Most US states require a front license plate on your car, yet carmakers barely make an allowance for one. At the very least you have to drill holes in your painted front bumper cover; at worst the plate will sit in front of your car's carefully designed grille, ruining its looks and airflow.
Why front plates are hated
The reasons are many:
- Carmakers seldom create a nice well for a front plate the way they do for rear plates. As a result the front plate usually looks tacked on.
- Front plates tend to protrude a bit from the front of the car and get crushed and mangled in parking.
- Front plates often don't carry registration stickers, so many drivers find them superfluous.
- Some cars are designed so that a front plate must be mounted smack over the grille of the car, looking ugly and disturbing airflow.
Why front plates are often required
Front plate laws come down to the needs of police, meter readers and, increasingly, automatic license plate reader cameras that are borders of towns and even built into some smart home camera software. Having a front plate doubles the shots any of these cameras can use to get a make on your car., at the
Front plates can also help the average person ID a car behind them in their mirror, or one that is otherwise only seen from the front, like a car turning across you in an intersection. (But by that rationale, why don't we have side license plates?)
What the law says
We can't cover every state's statutes, but in California, the state with the most cars, the vehicle code says a front plate must be:
- Securely fastened.
- Clearly visible.
(Those two alone will likely get you a ticket if you try the common trick of just tossing your plate on your dash.)
- Not swinging when mounted.
- Mounted right side up and reading left to right.
- No more than 60 inches off the ground.
- Uncovered, unless the cover only protects the registration tabs (which front plates don't have).
- With its original reflective coating intact.
Better mounting solutions
Tow eye mount
On premium and sporty cars, there's often a little access panel on the front bumper cover that leads to a large threaded socket. This is used to thread a towing eye to haul the car up onto a flatbed tow truck. But the other 99.99% of the time you can use it to install a special license plate mount.
You need to be OK with a plate that is offset from center. The Fast & Furious crowd loves this look.
These still require you drill holes in the front of your car, but not in a place that will be seen. They are right-angle metal brackets that screw into a downward-facing part of your car's nose and then offer a forward-facing metal plate to attach your plate to. If you remove the mount later, no holes will be visible.
Don't be fooled by these; they aren't meant for the kind of license plate mounting you're trying to do. These are temporary mounts for car dealers and test drives. Even if you wanted to risk it with one, you need to find some metal on your car's front end, which is mostly plastic these days.
These are an interesting trick: You can order what is essentially a novelty plate printed on durable adhesive material that can be stuck to any smooth part of the face of your car.
Since they are the correct size, an exact replica of your state's plate design, and carry your license plate number, they might fool a lot of people from 20 feet away. But they are not, in fact, government-issued license plates. An understanding officer might be OK with that, but that's at your risk.
Quick release mounts
These are good for the person who wants to comply with plate law, but also be able to remove the thing easily and quickly, like when pulling into a cars & coffee.
Hard to not be charmed by these, which give your car a touch of Q's shop while also avoiding visible holes and having ultimate ease of plate "removal" when you don't need to show it. But the chin of a car is a brutal place for anything electromechanical to live, and I have doubts these are sufficiently durable.
What about digital plates?
You may have seen my explainer about connected digital plates, which are on the market in small numbers. But even here in California where they were launched, the law still requires you sport a piece of tin up front, even while you have 21st century tech out back.
For now, most of us just need to get used to putting front plates on cars that simply aren't well-designed for them.