What is a Shipping Barcode? – A Complete Explanation

What is a Shipping Barcode

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Shipping barcodes stand as essential tools within the logistics and supply chain management sectors, providing a systematic method for tracking and identifying shipments across the globe. These barcodes are unique identifiers assigned to packages, enabling the efficient management and movement of goods from origin to destination. 

This article aims to demystify shipping barcodes for readers of all expertise levels, covering their definitions, the types available, their specific formats, and the processes involved in their creation and printing.

What are Shipping Barcodes?

Definition of shipping barcodes

A shipping barcode is a category of barcodes that uses sequences of bars or matrix patterns to encode information about a package or shipment. 

Shipping barcodes store data such as the product number, serial number, and batch number, allowing for the automated tracking and management of goods throughout the supply chain. When scanned, the barcode transmits the stored information to a computer system, facilitating real-time tracking, inventory management, and efficient delivery processes. 

Shipping barcodes are key in reducing human error, speeding up data entry processes, and enhancing the visibility and traceability of shipments from the point of origin to the final destination. They come in various formats and types, each designed to meet specific requirements and standards within the logistics industry.  

Types of Shipping Barcodes

Shipping barcodes can be broadly categorised into two main types: 1D (one-dimensional) and 2D (two-dimensional) barcodes. Each type has specific applications in shipping and is chosen based on the amount of data it needs to encode and the space available on the package.

1D Barcodes for Shipping

Five types of 1d barcodes for shipping

1D barcodes, also known as linear barcodes, consist of a series of parallel lines and spaces of varying widths. They can encode information only horizontally; as a result, they are limited in the amount of data they can store. 

Here are key 1D barcodes used in shipping. 

  • Code 128: Highly versatile and capable of encoding all 128 characters of the ASCII set, Code 128 is widely used in shipping and packaging for its high-density data encoding capability. It’s preferred for encoding serial numbers, product numbers, and other critical shipping data.
  • Interleaved 2 of 5 (ITF): This compact numeric barcode is often used in warehousing and distribution. It’s designed to encode pairs of numbers in a high-density format, making it ideal for materials requiring narrower barcodes, such as corrugated boxes.
  • GS1-128: Formerly known as UCC/EAN-128, this barcode is used for global supply chain logistics. It enables encoding data such as product numbers, serial numbers, and expiration dates. It’s crucial for providing detailed information and ensuring traceability across the global supply chain.
  • SSCC (Serial Shipping Container Code): SSCC is a unique 18-digit number used to identify logistic units, such as pallets, cartons, and parcels, in the supply chain. This code is used for tracking and managing shipments in a global logistics environment, offering a standardised method to identify each shipping unit distinctly across different carriers and regions.
  • Codabar: Codabar is an older type of barcode that is still used in some areas of shipping and inventory management, particularly for labelling blood bags, parcels, and library books. It is characterised by its ability to encode numbers, six specific letters, and a few special characters.  

2D Barcodes for Shipping

Four types of 2D barcodes for shipping

2D barcodes, or two-dimensional barcodes, store information through intricate patterns and graphics such as squares, dots, and hexagons within a square or rectangular matrix. These barcodes store information both horizontally and vertically, allowing them to hold a much larger amount of data compared to 1D barcodes. 

Here are prominent 2D barcodes in shipping:

  • QR Codes (Quick Response Codes): Known for their fast readability and large storage capacity, QR codes are used in various aspects of shipping and logistics. They encode tracking numbers and other shipment details, which are accessible with a quick scan.
  • Data Matrix: Similar to QR codes but capable of storing even more information in a smaller space, Data Matrix codes are used for marking small items. This barcode is beneficial for items with limited space for labelling, providing a means to encode significant amounts of data like manufacturing details, expiry dates, and batch numbers.
  • PDF417: A stacked barcode that can encode large amounts of data, including photographs and fingerprints. PDF417 is used for shipping labels, particularly in the transportation of goods requiring extensive documentation. It can encode 1850 printable ASCII characters or 1,108 binary characters.
  • MaxiCode: Designed specifically for sorting and tracking packages during shipping, MaxiCode is a matrix barcode that appears as a hexagon-patterned code. It can encode 93 alphanumeric characters or 138 numeric characters, including the postal code, country code, and class of the package, facilitating fast and accurate sorting and delivery of shipments worldwide.

Each type of barcode has its specific applications, advantages, and limitations. The choice between 1D and 2D barcodes for shipping purposes depends on the complexity of the information needed, the space available for the barcode on the package, and the industry standards that apply to the shipment. To compare and learn more about 1D and 2D barcodes, refer to our dedicated guide, 1D vs 2D Barcodes

Format of a Shipping Barcode

The format of a shipping barcode defines the structure and the type of information it can encode, playing a critical role in the efficiency and reliability of tracking shipments. Here’s a closer look at the primary formats used in shipping barcodes: 

Alphanumeric Format

Alphanumeric barcodes can encode letters and numbers, offering a versatile solution for incorporating a wide range of information. This format is particularly useful for encoding complex data, such as serial numbers, product codes, and other identifiers requiring letters and digits. 

