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What is the difference between a UPC and EAN?

Posted: October 17, 2019

In the world of retail sales there are primarily two barcode formats used, UPC and EAN. The UPC format (as shown below) is 12 digits while the EAN is 13. These two formats are predominantly used in their own regions, the UPC is used only in the US and Canada, while the EAN is used everywhere else globally.

EAN Barcode and UPC Barcode side by side

The U.P.C. stands for Universal Product Code (aka: UPC-A) and E.A.N. stands for European Article Number (aka: EAN-13 or International Article Number).. The UPC was the original format for product barcodes in the 1970s. Later on, as demand in Europe, Asia and Australia grew country codes were added to the front of the barcode number increasing it to 13 digits. USA  and Canada have a country code of zero which is not printed under the barcode nor is it entered in US and Canadian Inventory Point of Sale systems.

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If you look at the graphic above with the EAN barcode and UPC barcode side by side, you will see they are exactly the same. The width of the bars and the width of the spaces between the bars are exactly the same. The only major difference is the placement of the numbers below (human readable numbers) which are there only as a back-up in case the barcode doesn’t scan properly and the information has to be manually entered into the register, POS (point of sale system).

UPC Barcode & EAN Barcode Overlayed

The left image overlays the UPC and EAN graphics so you can see that the images are identical. The country code doesn’t appear beneath the barcode in a UPC since back then GS1 didn’t value the importance of USA  and Canada indicating a country code. GS1 felt that since the majority of products sold in both countries originate from importers, distributors or manufacturers in the USA or Canada, they could forego the leading zero in the human readable numbers.

If you are currently doing business in the United States and Canada exclusively, it is recommended to use UPC barcodes for your products. Many retailers, especially smaller retailers may be using older inventory systems that only allow them to enter only 12 digit UPC numbers and not a 13 digit string. If this changes in the future, you can convert your 12 digit UPC to a 13 digit EAN by adding the country code of 0 to the beginning.

 

This following information was originally authored by George Laurer, the inventor of the UPC barcode. It is a more technical/historical explanation.

The origin of EAN vs. U.P.C. confusion

“There seems to be considerable confusion concerning the difference and use of the U.P.C. code and EAN codes

“U.P.C. Version A” and “EAN-13” are and always have been 13 character symbols and the numbers themselves have always been 13 characters long. The U.P.C. (Version A) symbol and the EAN13 symbol are essentially one and the same. They both have the same number of bars and spaces.

*Note from George Laurer: I have used the name UCC throughout to avoid confusion although it evolved to this name over many years. In 1975 it was called UPCC (Uniform Product Code Council).

When I conceived the U.P.C. for the grocers in the U.S. only 12 digits were required including the check character. I designed a symbol in which the left half of the symbol was composed of “odd” parity characters and the right side was composed of “even” parity characters. Each printed character has two bars and two spaces and is made up of 7 modules. Odd parity simply means the printed representation of the numeric digit has an odd number of dark modules. Conversely even parity printed digits have an even number of dark modules.

UCC LogoThe UCC* chose to call the U.P.C. a 10 character symbol and they chose to print only 11 of the characters in human readable form. The 10 characters identifying the manufacturer and item were printed below the bars. The “system number” character was printed halfway up the left side. Further, they chose to carry only 10 digits of the number in their files. The reason was both political and practical.

Before the symbol marking was considered a well know consulting firm had been hired by the fledgling UCC to determine the number of digits needed to accomplish the goals of the grocery industry. Considering many factors, not the least of which was the limited power of computers of the day, a figure of 10 digits was recommended. It was a tough sell to convince the many groups involved that they would have to change whatever numbering system they were using to the new 10 digit number. Rather than admit that the consulting firm was wrong and so as not to open the number of digit argument again, the decision was to maintain that the U.P.C. was a 10 digit symbol and number. Another factor considered was that it was more difficult to key the EAN human readable that the U.P.C. human readable when the symbol did not scan. They fostered the illusion by requiring that the check digit be stripped at the scanner. The SN (system number) was necessary for in store processing but it was not needed in records transferred between systems. The illusion was reinforced by not printing the SN in line with the 10 product identifying digits and not printing the check digit at all.

After the U.P.C. had been in use several years, Europe recognized the usefulness of the U.P.C. but realized a 13th digit was needed to identify the many countries. I encoded the extra digit by encoding the left half of the symbol with 3 characters of even parity and 3 characters of odd parity and then arranging them in various patterns, each pattern representing a different country code. The scanner recognizes a series of digits as the right half of a symbol if the parity of the characters is all even and it recognizes the left half if it is composed of all odd OR if three characters are odd parity and three characters are even parity characters.

Different products with barcodes

With the acceptance of the EAN in Europe it was understood that the U.P.C. was actually 13 digits because the parity pattern of the left half of all odd characters was assigned the value (or country flag) of “0”. I pointed out that the UCC only printed 11 of the 13 digits and carried only 10 digits in the system. The UCC continued the delusion by using the foolish argument that “0” means nothing and therefore could be ignored. On the other hand, the European’s were smart enough from the very outset to call the EAN symbol what it is, “EAN-13” and they printed all 13 characters. Systems in Europe carried all 10 country flags including 0 in their records and their systems could process both U.P.C. and EAN symbols and/or numbers. The U.S. grocery chains at the time were selling very few foreign goods and saw no reason to spend money modify their installed equipment. Although the U.P.C. was not widely accepted at that time, the UCC accommodated the foreign companies by issuing them U.P.C. numbers with the invisible country flag of “0”.

Although this was a burden on the European companies and was a waste of numbers since many European companies had both U.P.C. and EAN-13 numbers, it wasn’t until two decades later that something was done about this. In 1997 the Uniform Code Council, Inc announced project SUNRISE. This initiative required that all U.S. and Canadian companies must be capable of scanning and processing EAN-13 symbols, in addition to U.P.C. symbols, at point-of-sale by January 1, 2005. This has been completed, the UCC has changed its name to GS1 US, and they have taken the responsibility of controlling both U.P.C. and EAN numbers.”

Thank you for that in depth historical information Mr. Laurer!

 

Summary & Learn More

The UPC-A and EAN-13 barcode symbol (graphic) & numbers are technical the same but are used in two different geographical areas. If you have or own a UPC you also have an EAN to use in the rest of the world. Think of them like two sides of the same coin.


UPC

A UPC, which stands for Universal Product Code, is a 12-digit bar code used primarily in Canada and the United States. Retailers add UPCs to each item they sell in order to track their product inventory.

About UPC Numbers

EAN

EAN originally stood for "European Article Number," but has since been changed to "International Article Number." The term refers to the bar code used by retailers outside of North America.

About EAN Numbers

GTIN

Global Trade Item Numbers, also known as UPC/EAN numbers are used by companies to uniquely identify all of their trade items. Trade items include any product that is priced, ordered or invoiced by a company.

About GTIN

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