Types of Barcodes: Choosing the right barcode: EAN, UPC, Code128, ITF-14 or Code39?

UPDATE: This post is no longer up-to-date. To read more about the many types of both one-dimensional and two-dimensional barcodes please see our latest guide to choosing the right barcodes.

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A couple of days ago we’ve introduced you to the basics of different barcode types, remember? It was all about whether you should opt for a 1D barcode or implement QR codes. So if you’ve decided to go for 1D barcodes based on our previous post, then this post is absolutely perfect for you! We’re going to shed some light on 1D barcodes, all the different barcode types and their different usage scenarios. At the end, you should be able to make an informed decision based on which barcode type suits your needs best.

So, what types of barcodes are available? Fortunately, you don’t need to bother at least when it comes to scanning; our powerful Scandit SDK takes care of that itself. But printing barcode labels means deciding which barcode is the right one for you. Commonly used 1D barcodes are:

Don’t worry about all these abbreviations. In the remainder of this post, we’ll go through them, step-by-step explaining what kind of data they hold and how they’re commonly used.

EAN-13 and EAN-8
Let’s kick off with two barcodes that should look very familiar to you if you live outside the United States. They are found on each consumer product, for example on groceries, DVDs, clothing etc. that are being scanned at a POS (Point-of-Sale).

While EAN-13 (comprising 13 digits) is the default form factor, you’ll find EAN-8 (covering 8 digits) barcodes on products where only limited space is available, for example on small chewing gum packages.

The UPC barcodes are very similar to the EAN codes mentioned above. If you have a glimpse at the two examples below, you will notice that they nearly look the same as their EAN counterparts.

Though the most important distinction between UPC and EAN codes is their geographical application. UPC codes are mainly used in the United States. For a little nostalgy, check out this interesting article about the history of the UPC code: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/16/business/16haberman.html

The Code128 barcode was invented more recently. The number 128 in its name does not refer to the number of digits it can hold but hints at the fact that it can hold any character of the ASCII 128 character set. That includes all digits, character and punctuation marks. This broad range of characters that you can use makes it very powerful as it enables you to store diversified information in the barcode. It is also fairly compact which gives you a good data storage to size ratio.

It is mainly used in logistics for ordering, distribution and transportation. All in all it is geared towards non-POS products.

This symbology is a mix between the POS codes we’ve presented you at the beginning and the logistics barcode Code128. It’s mainly being used in trading as well, but only on products that need no POS interaction. Since it can deal with high printing tolerances, it is a good choice when barcodes need to be printed on corrugated cardboard.

The specifications of this symbology force the usage of a 14-digit number. The more generic 2 out of 5 specification that uses the same symbology encoding is not limited to 14 digits.

The Code39 (or often referred to as Code 3 of 9) symbology allows the use of digits and characters. Its name originates in the fact that it could only encode 39 characters (in its most recent version the character set has been increased to 43 characters). It is not as compact as the Code128 symbology, but it is still heavily used in the automotive industry and by the US Department of Defense.

That’s it – for now. We’ve introduced you to the most common one-dimensional barcode types. You should now have a general understanding of where, when and how they’re being used. When it comes to the decision on which format to use – ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will the product be scanned at the point of sale in retail stores? -> UPC, EAN
  • Which character set needs to be supported? Alphanumeric characters? ->Code39, Code128
  • How much space is available on the product packaging? -> EAN8, UPC-E, Code128 offer small form factors
  • Which material will you print the barcode on? -> ITF is great for corrugated cardboard

The answers to the above questions will guide the selection of best barcode format for you. This of course leads to another question: How do you generate those barcodes? This issue will be addressed in another post, later on. Before this, in the next post of this series, we’ll have a closer look at the most important two-dimensional codes and explain when to use each of them.


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