Short Answer

It is a registration number provided to every aircraft. For civil aircraft, the number is made up of two parts: 1 or 2 alphanumeric characters (unique for each country) followed by 1 to 5 alphanumeric characters. It is called Tail number because generally it is printed on the tail of civil aircraft.

Long Answer

All civil aircraft of the world are required to be registered with a national aviation authority depending upon the rules and regulations set by the country. The registration number thus provided, is known as the Aircraft Registration Number, or Tail Number, because civil aircraft generally print this number on their tails. In the picture below, the Emirates A380 has the tail number A6-EER printed on the tail, just behind the rear exit door.

Airbus A380 tail number
Airbus A380 Tail Number. Original Photo Credits: Julian Herzog http://julianherzog.com

Is there a pattern?

Yes there is. The first 1 or 2 characters are unique signifiers of the country the aircraft is registered in. The map below provides details on the signifiers for the countries of the world. After the country-signifiers, you will see a hyphen “-“. The characters coming after the hyphen are specific to that particular aircraft.

Aircraft Registration Number Prefixes
Aircraft Registration Number Prefixes. Click here to expand. Credits: By Chihaya Sta

Example time! A sample tail number looks like this – VT-ALM. Anything before the hyphen denotes the country of registration. In this case, it is India (see picture above).

Where is it printed?

Civil aircraft generally have the tail number printed below the wings (called wing undersurface) apart from around the tail.

Why is it needed?

Quite simply, an aircraft registration number is needed for the same reasons why a car registration number is – to track the aircraft. Aviation enthusiasts use the tail number to aid plane spotting and knowing more about the aircraft, i.e. its age and history.

Planespotters is my favourite destination to find more about aircraft from their tail numbers. Head over to the website and enter the tail number of the aircraft you would like to know more about. The website will provide you details on the aircraft model, age, production site and much more.

Another favourite I have is Flightradar24. I use this website to find out the tail number of the aircraft I am interested in. The tail number then can be entered in Planespotters, as explained in the above paragraph. You can find the tail number by entering the flight number of your plane (you will find this on your ticket) into the search box on the website. The website will provide you the current status of the flight (where it is on earth real-time), 7-day history of the flight (on free plan) and, obviously, the aircraft registration, or tail, number.

Can you find the details of some aircraft for me?

Exercise time! Refer to the photos below and help me find the details of the aircraft, including the aircraft model (i.e. Boeing 737, Airbus A350 etc.), age of the aircraft and three of the last flights it has flown.

Airbus A350 tail number
Original Photo Credits: By Alan Wilson from Stilton, Peterborough, Cambs, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0
Embraer E190 tail number
Original Photo Credits: By formulanone, CC BY-SA 2.0
Boeing 767 tail number
Original Photo Credits: By Lasse Fuss, CC BY-SA 3.0

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Cover Credits: By Steve Lynes from Sandshurst, United Kingdom – EGLF – Embraer E190-E2 – PR-ZGQ, CC BY 2.0

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