What to do with unused licence plates in Canada

While most provinces have similar policies, the complete answer changes depending on where you live

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If you move between provinces, buy a designated green vehicle, a family member passes away, or you sell a second vehicle you’re no longer using, you may find yourself with a licence plate or two and no car upon which to attach it.

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What should you do with these unused licence plates? Are you required to return them, or can you keep them? What happens if the plates are stolen while still registered in your name and are used on another vehicle? Would you be responsible for any resulting tickets or — goodness forbid — a nasty 407 bill?

Across all of Canada’s provinces and territories, there’s one universal message from the ministries responsible for vehicle licencing: if you remove plates from a vehicle, you need to ensure the ministry knows those plates are no longer in use. That way, if they turn up on another vehicle and are used fraudulently, there’s a record that can be passed on to law enforcement that will help protect you from liability.

Beyond that, the policies and best practices between provinces changes, in some cases dramatically. Here’s a look at the rules and recommendations in each province for what to do with your expired licence plates.

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British Columbia

Since car insurance in B.C. is overseen by a Crown corporation, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), valid insurance and licence plates are directly linked to one another in the province. The ICBC website provides this guidance regarding what to do with your unused plates in B.C.:

“Any time you cancel your insurance, you have to return the plates, including personalized ones, to your Autoplan broker to get a refund on your insurance. If your insurance simply expires, you don’t need to return the plates.”

So, if you simply let your insurance expire, can you keep your plates indefinitely? And would you be able to reuse them if you register a vehicle again later?

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“It is possible a B.C. driver could be in possession of unused plates once their insurance policy expires and they don’t return their plates,” ICBC media relations advisor Greg Harper told Driving.ca via email. “Personalized plates can be re-used if the vehicle owner decides to re-licence and insure their vehicle for road use. Regular passenger plates can’t be re-used.”

“There’s less risk in keeping regular plates, then, since they would be decommissioned upon expiry. Personalized plates also become invalid when your insurance expires, and they need to be re-activated if you decide to reuse them. To ensure they are not reactivated fraudulently, be sure to store personalized plates carefully if you decide to hang onto them.”

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If you won’t use them again, or if you have regular plates and don’t want to keep them, Harper advises that the plates be recycled, which can be done by delivering them to any Autoplan broker.

“Besides proper recycling, returning your plates to an Autoplan broker will avoid their potential fraudulent use on another vehicle by an uninsured driver,” Harper says.

Alberta

The Government of Alberta website says to do the following with old licence plates: “If you have moved out of Alberta or no longer need your licence plate, you can return it to any registry agent office in-person or by mail.”

You can return the plate, but do you have to? The answer is no, according to Mike Long, director of communications for Alberta’s Ministry of Transportation.

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“Old license plates remain in the system under the client’s name and can be re-registered to the client’s vehicle as long as the plate is legible and in good condition,” Long says. “Albertans have the option of cancelling and turning in old license plates to any registry agent location. The license plates are then submitted for secure recycling.”

If a plate goes missing, Long says you should cancel it at a registry as soon as possible so that it can’t be used fraudulently.

“Accordingly, if (the owner) were to receive a ticket they could then prove the registration on the plate would not be for the vehicle in question,” Long says.

Sam Wendland’s licence plate collection, amassed over 60 years.
Sam Wendland’s licence plate collection, amassed over 60 years. Photo by Richard Marjan /Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

Saskatchewan

In Saskatchewan, the rules are very clear: if your plate is not in use on a vehicle, it needs to be returned to the provincial insurer, Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI).

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“Return your plates to SGI or any motor licence issuer,” reads the SGI website. “Since the plates continue to be associated with your name, it’s important that we destroy them. You can keep your plates if you license seasonal vehicles, such as motorhomes, motorcycles or boat trailers, and you plan to re-use the plates next season.”

Manitoba

In Manitoba, you’re encouraged to return an unused set of licence plates to the provincial insurer, Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI), but this is not mandatory.

