purposes.
License plates in GTA III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City are static textures, with all plates in GTA III reading LC R29 (the LC could stand for Liberty City). In GTA Vice City, some vehicles retain the LC R29 plates; others have blurred and illegible versions of the Florida state plate.
License plates are dynamic in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, generating random 7 character license numbers that consist of both letters and numbers. The pattern is: two letters and two numbers, then a space, then a number and two letters (e.g. AA00 0AA). Each of the three major cities in San Andreas have their own plates and some vehicles have their own custom license numbers. Note, however, that during a session of play, all cars of the same model will have the same number plate (for example, all Landstalkers will have the same plates). These will change if a new session of play is started, even if stored in a garage.
For Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, license plates in both games feature an "LC" (Liberty City) and "VC" (Vice City) prefix, respectively, followed by a four-digit number. While still more varied than in GTA III and GTA Vice City, the games only offer a limited number of license numbers, with each of them specific to certain vehicles' models.
In Grand Theft Auto IV, license plates do not have an actual letter-number combination; instead, all license plates simply say "LIBERTY CITY" in large blue capital letters. The design of the plates is a nearly exact copy of the current New York license plates (as seen here), except that they say "Liberty City State" at the bottom. It is possible that license plates were originally intended to have a letter-number combination, much like the vehicles in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but this feature was dropped during the game's development, possibly due to complications or difficulties arising from programming this feature. Trailers, however, have numbered plates. In Grand Theft Auto IV, the license plate from the beta version of the game can be found on the back of fuel trailers (which can be seen in the gallery below).
In Grand Theft Auto V, the license plates resemble the current California plates, but have "San Andreas" written on top instead. There are 8 random characters on each plate; the pattern is two numbers, followed by three letters and three numbers (00AAA000). Also, there are multiple types of plates including modern white plates with red cursive state name resembling modern California plates, red embossed state name on white resembling the 1982-1987 California plate, gold embossed state name and serial number on black resembling the 1963-1969 California plates, and gold embossed state name and serial number on blue resembling the 1970's California plates. A fifth license plate design reads "SA EXEMPT" at the top instead of the state name, which states that the vehicle has been issued by a government agency. For this reason, GTA V contains the most realistic plate combinations in the series.
There's a special variation of license plates only seen in North Yankton, which features the same things, except "Yankton" in a red stripe, unseen in SA plates. Only appears in snow vehicles, as North Yankton is a snowy place. These are based on 2001-2006 South Dakota license plates.
Custom plates are typically vanity plates featured on special vehicles, such as vehicles belonging to certain individuals or custom vehicles. Such plates has been seen in use in both GTA Vice City and GTA San Andreas. In San Andreas they cannot be saved in garages, if they are they simply revert to a usual seven digit plate.
- In real-life, United States license plates are issued by the the state, rather than the city like in GTA San Andreas and GTA IV. In Grand Theft Auto V, the license plates read "San Andreas", the name of the state featured in the game.
- In GTA V, one of the Downtown Cab Co. missions require the player to drive a man to the docks to deal with some bikers. Next to the bikers is an Albany Emperor with a license plate reading "ROMANB", another reading "NIKOB" and a bike with "LUISLOPEZ".
- The first plate available in Los Santos Customs to the player is the same one featured in GTA: San Andreas, but always says San Andreas, as opposed to the ones in GTA: SA that say cities on them.
- In GTA V, in the mission Cleaning Out the Bureau, is the first time where the license plate take an important role. In this case, looking for a red Stanier with license plate 83QSL722.
- In real life, California, New York (which San Andreas and Liberty State are based on) and Florida require both front and rear license plates. However, in the GTA universe, all vehicles only feature rear plates.