How many times have you seen, in traffic, a car in front of you with a license plate light not working?
I bet several times. Well, the same will happen to your car also, sooner or later.
When it does this article will show you how to solve the problem. Mainly how to change a license plate bulb as this is the most common cause.
As you’ll see the whole procedure is simple and with some basic knowledge and tools, you’ll be able to solve the problem in no time.
If you’re not in the mood for reading, there is a video tutorial on our YouTube channel as well as at the end of this article.
HOW TO CHANGE A LICENSE PLATE LIGHT BULB-STEP BY STEP PROCEDURE
1. PREPARE THE TOOLS AND A SPARE LIGHT BULB
As mentioned, this repair isn’t needy regarding tools. All you’ll need is a smaller size Philips or flathead screwdriver. Sometimes you’ll need a Torx screwdriver like in the picture but this is rarer.
Regarding the light bulb: the most commonly used one is a 5 Watt, tube-like bulb. The other common option is a 5 Watt bulb that you insert into a bulb holder (it doesn’t have a metal cap at the end but bare wires).
Both of these types are slowly being replaced by the LED license plate light bulb.
Best ask or check before buying new ones so you have the right type at hand. If you’re not sure just take out the old bulb for comparison, return the plastic housing and go buy the same one.
Having a pair of plyers at hand is also good if the connectors, clips, or plastic housing gives resistance when taking off. Also, a trim tool may come in handy if you don’t want to scratch the plastic.
If everything goes well, all you’ll basically need is a screwdriver and a new lightbulb.
2. REMOVE THE LICENSE PLATE LIGHT
The license plate light consists of a (usually) plastic housing, metal contacts that hold the lightbulb, and a connector through which the light gets electric input.
Its usual location is either on the tailgate or on the bumper, depending on the car type.
Your first task is to release the plastic housing and gain access to the bulb. There are two most common ways: unscrewing and unclipping.
Unscrewing: the license plate light is usually held with two screws. Taking them off will release the plastic housing.
Unclipping: the light is held by two hidden metal or plastic clips. You’ll usually find a dent (or two) in the license plate light where you can insert a flathead screwdriver or a trim tool. Once you do, you can press or squeeze the clips, and the plastic housing will pop out.
3. REMOVE THE OLD LICENSE PLATE LIGHT BULB
You’ll easily recognize if the bulb is the problem by a black glass ballon, the metal caps at the end of the bulb may be loose or the filament inside may be broken.
If the license plate bulb is OK, there might be something else wrong. More about that lower in the article.
The bulb is usually held in place with two metal connectors, one on each side. They squeeze the bulb so it’s held in place firmly and to achieve good electrical contact.
Separate the contacts and the bulb will fall out. If you have to, use plyers. Just don’t apply too much force so you don’t break them.
One more option is that it’s held with fork-like connectors so you just pull out the bulb with your hands. If you have to use a small flathead screwdriver to pick the bulb out.
When the license plate light bulb is inserted into the holder, just pull it out with your fingers.
4. REPLACE THE LIGHT BULB
In the case of the ˝squeezing“ connectors, set one end of the bulb in and then push the other end into place. Make sure the bulb sits in properly and that the ends of the bulb have a firm contact.
With the fork-like contacts, just push the bulb in. If possible push both ends at the same time. Again, make sure it has good contact and that it sits in properly.
When you have to insert the license plate light bulb, just set it in place and push it into the bulb holder.
5. TURN ON THE LICENSE PLATE LIGHTS
Of course, this is done by turning on the position light. See that it works properly before you return it back.
6. RETURN THE LICENSE PLATE LIGHT BACK INTO PLACE
Set, align, and press the plastic housing back into place. Make sure it sits in properly.
Also, make sure that any kind of seal located on the plastic housing is properly aligned. Otherwise, water and moisture might get in and cause corrosion and problems.
When the light is held with screws, first align the light with the holes on the bumper or tailgate. Then insert the screws and tighten them. Don’t use too much force so you don’t break the plastic housing.
If the license plate light is held with clips, just set the housing in place and push it in until you hear a distinctive click sound.
