Fifty nifty United States, each with its own license plate. Some designs are distinctly more impressive, so here are the best state license plates.
Anyone who has been on a long road trip in America or who has walked through a large parking lot has probably, at one point or another, played the license plate game. It’s always fun trying to find a plate from each state. If that doesn’t get you through the trip, we have a list of 13 other road trip games that should do the trick. One thing you notice when playing the license plate game is just how awful some of them look and how awesome others look.
We’re going to forget about the awful state license plates today and focus on the awesome ones. Just like there is the best in classic car designs, there is an easy-to-determine list of the best license plate designs. They range from simplistic to creative to flat-out impressive artwork. There’s a reason you’ll find license plates being used as décor in garages and restaurants: they look cool. Here are some of the greatest I’ve seen.
Is this one ever simple, but, with license plate aficionados, is it ever iconic! I have to start this list with a standout plate. The design has just two colors, but there’s some creativity in it with the mountain peaks in the foreground. It gives off a Colorado vibe. It just works. I’ve seen so many Jeep Wranglers with that white and green plate on it. That’s probably the image I first get in my head when I think of Colorado. State officials have toyed with the coloring a little, switching the green and white around, but the overall design remains the same. It may be unrivaled when it comes to a design that doesn’t get old. I have just one message for the Colorado state officials: ‘don’t fix what’s not broken.’
Looking at this plate, it does look like a 1980s design, but I still like it. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but there’s something about it. The Nebraska font is big and bold. The sun on the horizon is interesting. There’s that little bit of yellow to contrast the red. It may be more suited for Arizona or New Mexico, two states I that come to mind when I think of sunsets, but the plate is good, regardless of which state it represents. I’d put that one up in my workshop.
This license plate is kind of busy. The grass and weeds on the bottom of the plate is somewhat distracting. The ‘First in Flight’ gets a little lost in the background image of the plane. Having said that, it’s not a bad plate. The numbers of the plate stand out. The ‘North Carolina’ is easy enough to read. It’s got the red, white, and blue theme going for it. Plus, the best part, the Wright Flyer plane in the background. I like that it pays homage to the first manned flight to leave the ground on its own power. There’s some room for improvement, but they found a theme that works.
Montana has struggled when it comes to establishing their license plate. They’ve gone through every color in a Crayola box trying to figure out what works. I’m still not sure they’ve figured it out. They don’t need to overthink it though. The distinct shape of their state lends itself to a rectangular license plate. Use the outline, like they frequently do, throw in the head of the steer, and you’re set! The outline and the steer are typically the themes that carry over from plate-to-plate, but they just overthink it. I think one of the better designs is their 1938 plate. It’s a nice orange color. The black lettering is big. The steer head doesn’t get lost. It’s all right there. Bring it back with a couple of updates and they’d be good to go.
North Dakota is another state that has struggled with their license plate design. Whether it’s the images, the font, the coloring, or the slogan on their plate, they’ve had a hard time coming up with a memorable plate. Their current version is pretty close though. The sunset is never a wrong choice when it comes to license plates. The bison and Badlands are both highlighted here. That’s another point for this design. I think the only things I’d change would be making the Badlands a little larger. Same goes for the buffalo. Make that guy stand out a little more! Looking at a wall of license plates, this one would be a favorite, but it wouldn’t be the favorite yet. There’s still some redesigning to be done.
South Dakota is another state that has struggled with their license plates. They have the right idea, highlighting Mt. Rushmore. That has been on every version since the 1950s, but, if you look at the evolution of their state license plates, the designs and color choices have been subpar.
The current version of their plate almost nails it. Almost. Mt. Rushmore is prominent in the background. The blue ‘South Dakota’ lettering goes well against the light blue sky. Putting on my graphic designer hat here, I think the letters and numbers on the plate should be a little bolder. It’s still a good plate. A few tweaks would make it better though.
There aren’t a lot of states that have successfully incorporated themes of their state flags into their state license plate designs, but South Carolina is one of them. The South Carolina flag is blue, with a white palm tree and a crescent moon above it in the sky. The South Carolina license plate uses that same imagery. They’ve been using that tree for decades now.
The more recent versions of the plate went further, adding the moon and some coloring to the design. Instead of being white, the tree and moon are a darker shade of blue. Adding a little spice to the plate, some orange, white and lighter blue shades were added to the plate, making it look like a sun setting on the horizon. I don’t know if the color scheme is a 100% match, but it’s easy to appreciate the creativity, effort, and overall design of this plate.
This is another distinctly 1980s license plate. That gold video game-style sunset is easy to place. It’s fun though. Red, white, and blue is represented. That gold represents the ‘Golden State.’ It’s clever. I don’t mind that they moved away from this plate. It probably needed an evolution. The sunset is overused anyway. It was a good plate for the times though.
