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you pick a plate, they find out (or already know) if it is on a Certificate (which means it can be transferred straight away onto your car, or it could be still on the current owners vehicle in which case it could take a little longer to process as the transfer would take place with two vehicles being involved.
The time between you asking for the plate and being allowed to display it on your car in my experience is usually approximately within 2 weeks although you will probably be told longer (something like 3,4 or 6 weeks). But infact this time is how long it takes to have your V5 (vehicle registration document) updated. This is because apparently the DVLA receive apporx 112,000 documents a day!
There are a few dvla centres around the UK (one in North London somewhere) that you can go to and get your plate transferred the same day (but you have to join a queue and wait, up to 2 hours sometimes!). I did this when I got my new car, but Im not sure if it was different because I already owned the plate, whereas you are buying one. Might be worth asking them on the phone.
I expect you realise that you cant make your car look newer than it actually is, so if yours is an N plate, you cant put a P upwards on it, but you can put anything from an N downwards to an A on it.
Your existing number will be never be allocated to another car, so that should you decide to sell your car but put your personalised plate on another car, your current number would go back on your car.
I did the same as Jas and went to my local DVLA office in Edinburgh, because I have owned my plate for ages and it has been on a few cars.
This is the quickest way to get a new tax disc because this has to be changed as well, so by going to your nearest DVLA office you can get your replacement tax disc with the new number on, otherwise you will have to wait a few days to do it by post.