7. ONCE MORE TRY OUT THE LICENSE PLATE LIGHT AND SEE THAT EVERYTHING WORKS
Turn the position lights on once more. Check that everything is OK, properly tightened, and in place.
And that’s it. Not a complicated repair for sure and in real-time takes about ten to fifteen minutes at most. It can easily be done even in a parking lot for instance.
Definitely a DIY job even for the most inexperienced drivers.
WHAT IF THE LICENSE PLATE BULB ISN’T THE PROBLEM?
If you’ve changed the bulb and the license plate light still doesn’t work here are some common reasons:
1. RUSTY (CORRODED) CONTACTS
The license plate light is exposed to all kinds of weather conditions. Since the lights are located on the bumper or tailgate, it’s a magnet for dirt, filth, and moisture.
If the plastic housing cracks or the rubber seal gets brittle, it may leak inside.
This causes rust, mainly on the contacts holding the light bulb and the electric input connector.
The best solution is to use some sandpaper and (or) contact spray and clean the rust off. It’s a pretty painstaking job since the contacts are, in most cases small and are easily broken. So have some patience.
Also, take a look at the rubber or plastic seal. If you can, apply some silicone spray so it can get a bit softer and seal the light better.
In severe cases, if the rust has damaged the light badly, best buy a new one if you want the repair to last and be done in quality.
2. RUSTY OR LOOSE ELECTRIC CONNECTORS
Once you remove the license plate light, you’ll see a plastic electric connector with wires at the end of the light.
This is the electric input.
Again, because of moisture and water, rust tends to form inside the connector and cause a loss of electric contact.
Here the best solution is contact spray. Apply it several times until the rust gets eaten off and the contacts are clean and shiny.
If the corrosion is severe, try using some sandpaper or a small flathead screwdriver to clean and pick out the rust and filth.
Do it on both sides: on the connector and the license plate light.
A loose connector is usually due to physical damage (broken clip) or a previous improper installation (it didn’t sit in properly).
If the connector is loose, push it until you hear a click sound. When damaged, best replace the whole connector so it doesn’t fall off again.
3. LICENSE PLATE LIGHT FUSE
When there is no electric input to the lamp connector, the fuse is the first place to look.
The most common reason for a blown fuse is a short circuit caused by damaged wiring, damaged contactors, or even a faulty bulb.
The most obvious symptom of this problem: you change the bulb and there’s still no light. Besides that, the bulb housing, contacts, and connectors look good and clean so you can rule out corrosion and bad contact as a problem.
If you conclude that the fuse is the problem, you can read how to find and change a burnt-out fuse by clicking here or watch a video tutorial on our YouTube channel.
4. DAMAGED WIRING INSTALLATION
This is a more rare cause but nevertheless worth the check. The main symptom is similar to a fuse problem: no electric input to the license plate light.
When this is the problem, the first place to look is the wiring just behind the electric connector. Other places are installation bending points or sharp edges that may have damaged the wiring (for instance the bending point between the tailgate and the car body).
The most common cause is, usually, physical damage; like if someone has recently changed the license plate bulb and may have pinched a wire when returning the light into place.
Other causes may be that the wiring becomes brittle over time and one or more of the cables break. This problem appears mostly on older cars.
Damaged installation is a pretty rare mishap and is easily solved by replacing the damaged wire. The main and most time-consuming problem is finding where the broken wire is.
Give the rear signalization of your car a check from time to time.
As mentioned, a burnt-out bulb will go unnoticed for weeks if not months. No need to say how dangerous this is for both you and other participants in traffic.
Besides this, if pulled over by the police, you can pay a ticket as this is punishable in most countries.
All of this can be easily avoided for a couple of Euros or Dollars worth of bulbs and a few minutes of your time.
This is why learning how to change a license plate light bulb will come in handy for sure.
Written by: Sibin Spasojevic
Former car technician, life-long car and DIY enthusiast, author for Despairrepair.com
HOW TO CHANGE LICENSE PLATE LIGHT VIDEO