Airplane Tail Numbers Explained

Aircraft tail numbers are used for unique identification of aircraft. Similar to a license plate on a vehicle, there are a combination of rules that require the aircraft to display the registration number on the aircraft itself, as well as keeping documents on hand noting the certificate of registration, which exhibits the aircraft tail number.

Commonly referred to as an “N number” in the united states, each country in the world has different prefixes, suffixes, and even off-limits tail numbers reserved for military or governmental purposes. For example, the Dassault Falcon 7X pictured above belongs to the Dassault Aviation company and is used as a display aircraft. The Tail number on the 7X has a “F” prefix, noting that the aircraft was registered in France. Tail numbers may be switched from aircraft to aircraft, or retired entirely. In some countries, it is possible to change the tail number of an airplane due to a change of ownership, change of country, or simply for vanity purposes.

Plane tail numbers are generally 5 characters long, with a country indicator at the start. Country indicators in some cases are easy to figure out with; Germany for explain is “D” while Japan is “JA” Canada is “C”. But some country indicators can be confusing with “B” for China, “OY” for Denmark, and “SX” for Greece.

In all cases of private jet travel, the aircraft tail number is also the radio callsign for the aircraft, this may be different for commercial flights, and some odd governmental exceptions such as Air Force One. In the case of United States tail numbers, the rules are well defined: The tail number will start with N and continue alphanumerically, cannot start with a zero after the country designator, and cannot include the letters “I” and “O” as they are too visually similar to 0 and 1. Certain numbers are not available for use, as they are reserved for FAA and other government usage.

List of popular countries and respective tail numbers (Based on quantity of private aircraft):

Belgium   –   OO

Brazil  –   PP, PR, PS, PT, PU

Canada  –   C

Hong Kong  –   B-H, B-K, B-L

Czech Republic  –   OK

Denmark  –   OY

Gulfstream G650 tail number

This Gulfstream G650 is owned by Gulfstream. The tail number is a vanity tail number, implying G650 – Gulfstream Aviation

Finland  –   OH

France  –   F

Germany  –   D

Israel  –   4X

Japan  –   JA

Kuwait  –   9K

Mexico  –   XA, XB, XC

Netherlands  –   PH

New Zealand  –   ZK

Portugal  –   CR, CS

Qatar  –   A7

Hondajet tail number

Another vanity tail number, “420” identifies the new engine technology while “HA” represents Honda Aviation

Russian Federation  –   RA, RF

Saudi Arabia  –   HZ

Spain  –   EC

Sweden  –   SE

Switzerland  –   HB

United Arab Emirates  –   A6

United Kingdom  –   G

United States of America  –   N

Tail numbers, or aircraft registration numbers are most commonly displayed on the engines or at the aft (rear area) of the aircraft. In the past, they were predominantly displayed on the tail of the aircraft, hence the nomenclature, tail numbers are used to register and track aircraft aerially, for routing and safety purposes. For more information about aircraft registration, please consult the FAA website here.