The Washington Diplomat / October 2007
By Larry Luxner
Diplomatic license plates are sporting a new look for the first time in 23 years.
Beginning Aug. 28, the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions (OFM) began issuing the redesigned plates for new diplomatic registrations, and will renew active diplomatic registrations using the new plates as registrations expire month by month.
This means you'll see both old and new plates on the streets of the District and suburban Maryland and Virginia until Dec. 31, 2008, after which the old plates will no longer be valid.
According to an official press release, the State Department is making the switch "in line with the standard practice in motor vehicle departments to change plate design periodically, and to distinguish the State Department's plates from other jurisdictions' plates."
It's also an excuse to revamp the secret list of two-letter codes that designate specific embassies and missions, given that the list isn't so secret anymore.
"The system of codes for embassies will continue," said Kendall Smith, public affairs officer at the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. "We don't tell anybody what those codes are, because that's strictly for use by law-enforcement agencies. And we do not release that to media for obvious reasons."
Yet slip-ups occur. Several years ago, the Washington Times published a list of all 175 codes in use — from AA (Congo) to YZ (Azerbaijan). The list included some countries that are no longer in existence (Yugoslavia) as well as entities that aren't countries but still entitled to diplomatic plates. These include the Organization of African Unity (AW), the World Bank (BW), the European Union (LK) and the International Monetary Fund (MF).
Post 9/11, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security will undoubtedly take pains to keep the new list more confidential.
"This is something that's simply not shared publicly," said Smith, though he added that the redesign wasn't prompted by any specific security threat. Rather, he explained, "there's been a proliferation of vanity plates that look exactly like ours, for instance the new Ohio plates. This change has been some time coming. We've been talking about it for a year and a half."
The State Department began issuing special license plates for diplomats in 1984, following passage of the Foreign Missions Act. Prior to that, diplomatic plates were issued by jurisdiction, meaning the District of Columbia for all foreign embassies in the United States, and the state of New York for all foreign missions accredited to the UN.
The OFM, based in Arlington, Va., says11,619 diplomatic plates are currently in use nationwide. That includes 6,277 plates in the Washington metropolitan area, 2,596 plates in New York City and 769 plates in Los Angeles. The remaining 1,977 are attached to vehicles in use wherever foreign diplomats live and work — places like Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Seattle and San Francisco.
But diplomatic plates also crop up in unexpected places like Little Rock, Ark., where Mexico has just opened a consulate, and in San Juan, Puerto Rico, home to several dozen consulates of Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Unlike the old plates, which have embossed letters and numbers on a red, white and blue background, the new plates are flat and feature the State Department seal on the upper-left corner, and the OFM logo on the upper-right corner.
The new plates consist of three letters and four numbers, with the first letter being a D (for diplomat), C (consular staff), S (for non-diplomatic staff) and A (United Nations secretariat).
"Every year, the plates are renewed, just as you would any other license tag, and you do have to turn them in before you depart the country," said Smith.
The new plates will be manufactured by Virginia prison inmates under a contract with the Virginia Department of Corrections that's potentially worth $300,000 over a five-year period.
Virtually every country in the world issues special license plates for diplomats, using their own systems for identifying embassies by letters or numbers.
China, for example, issues silver-on-black plates with the word "Beijing" in Chinese characters and a three-digit embassy code followed by a four-digit serial number. Those embassy codes range from 101 (Afghanistan) to 239 (Indonesia). In Germany, diplomatic plates utilize a two-digit number to denote the country, as does India.
In Switzerland — home to many UN and specialized international organizations — license plates for diplomats have silver-white letters on a colored background, followed by a cantonal code, a serial number of up to three digits and a number denoting the embassy or international organization.
In North Korea, where privately owned vehicles are unheard of, members of the diplomatic corps have white-on-blue plates containing a two-digit code that ranges from 01 (Russia) to 89 (Nigeria).
Speaking of North Korea, diplomats from that country's mission to the UN will be entitled to the new plates, though you won't see them in Washington since Pyongyang has no embassy here. And regardless of where diplomats are from, all must settle unpaid parking tickets before they can affix new license plates to their cars.
"This urban legend that diplomats get away with unpaid parking tickets is perpetuated over and over again," Smith complained. "Before a diplomat is allowed to have a plate reissued to him, he must clear up any parking tickets. In fact, that's the first question we ask."