“Manitoba Public Insurance encourages customers to return unneeded licence plates to any Manitoba insurance broker office or MPI Service Centre to ensure they cannot be used on another vehicle, however they are not required to do so,” Kristy Rydz, communications manager for MPI, told us via email. “In the event that a licence plate is stolen and used on another vehicle, MPI can determine whether or not the plate is registered to the last known owner, and will provide that information to law enforcement as required.”

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Ontario

The Government of Ontario website notes that if you purchase a new vehicle, then your plates should be removed from your old vehicle and affixed and registered to your new one. However, there are plenty of scenarios in Ontario where you might end up with a set of unused plates, such as if you sell an unused vehicle or purchase a new one that comes with green plates. For this scenario, the government website says the following: “If you are not going to use your old licence plates, you can return them to a ServiceOntario centre.”

However, returning unused plates is optional, says Aruna Aundhia, senior media relations advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.

“If you want to keep your plate but will not be using it on another vehicle, please bring your old vehicle permit to ServiceOntario and ask the staff to ‘detach’ your licence plate,” Aundhia says. “ServiceOntario can ‘terminate’ the plates. This lets the government know that the plates are no longer in use and (this) can protect you in the future.”

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This includes situations such as traffic tickets or misuse of the 407, so taking this step could save you a lot of hassle down the road.

This car’s licence sticker is up for renewal next month, meaning the owner will still have to pay the $120 for a new one
This car’s licence sticker is up for renewal next month, meaning the owner will still have to pay the $120 for a new one Photo by The Canadian Press / file

Quebec

The website for the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ), which oversees automobile insurance in the province, states the following: “You must remove (an unused plate) from the vehicle. You can destroy it so that nobody can use it or keep it for up to 3 years to register a vehicle that requires a licence plate of the same category. Please note that you are responsible for the licence plate issued to you by the SAAQ and that it remains under your name.”

If you’re certain you will not need the plate within three years, or if three years has passed and you are still not using the plate, the SAAQ strongly recommends that the plate be destroyed.

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Gino Desrosiers, communications and public relations director for the SAAQ, provides the following via email (translated by us from French to English): “(The owner) can take (an unused plate) to one of the Société de l’assurance automobile offices for safe disposal or destroy it himself. The destruction of the plate prevents fraudulent use of the plate by an ill-intentioned person. This situation could lead to unfortunate consequences for the owners of the plate. The owner may have to prove to the police or the courts that their license plate was stolen and that they had nothing to do with the illegal events that may have occurred.

“Destruction is not compulsory because the owner who removes the plate from his vehicle can keep it to use on another vehicle of the same category. In these cases, we recommend that these owners keep the plate in a safe place and destroy the plate if they decide not to reuse it.”

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New Brunswick

In New Brunswick, the rules are cut and dried: you don’t own your licence plates, the province does, and you’re required to return them to the Motor Vehicle Branch when they’re not in use.

“Plates and permits remain the property of the Crown and must be surrendered upon demand,” states the Government of New Brunswick website. “Registration may be cancelled and plates ordered returned to the Motor Vehicle Branch as provided under the (Motor Vehicle) Act.”

Prince Edward Island

While no information is posted on the province’s website regarding what to do with expired or unused licence plates, we received the following information, attributed to the Ministry of Transportation: “(The ministry) recommend anyone who has unused PEI license plates to return them to the Highway Safety division for proper disposal and recycling.” As this is a recommendation and not a requirement, P.E.I. residents may keep unused plates but should be aware of the risks outlined above and store them securely.

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Nova Scotia

In Nova Scotia, there are specific situations where a plate must be surrendered to Public Works. But in general, returning unused plates is not a requirement, says Gary Andrea, the province’s communication advisor.

“If a license plate simply becomes unregistered or expired in Nova Scotia and is no longer required by the registrant to be displayed legally on a vehicle, there is no requirement for them to return the plate or destroy the plate,” Andrea says. “However, if they maintain the plate it may not be displayed on any vehicle, unless properly registered. Some people might display the plate on a garage wall for example or maintain it in the hopes to use the plate for a future vehicle. In the event the plate becomes stolen, the registrant would be responsible to report the plate as stolen.

