UPC / EAN codes - What everyone should know about this barcode type

February 10, 2021

What is a UPC / EAN code exactly?

Let's first take a brief look at the EAN and UPC symbologies’ abbreviations: While EAN stands for European Article Number, a UPC is the Universal Product Code. However, both names are somewhat misleading, as the EAN is not only used in Europe but worldwide, while the UPC is not as universal as the name may imply - it is, in fact, now only used in the USA and Canada. Therefore, international companies operating in North America mostly use the UPC standard to avoid compatibility problems. However, both codes are universal in their application because they are used worldwide to mark countless consumer goods.

The technical details of UPC and EAN barcodes at a glance

Both UPC and EAN codes belong to the one-dimensional (1D) types of barcodes. Thus, they can be read with any conventional linear hardware scanner or a mobile device with a rear camera and an app with an integrated Barcode Scanner tool. The two standards were introduced in the 1970s, with the UPC published about three years before the EAN code. Today, however, the UPC is listed as a sub-standard of the EAN code. A feature that is particularly relevant for application is that both barcode types can solely store numerical characters in the form of the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN).

What is the difference between EAN and UPCs?

The structure of the two barcode standards is almost identical, as they both consist of black and white bars with different widths, in which the information is encoded as a GTIN. The 12-digit (UPC) or 13-digit (EAN) digits stored on the barcode can also be found as plain text on the lower part of the code. These numeric characters provide information about the manufacturer or product type, among other things. An additional number is added to the EAN code at the beginning of the number sequence, thus shifting the individual characters by one digit, while the ">" character signals the end of the code. If the first digit within the EAN sequence is a 0, a UPC is converted into the EAN format.

Despite the change in the sequence of numbers, the bars are the same for both barcode types and contain the same numeric characters that can also be found at the bottom in plain text.

The following information is stored in EAN codes in the form of the GTIN according to the GS1 standard:

EAN

The Country Code indicates the country in which the manufacturer is located, but not the country of production. Characteristics of the product can be recorded in the article number, such as weight, size, or color. If the code is preceded by a 0, it is usually a converted UPC.

UPC

The UPC code is slightly different: The first digit of the GTIN indicates the type of product. This is followed by the manufacturer code and the item number, and the check digit at the very end.

The numbers must be registered with the approximately 150 GS1 member organizations to guarantee the barcodes’ uniqueness. Currently, around 2 million companies worldwide are using this barcode standard.

The standard size of both barcode types is 37.3 mm x 25.9 mm, but it can be enlarged by around 200% or reduced by 20% without compromising readability.

But what is an EAN-8 code? And what are the differences between UPC-A and UPC-E?

If even smaller barcodes are required than specified above, the EAN-8 or UPC-E standards must be used. These formats store fewer characters while taking up less space. For example, EAN-8 codes lack the manufacturer code completely, but all the other information mentioned above is still present despite the smaller size. It is different from the UPC-E code; here, all data is retained, while only all zeros are deleted from the numerical code.

EAN-8 and UPC-A barcodes are often used in pharmacies, drugstores, or hardware stores, as they allow small items to be labeled smoothly.

In which sectors are EAN and UPC barcodes used?

Since these two barcode types can store just a small amount of information, they are not suitable for every use case. For example, in ticketing or parcel shipping, it would be impossible to store all necessary information in one code.

However, for retail, warehousing, and distribution, 1D barcodes in EAN and UPC standards are perfect. The information contained in the barcode can be read and processed within no time, using a handheld scanner or mobile device. For example, the stores or warehouses then use their databases to assign individual prices or quantities to the GTINs. The price is not coded, meaning that retail stores can set prices independently using their checkout system.

Barcode Scanning features for mobile apps - Advantages for employees and customers

Conventional handheld scanners or built-in scanners at supermarkets’ checkouts: traditional solutions have proven their worth for decades. Inventories are still done with pen and paper, as are weekly orders. This is often still the norm, especially in smaller stores. Handheld scanners already offer adequate alternatives here. Nevertheless, all data still has to be checked and sent to external computers. For some years now, however, smartphones have been increasingly gaining ground, integrated into the processes utilizing internal company apps. The scanning quality provided by the integrated camera is nowadays as precise as that of specialized handheld scanners. This results in the following advantages:

But mobile apps that have an integrated barcode scanner also offer considerable advantages for customers. In the future, for example, it will be possible to implement an entirely contactless payment system in which customers scan barcodes on the products themselves in the store and then pay for them with digital payment methods. For more information, see our blog post on contactless retail.

Test the Scanbot Barcode Scanner for free now

Would you like to experience our Barcode Scanner in action? You can find a free demo app in the App Store, as well as on Google Play. Of course, you can also test our Document Scanner there, as well as numerous other functions.

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