They're a requirement on all registered motor vehicles in Iowa, but license plates can also be a form of personal expression. They can tell of one's career choice, hobby, military rank or state college loyalty.
At least 74 different license plates are available to state residents, ranging from the standard-issue Iowa plate with personalized wording to amateur radio call numbers.
In Webster County, many vehicle owners stick with the standard plate, but several have chosen to add their own personal touch.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Jan Messerly, Webster County treasurer, poses with some of the special license plates available in Iowa. They include colleges, natural habitat, firefighter and plates to honor veterans who earned medals for their service.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
College plates are a popular choice, says Messerly.
"We see a lot of personalized applications," said Webster County Treasurer Jan Messerly, whose department handles license plates and vehicle registrations.
According to the Iowa Department of Transportation website, most personalized plates carry a fee of $50 plus the cost of vehicle registration, while plate fees for numbered specialty plates vary.
Proceeds from some fees of both personalized and specialty license plates also go to the cause they promote.
"With the breast cancer plates, $10 of each goes to a breast cancer awareness fund," said Messerly. "Part of the natural resource plate fees go back to the DNR."
Other plate fees, such as Iowa State and University of Iowa have a portion of sales go back to the university.
The state university plates have proven to be some of the most popular specialties in Iowa, LaVonne Short, an executive officer for the Office of Vehicle and Motor Carrier Services at the Iowa Department of Transportation, said.
"Probably the most popular are the University of Iowa Hawkeye plates followed by Iowa State" said Short. "The private colleges are growing in popularity too. About one-third of them have their own license plate now."
A number of custom plates are available to drivers supporting various causes and interests, and for those with a particular cause they wish to promote that isn't already on a plate, they can design and apply for a plate.
Groups can go through the state Legislature to attempt to have their proposed license plates approved, Short said, but there is also a way to do so without going through a legislative process.
"If a group or organization is interested in pursuing a license plate for their specific cause without going through the legislative process, they can submit an application to the Office of Vehicle and Motor Carrier Services," said Short.
With the application for a new license plate, applicants must submit a design for the potential plate, and if approved, must receive 500 paid applications before the plates can be manufactured.
In 2012, an anti-abortion group has submitted a design featuring a child's drawing with the message "choose life." A plate featuring an image of the "Freedom Rock" near Greenfield has also been submitted. Both groups have one year to gather 500 orders for their plates.
In 2011, the legislature approved submissions for plates in memory of fallen peace officers, the Civil War sesquicentennial, a combat infantry badge, Combat Action Ribbon for the U.S. Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy, Air Force Combat Action Medal and the Combat Medical Badge. Each of the legislature approved plates must receive a minimum of 250 $20 startup orders.