In doing a little research for my recent article on my favorite license plates, I got to investigate a long-held suspicion that Montana has way more license plate options to choose from than your average state. It turns out, Montana doesn’t just have way more options than average, but rather, it has an utterly insane variety of plates for drivers to choose from.
When you first visit the website of the Montana Motor Vehicle Division to peruse the state’s offerings and pick a plate of your own, you’re first shown the "standard plate" — but then you’re given the option for four more "standard plate" designs. That’s right — at the bare minimum, Montana residents have to choose between five different license plate options.
Below that, the website lays out another interesting provision: the requirements for registering original plates for your vehicle. Got a 1967 Ford Mustang that you want to register in Montana? Find a pair of 1967 Montana license plates and the Montana Motor Vehicle Division will allow you to re-activate them for use on your vehicle. These aren’t to be confused with "antique" plates, which are new plates featuring throwback designs from decades past — which, of course Montana also offers. Nonetheless, this throws another 50 or so potential designs into the mix.
Beyond that, provisions are outlined for military plates, veteran plates, amateur radio operator plates and so forth. But the real fun starts when you dive down the rabbit hole that is the "Available License Plate Designs" page and begin to look at all of the different sponsored plates offered. You’re taken to a screen showing 14 different license plates, all representing a different pastime or cause. But these are mere categories — each image serves only as an example of the madness that lies within when you actually dive into that category. A look into the "Agriculture and Forestry" section shows six different distinct designs to choose from, including those for the Montana Department of Livestock, the Montana Timber Legacy Foundation and the Montana Weed Control Association.
The Government and Communities section reveals 23 different options, representing many cities, towns and Native American reservations in the state, with some jurisdictions receiving multiple designs. The Montana Quilters get a plate in the Arts & Culture section, while the Montana Snowmobile Association and the Outlaw Baseball Club both have designs under the Sports & Recreation category. Two designs didn’t fit into any of these categories, and were thus given their own "Other" section, while the Service Organizations & Associations category houses 66 unique designs. Sixty-six!
I added up all options within each category, plus the standard plates and I arrived at a grand total of 289 different plate designs, excluding original plates registered to vintage vehicles. Two hundred. Eighty. Nine. That’s 280 more than most states offer. Utah, for example, offers three basic designs. Pennsylvania offers a decent variety, but most just consist of a special logo atop the standard blue and yellow bracketed design. And then there’s Montana, with almost three hundred designs to choose from, most of which are highly unique and attractive.
This massive variety is the result of Montana’s "Sponsored Plate" program, which allows organizations to submit their own designs, provided they complete an application and pay a $4,000 fee. Each of the unique sponsored plate designs requires drivers to make a yearly donation to the charity or cause at hand, making the litany of designs not only fun, but also a great fundraising method for each of the programs represented.
For someone like me, though, it also means madness when it comes to choosing just one — and when I buy my Bugatti EB110 and register it to my Montana LLC, I’ll probably spend hours deliberating between Big Brothers Big Sisters of Missoula and Beartooth Back Country Horsemen.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.