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“There are provisions within the (Motor Vehicle) Act that deal with when a plate needs to be returned, such as the death of an owner, a suspension, an error in issuing, or a refund application.”

Newfoundland and Labrador

The licence plate system is different in Newfoundland and Labrador than it is in the rest of the country: a plate follows a vehicle, not the owner. There are therefore fewer situations where a Newfoundland and Labrador resident is likely to end up with unused plates. The most likely scenarios are that a vehicle has been scrapped or a family member has passed away.

In such situations, you can’t keep the plates. They’re the property of the provincial government and must be returned to the Motor Registration Division.

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“Vehicle owners are required to advise the Motor Registration Division if they no longer own a vehicle,” Krista Dalton, media relations manager for Digital Government and Service NL, informed us via email. “Where vehicles are wrecked or disposed, the plates must be returned as well. Failing to return a plate may result in a fine.”

If an unused plate is found, the person who finds it is legally obligated to return the plate to the Department of Digital Government and Service NL or to the police, Dalton says.

“These actions, combined with enforcement, reduce the potential for illegal or inappropriate use of plates on unregistered or unsafe vehicles,” she says.

Ryk Edelstein wipes the vanity licence plate on his Dodge Charger at his home in Montreal Tuesday August 28, 2018.
Ryk Edelstein wipes the vanity licence plate on his Dodge Charger at his home in Montreal Tuesday August 28, 2018. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Yukon

In Yukon, every licence plate issued under the Motor Vehicles Act remains the property of the territorial government. Plates do not expire or become decommissioned for any reason once they’ve been assigned to an individual Yukoner. Since an unused plate can be kept for an indefinite time in case it’s needed in the future, it’s important to store it safely when it’s not affixed to a vehicle.

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“If a member of the public finds themselves in possession of a plate that is not theirs, it must be returned to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles,” says Elizabeth Beecroft, manager of road safety for the territory’s Department of Highways and Public Works. “This is because plates are registered to a specific owner or individual, rather than the vehicle to which they are mounted.

“As long as citizens return to the Motor Vehicles office plates that are no longer being used, or ones that come into their possession that do not belong to them, there is little risk.”

Northwest Territories

Returning an unused plate is advised but not required in the Northwest Territories, says James Ross, communications intern for the territorial government. The risks of keeping an unused plate in your possession would be as outlined above.

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“While it is not required, residents are encouraged to return unused licence plates to the nearest GNWT Driver and Vehicle Services office once they are no longer in use,” Ross says.

Since NWT has one of the coolest licence plates on the planet, we don’t imagine this advice is followed very often. If you decide to keep a plate, store it securely and ensure the government is aware it’s not in use.

Nunavut

Unlike the other provinces and territories in Canada, there are no roads into or out of Nunavut, and vehicles are generally restricted to the towns or hamlets in which they’re owned. The risk of fraud from an unused plate is therefore negligible since a vehicle with a stolen plate wouldn’t make it far from home undetected.

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This creates a unique situation in the territory: because you’ll never see a Nunavut plate on the road anywhere else in Canada, should you ever find yourself near a Motor Vehicles Division office within the territory, you can buy a souvenir licence plate to take home.

“You can buy a Nunavut souvenir (sample) licence plate for $10.25 (shipping not included) at a Motor Vehicles Division issuing office in the following communities: Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Cambridge Bay, (and) Gjoa Haven,” reads the territorial website. “In all other communities, you may be able to purchase a souvenir licence plate at the office of the local Municipal Liaison Office (MLO) or Government Liaison Office (GLO). Nunavut souvenir (sample) licence plates are also available at the local Northern/North Mart store, Co-op store and other convenience stores.”

Stephanie Wallcraft picture

Stephanie Wallcraft

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