Alphanumeric barcodes, such as Code 128 and QR codes, are widely adopted for their flexibility in handling diverse data needs within the logistics and supply chain. 

Numeric Format

Numeric barcodes exclusively encode numbers, making them more straightforward than their alphanumeric counterparts. Their primary advantage lies in their high-density numeric data capacity, allowing for the compact representation of long sequences of numbers. 

Numeric formats, like Interleaved 2 of 5 (ITF), are commonly used for items that require serial or model numbers, such as inventory in warehouses and products in retail settings. 

Data Matrix Format

Data Matrix barcodes are a type of 2D barcode that can encode information numerically and in text form within a small, square format. They are highly efficient in terms of space. They can contain a significant amount of information, including manufacturer details, product identification, and even brief descriptions, all encoded within a compact, easily scannable pattern. 

This format is particularly beneficial for marking small items or components where space is limited and detailed information is necessary for tracking and verification purposes.

How to Create a Shipping Barcode?

Five steps for creating a shipping barcode

Creating a shipping barcode involves a sequence of steps designed to ensure that the encoded information meets the logistical and tracking requirements of the shipment. Here’s a streamlined process to create a shipping barcode. 

  • Determine the Type of Information to Encode: Decide what information the barcode needs to carry. This could be a product ID, serial number, SSCC, or any other relevant data for tracking and managing the shipment.
  • Select the Appropriate Barcode Format: Based on the type of information and the specific requirements of your logistics chain, choose the most suitable barcode format. Consider whether you need an alphanumeric, numeric, or 2D Data Matrix format to efficiently encode the necessary data.
  • Use a Barcode Generator Software: Numerous barcode generation tools are available, both online and as software applications like BarTender Software. These tools can automatically create a barcode that matches your selected format and encodes your specified information. Ensure that the generator supports the barcode format you have chosen.
  • Design the Barcode Label: Incorporate the generated barcode into a label design that includes any additional information required for shipping, such as the recipient’s address, company logo, or handling instructions. Label design software can help organise this information aesthetically and practically.
  • Test the Barcode for Scannability: Before printing your barcode labels in bulk, conduct a test to ensure they are scannable. Use a barcode scanner to verify that the barcode correctly encodes the intended information and that it can be easily read by your scanning equipment.

Make Barcode Generation Easy With BarTender Software!

Generating barcodes with precision, reliability, and customisable options is essential, yet free barcode generators often fall short. These no-cost solutions might seem appealing initially, but their limitations become glaring when tackling the complexities and scalability of modern logistics operations demand. Challenges such as insufficient support, a limited range of formats, and a lack of integration features with existing systems can compromise your supply chain’s efficiency and accuracy.

BarTender by Seagull Scientific is the superior choice, offering advanced capabilities beyond free barcode generators. This all-encompassing label design and printing software streamline the creation of labels, barcodes, RFID tags, and more, ensuring flawless integration with your existing processes.

With over 400 pre-designed barcode components and support for 105 symbologies, BarTender accommodates a wide array of standards. Additionally, its assortment of ready-to-use label templates, the ability to connect to various data sources, such as databases and CSV files, and date/time serialisation capabilities attest to its versatility for generating diverse barcodes and labels.

For detailed insights into BarTender’s features, refer to our article, What is BarTender? 

Seagull Scientific offers BarTender in four editions: Starter Edition, Professional Edition, Automation Edition and Enterprise Edition. The Starter Edition is designed for smaller teams, while the Professional Edition suits those with more intricate labelling needs. The Automation Edition is ideal for businesses looking to automate their processes, and the Enterprise Edition is specifically tailored for large organisations.

Additionally, BarTender provides a cloud-based solution, BarTender Cloud, for remote label printing and management, offering accessibility from anywhere.

To understand the differences between BarTender Cloud and its on-premise counterparts, explore our BarTender Cloud vs BarTender Software guide.

How to Print a Shipping Barcode?

Regarding printing shipping barcodes, the choice of printing technology is crucial for ensuring barcode readability, durability, and overall effectiveness in tracking and managing shipments. Here are the primary printing technologies used for printing shipping barcodes, each with its advantages and ideal use cases: 

Thermal Transfer Printing

  • How It Works: Thermal transfer printers use a heated ribbon to transfer ink onto the label material, creating high-quality, durable images.
  • Advantages: Produces durable barcodes that withstand extreme conditions, including exposure to chemicals, sunlight, and abrasion. Ideal for shipping labels that need to remain readable for extended periods or under harsh conditions.
  • Use Cases: Long-term storage labels, hazardous material labels, and items exposed to outdoor environments.

