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Montana license plates present many options - KXLH.com | Helena, Montana

Montana license plates present many options

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Some people opt to pay a bit more in order to sport personalized plates (Photos: David Sherman) Some people opt to pay a bit more in order to sport personalized plates (Photos: David Sherman)

Montana license plates are a source of pride for many people in the Treasure State. The variety of sponsored plate designs available allows people to show their support for a cause, region, or group, and even "regular" county-specific plates are a point of regional pride for some folks who delight in being #1 (Butte-Silver Bow) or #56 (Lincoln County), or somewhere in between.

County numbers for license plates were originally assigned in the 1930s. Most of the county designations were done based on the population of each county, largest to smallest. As a result, Butte-Silver Bow has retained its #1 license-plate, despite not being the most populous county in Montana for many decades now. Cascade County's #2 designation reflects that it once was the second-most populous in Montana; now, it ranks fifth.

Sponsored license plates are available at an extra cost to show support for certain organizations, regions, or causes. The cost of the sponsored plates and renewing them each year includes a donation that goes directly to the sponsoring organization.

Among the dozens of sponsored plates available: Montana Farm Bureau Foundation; Montana Quilters; Montana State University Bobcat Club; Glasgow Scotty Booster Club; Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians; Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame; Montana Wilderness Association; Benefis Mercy Flight; Eagle Mount; Montana Bowhunter Education Foundation; Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center;  

In addition to having the option of a "regular" license plate or a sponsored plate, many people opt to pay a bit more in order to sport a personalized plate -- sometimes they are quite easy to interpret, and other times they can be rather baffling. 

The Montana Department of Justice's Motor Vehicle Division has rules about what can and can not be used for personalized plates:

A personalized plate logo must have at least 2 alpha-numeric characters and cannot be all spaces or all numbers. The alpha character "O" cannot be used. The numeric "0" will be substituted for the alpha "O." Characters may be repeated. Using an ampersand character (&) for "and" is allowed. When determining the total number of characters, each space will be counted as a full character. Spaces cannot be used at the beginning or end of the logo choice.

Obtaining a personalized plate costs $25; the fee is required in addition to any other applicable plate fees.

The MVD website has a history of license plates in Montana; here is an overview:

Montana began issuing license plates in 1914. The first plate displayed only the plate number. The 1915-1916 plates displayed “MON,” the year, and the plate number. A prefix number was assigned in 1926, which designated population centers as they existed in 1914. In 1933, the prefix number was revised to designate the county in which that vehicle was registered. 
 
The “Treasure State” slogan was first used in 1950 and changed to the popular “Big Sky Country” slogan in 1967. That would be used until 2010 when “Treasure State” was reintroduced.
 
In 1991, the colorful “New Issue” plate was introduced and featured a gradient blue background with yellow, orange, and brown striped mountain silhouettes and “Big Sky” emblazoned on the bottom with a bison skull. This design remained in use through the '90s.
In 2001, the 57th Montana Legislature passed the Generic Specialty License Plate Act, allowing the Department of Justice to issue specialty license plates sponsored by qualified organizations or governmental bodies. These plates are specially designed with distinctive backgrounds, colors or phrases that identify the sponsoring organization. 
The 2006 plate was the first standard issue plate to be printed on, rather than stamped in, metal. 
 
Four retired plate designs became available again in 2012. As an alternative to the 2010 standard-issue blue “retro” plate, vehicle owners could choose the 1989 state centennial design or the standard designs from 1991, 2000, or 2006.
Standard issue plate designs are chosen by a committee of representatives from the Department of Corrections, which manufactures the plates, Travel Montana (Department of Commerce), and the Highway Patrol and the Motor Vehicle Division (Department of Justice). 
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