Another identifiable plate is the one from California. I immediately get a picture in my head of a black Chevy Corvette, top down, taking off in front of me, and that license plate getting smaller and smaller. The background of the plate is white. The numbers and letters are a dark blue. On top? Simple, red, cursive writing. The license plate doesn’t go overboard on patriotism, but the artists still managed to get the red, white, and blue of the American flag onto their state license plate. It’s the cursive ‘California’ that makes this plate stand out. That was a nice touch. It’s one word in a specialized font, but the way ‘California’ is written makes me think of beaches, the ocean, and relaxing, so job well done.
Oregon has been using slight variations of this state license plate since 1991. That’s when the Douglas fir in front of a mountain skyline was first used. Before that, Oregon was using very generic blue and yellow coloring. Picture IKEA having a license plate. That’s what Oregon was using in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This version, with the fir, is great. It showcases the landscape, highlights the fir and the fact that Oregon is filled with them, and makes the actual numbers and letters easy to read. Good color choices and a good design make for a good state license plate!
New Mexico has gone through phases of good state license plate designs and bad ones. It seems like they tweak their design way more than other states do. They’re always changing something about it. Some of the changes have been fairly dramatic, going from red and white coloring to yellow and red. Or going from a sunset to yellow and blue lettering, as shown above.
This version from 2016 is probably my favorite of theirs though. It has the Zia sun symbol, which the state first started using in 1934. That symbol has evolved as much as the plates have, but it’s a trademark on any New Mexico plate. Beyond the use of the symbol, I like the blue and yellow color scheme. It’s a theme that isn’t currently used by many other states. There’s not much of a background, but there doesn’t need to be. The sun is really all they need.
I’ve never been to Maine, but this license plate makes me want to go. You can imagine taking a big whiff of fresh air. The pinecone, pine tree, and bird kind of signify the appeal. Winter or summer, Maine is the place to go and get away from it all. Whether it’s by bird watching, hiking, or camping, the license plate gives a certain motivation to get outdoors. For anyone who takes that next step and does get out of the house, be sure to take some of our recommended must-have overlanding gear. I can also appreciate that this license plate isn’t too busy. The numbers are easy to read. Black font on a white background always works. Yet, there’s still enough flavor to make it unique.
How do you stand out as a desert state? Utah did it well here. The arch drawn here perfectly captures what you’ll find in the Arches National Park, just north of Moab. Utah has miles of trails and rock formations to check out. That’s one of our recommended destinations for anyone off-roading across America. That’s Utah. If I never visit Utah, I at least know this much about it, so it was a good choice on the image there. The white clouds and blue sky finish out the rest of the plate nicely. Again, more black lettering. I’m noticing a theme here. I guess, if it works, it works. Overall, this license plate works.
Arizona is another desert state, but instead of going for mountains and sand, they went with the cactus. That little cactus has been on the plate since the 1980s. I particularly like this version because it’s a great blend of colors. The purple cactus, the yellow sunset, the blue on top, and the white in the middle is a great mix. What’s even more impressive is that they managed to make the numbers and letters big, bold, and green without any of it getting lost in the shuffle!
This plate is another simple one, but that’s OK. It’s a good look. A solid white background with the black lettering makes the perfect canvas for the colorful rainbow. It rains so much in Hawaii that you’ll see rainbows all the time, so it’s quite an appropriate element to their state license plate. The rainbow isn’t neon bright, which is good. It’s more of a subdued rainbow. They’ve been using this plate since the early 1990s and, wisely, haven’t changed it since.
The cowboy on the bucking horse makes this license plate what it is. It’s the perfect imagery for the ‘Cowboy State.’ The image has been used since way back in the late 1930s, when the plate had John Deere-like bright yellow and green coloring. Even back then, when most of the license plates were very plain, Wyoming stood out from the rest with that one image. Ever since, they’ve been using that imagery in a variety of colors and with a variety of backgrounds. Even when the overall design isn’t a home run, that one image makes the license plate great. It’s exactly what I’d want on my Chevy Silverado or Ford F-150.
Wyoming recently changed the color scheme of their license plate. They kept the cowboy and bronco, but changed the background coloring. The current background is the shoreline of a lake with mountains in the background. The ‘Wyoming’ text is in yellow lettering. It’s fine though. In fact, I’d like this version if I hadn’t seen the older one. The previous version had a green pasture below with blue mountains and sky near the top of the plate. That’s the best recent version of their state plate because it really draws attention to the cowboy and horse, as it should be. The newer version is too busy.
A lot of states have tried to keep a theme going throughout the years. Florida uses the oranges. Georgia has the peaches. Kansas has toyed around with using wheat on their license plate. None of those have worked quite as well as the ones above. Sometimes it’s a certain font that stands out. Other times it’s a simple mountain peak or a rainbow. Some of the states not listed just haven’t found what works for them yet, but hopefully they will. All it takes is one good design to resonate with people.