Direct Thermal Printing

  • How It Works: Direct thermal printers apply heat directly to a thermally sensitive label material, darkening the areas exposed to heat to form the barcode or text.
  • Advantages: Eliminates the need for ink, toner, or ribbon, making it a cost-effective and maintenance-low option for printing. Best suited for applications where the label life is temporary.
  • Use Cases: Shipping labels for short-term use, receipts, and labels for perishable goods.

Inkjet Printing

  • How It Works: Inkjet printers spray tiny ink droplets onto the label surface to create the image. Recent advancements have made high-resolution barcode printing possible with inkjet technology.
  • Advantages: Capable of printing in colour, allowing for additional design options on the label. Flexible and suitable for a wide range of materials.
  • Use Cases: Custom packaging labels where colour or branding is important, along with barcode information.

Laser Printing

  • How It Works: Laser printers use a laser beam to form a pattern on a drum, which is then coated with toner and transferred to the label material.
  • Advantages: High-speed printing with excellent resolution. Laser printers are well-suited for creating detailed and crisp barcodes on a variety of label materials.
  • Use Cases: Office environments where labels for shipping and inventory management are needed alongside standard document printing tasks.

Selecting the Ideal Printing Technology

Choosing the most suitable printing technology for shipping barcodes requires careful consideration of various factors, including the durability of the labels, their expected lifespan, the volume of printing, and overall costs.

Among the options available, thermal printers—both direct thermal and thermal transfer— emerge as the leading choice for a wide array of shipping and logistics applications.

Thermal printing technology offers unmatched durability and reliability for barcodes that withstand challenging conditions over time. It produces excellent barcode images, guaranteeing high readability by barcode scanners

A significant advantage of thermal printers is the diversity of models available, such as desktop printers, industrial-grade printers, mobile printers, and specialised barcode label printers. This variety ensures a suitable option for every requirement and setting. 

Despite the pronounced benefits of thermal printers, there are scenarios where inkjet or laser printers might be more appropriate.

Inkjet printers shine in situations requiring the addition of vibrant colours to packaging. Their capacity to produce eye-catching labels with branding elements and barcodes renders them perfect for consumer goods where visual appeal is paramount.

On the other hand, laser printers excel in office environments where their ability to swiftly handle a wide range of printing tasks, including both document and barcode label production, is invaluable. Known for their speed and good resolution, laser printers are adept at meeting the demands of situations requiring quick, high-volume printing with crisp results.

For a detailed comparison of inkjet and laser printing technologies with thermal printing technology, visit our comprehensive guides. 

Shipping Barcodes vs. Product Barcodes - What's the Difference?

Shipping Barcodes
Product Barcodes
Track and manage logistics of shipping packages.
Streamline location and identification of individual products.
Monitoring inventory movement through the supply chain.
Improving the efficiency of warehouse operations and inventory systems.
Attached to the shipping packages.
Applied directly to products in a warehouse.
Role in Supply Chain
Facilitates real-time tracking and updates on shipping status.
Supports effective inventory organisation and quick product information access.

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, shipping barcodes serve as the backbone of efficient logistics and supply chain management, enabling precise tracking and management of goods from origin to destination. Understanding the various types of barcodes, their formats, and the appropriate printing technologies is crucial for businesses aiming to optimise their operations. 

By carefully selecting the right barcode system and printing solution, companies can significantly enhance and streamline their shipping processes and improve overall supply chain efficiency. 

We hope this article was useful.

Thanks for reading! 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Shipping Barcodes Be Customised for Branding Purposes?

Yes, shipping barcodes can have branding elements, such as company logos or specific colour schemes, without affecting the barcode’s functionality. 

However, remember that customisation should maintain the barcode’s readability and comply with industry standards. 

Are There Any Legal Requirements for Shipping Barcode Compliance?

Yes, there are legal requirements and industry standards for shipping barcode compliance that vary depending on the country, the industry, and the type of products being shipped. 

These regulations ensure the uniformity, readability, and traceability of goods throughout the supply chain, facilitating international trade and compliance with safety and regulatory requirements.  

Can I Tape Over the Shipping Barcode?

Taping over the shipping barcode is not recommended.  

Clear tape can create glare or distort the barcode, making it difficult for scanners to read accurately. This can lead to processing delays or errors in your shipment. 

Can I Ship a Package Without a Barcode?

Shipping a package without a barcode is possible but not recommended for most modern logistics and shipping systems. Barcodes provide a quick and efficient way to track and manage shipments, significantly reducing the risk of errors and delays. 

While you might be able to ship without a barcode, doing so will complicate tracking, increase the chances of misdelivery, and generally slow down the shipping process. 

What Label Material Should Be Used When Printing Shipping Barcodes?

For printing shipping barcodes, it’s essential to use label material that is durable and suited to the shipping conditions the package will face. Polyester or polypropylene labels are widely recommended because of their resistance to water, weather, and wear and tear. 


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