Airliner Spotter Home Page Airliner Spotter

How aircraft registration codes are assigned

Aircraft registration numbers are assigned by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which requires that all aircraft flying internationally display unique assigned registration markings. ICAO Annex 7 contains standards adopted by ICAO as the minimum requirements for the display of marks to indicate appropriate nationality and registration, which have been determined to comply with Article 20 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.

Sometimes these aircraft registrations are referred to as "tail numbers".

Registration numbers have three parts:

  • One or two character prefix indicating the country of registration (e.g. "N" for the United States, "VH" for Australia
  • A dash "-" is normally (not always) used between the prefix and suffix
  • One to five character suffix indicating a particular aircraft within the country

A sample registration code might be G-XLEE, where "G" indicates the United Kingdom, and "XLEE" indicates an Airbus A380 belonging to British Airlines (see graphic below).

For a complete list of current nationality marks, visit the website of ICAO.

Registration number placement on an airliner

The registration identifier must be shown prominently on the aircraft. It is typically displayed as follows:

  • On the side of the fuselage near the rear of the plane, or on the tail or fuselage-mounted engine
  • It may also be located under the left wing.
  • A shortened version of the number may also appear on the nosewheel door of the front landing gear.

Most countries also require the registration number to be imprinted on a permanent fireproof plate mounted on the fuselage in case of a post-fire/post-crash aircraft accident investigation.

Registration number placement on an airliner

Examples of Registration Numbers

On Fuselage Airliner registration number on the fuselage
Under the Wing Airliner registration number under the wing
On Nosewheel Door Airliner registration number on the nosewheel door on the front landing gear

Transfer of Registration Numbers

As the owner of an airplane changes, or the plane is moved to another country, the registration number will change.

Test & Delivery Registration Numbers

Also, airplane manufacturers sometimes use "test" or "temporary" registration numbers until a customer takes ownership of the aircraft.

For example, Airbus might use registration number F-WWBQ on its aircraft during assembly and testing. The "F" indicates "France" where its Toulouse planted is located.

Starflyer Airbus A320, msn 7414, displaying temporary registration F-WWBQ (Photo by DELEHELLE Eric)
Airbus A320 Starflyer

More Views of the Placement of Registration Numbers

United Express Bombardier CRJ-701ER, Registration N753SK shown on the rear fuselage, at the DFW Airport (Photo courtesy of the DFW Airport)
United Express Bombardier CRJ-701ER, Registration N753SK

British Airways Embraer ERJ-145 regional jet, with Registration G-EMBJ shown on the engine
British Airways Embraer ERJ-145 regional jet

Under fuselage view of an ATR 72-600, Registration Number F-WWEY seen under the wing (Photo by DELEHELLE Eric)
Under fuselage view of ATR 72-600, Registration F-WWEY seen under the wing

Mitsubishi SpaceJet, Registration JA21MJ shown under the wing

Mitsubishi Regional Jet MRJ

Airbus A220 of Swiss Air HB-JBF ... "BF" on the nosewheel door (Photo by DELEHELLE Eric)
Airbus A220 engines ... seen here on Swiss Air HB-JBF

Embraer E190 N238JB "Blue Clipper" of JetBlue Airways showing part of registration number on nosewheel door
Embraer E190 N238JB "Blue Clipper" of JetBlue Airways

Commercial Aircraft Registration Lookup Websites

Listed below are the websites containing the registration listings for countries with large numbers of airliner registrations.

United States - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry at the FAA
Australia - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry
Brazil - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry
Canada - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry
China - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry
France - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry
Singapore - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry
Spain - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry
Switzerland - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry
United Kingdom - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry
New Zealand - Aircraft Registration Number Inquiry

U.S. Military Aircraft Registration Lookup

U.S. Air Force and Navy Military Aircraft Serial Number Search (Uses the Joe Baugher Lists)