What Is A UPC Code?

What is a UPC code

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UPC stands for Universal Product Code. It is a type of 1D barcode symbology used to identify products uniquely. UPCs are mostly printed on retail product packaging and labels as a way for retailers to track and identify products.

UPC barcodes consist of 12 numerical digits. They are standardised according to ISO/IEC 15420, making them a widely accepted means of product identification around the world.

In this article, we will explore what UPC barcodes are, their type, structure, and working and why they play an important role in today’s business industry. We will also share the designing and printing requirements of UPC barcodes and the benefits they offer. So, let’s get started!

What are UPC Barcodes - A Deep Explanation

What is a UPC barcode

The Universal Product Code (UPC) is an internationally-recognised barcode symbology used to uniquely identify trade items in stores.

UPC barcodes are a type of code that consists solely of numeric characters ranging from 0 to 9. The amount of data that can be stored in these codes varies depending on the UPC variant. Capacity can range from 2 up to 12 digits per barcode.

UPC codes are a component of Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs or Global Trade Identification Number) which follow the GS1 global specification based on international standards. Please note that each product you intend to sell will require its own unique UPC code.

Every UPC consists of a six-digit manufacturer identification number called Company Prefix, which is assigned to a certain company after joining GS1 and paying a fee.

UPCs use a check digit to ensure that the data encoded in the barcode is accurate. This check digit is calculated using Modulo 10 and helps verify that the information stored in a barcode has not been modified or corrupted. However, since UPC barcodes lack any error correction capability, they cannot be read if the barcode has sustained physical damage or distortion.

The Universal Product Code (UPC) system was first developed by George Laurer in the 1970s. The first ever item scanned with a UPC coding was a 10-pack (50 sticks) of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum purchased at Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, on June 26th, 1974. 

Since then, UPC barcodes have rapidly become the global product identification and tracking standard. Their widespread acceptance and usage have made UPC barcodes one of the most popular barcodes in the world today. UPC barcode symbology is widely accepted by online retailers such as Amazon, eBay AliExpress, and Jet, as well as brick-and-mortar establishments all over the world. 

Things To Know About Using UPC Codes

Four points to be known about using UPC codes

Now that you have a better understanding of UPC barcodes let’s discuss their capabilities and limitations.

UPCs Do Not Encode Prices

Universal Product Codes (UPCs) are barcodes used to identify products. However, they do not contain any pricing information. 

Instead, when a UPC is scanned at the store checkout counter, it triggers the retailer’s Point of Sale (POS) system to look up and display the most recent price for that item.

The POS system allows retailers to set their own prices for each product they stock. Retailers can also input other information, such as warranties and product discounts, into their POS systems which are then applied at the checkout counter.

For Internal Usage

Businesses often need to use barcodes for their internal communication systems. While GS1 and GS1-US can provide UPC barcodes, other alternatives don’t require joining or paying fees.

For example, certain GS1 prefixes are assigned specifically for internal usage and can be found in the “Restricted Distribution (MO defined)” list on the GS1 official website.

Not Needed When Selling Products Online

A UPC barcode isn’t mandatory to sell your product. If you primarily sell online or through other Internet-based outlets, then you don’t need to join or pay GS1. You are free to use any type of barcode that fits your needs.

However, if you do sell through separate Internet retailers, they may require specific types of barcodes, so make sure to ask them ahead of time what their requirements are.

Company Prefix

UPCs do not provide a direct indication of the country of origin of the product. They have GS1 Country Prefix in them, which can be used to determine the company’s location that manufactured the item. 

How Does a UPC Barcode Work?

Let’s take a look at how a UPC barcode get’s decoded through a basic step-by-step process.

  1. Firstly, a cashier uses a device called a barcode scanner to scan the UPC barcode of a product at the point of sale.
  2. The barcode scanner emits a beam of light of a particular frequency which sweeps across the barcode.
  3. The barcode then absorbs some of the light and reflects the rest. 
  4. The light then returns in a pattern according to the shape and width of the bars. This reflected pattern of light is then captured by an optical sensor in the scanner, which converts it into electronic signals.
  5. Then, the scanner sends the electronic signals to a computer, where the data is analysed, decoded, and stored in a database. With this information, the computer retrieves product-specific data, including the actual price and discounts associated with the product and displays it on a screen. 

Why Do You Need a UPC Code?

UPCs play an important role in the retail industry by helping businesses track inventory, speed up checkout times, reduce human errors, and provide accurate sales data for marketing purposes.

With UPCs, businesses can easily access product information such as brand name, item type, size, colour, promotions, or associated discounts—all at the scan of a barcode. Additionally, UPCs enable companies to keep precise daily sales records, which can be leveraged for business strategies and marketing campaigns.

How to Recognise a UPC Barcode?

UPC barcodes are easily recognisable in stores and other retail venues due to their unique pattern and size.

UPC barcode symbols are composed of 12 individual numbers that are typically grouped together in 1-5-5-1 format. Alongside the numerical encoding, UPCs have guard bars which are the two parallel, equal-hight bars located at the beginning, middle and end of the barcode symbol. Additionally, the barcode uses four different bar and space widths to encode each number, which is an immediate indicator of a UPC.

All of these elements combined make it easy to identify a UPC barcode at a glance. 

How to recognize a UPC code

Types of UPC Codes

There are two variants of UPC code – UPC-A and UPC-E. Both codes have different purposes and structures, making them suitable for different purposes. 

Let’s have a look at them.

UPC-A barcode


UPC-A is the standard version of the UPC code. It consists of 12 numerical digits that are used to identify products available at retail stores and supermarkets across the globe. This standardisation has enabled businesses to streamline their product management processes and provide better customer experience by reducing billing time and providing accurate information. 


UPC-E is a shortened version of the UPC-A barcode. It carries eight numerical characters.

UPC-E uses a zero suppression method, which suppresses extra zeros from the manufacturer and product digits to shorten the code from UPC-A. This makes it possible for products and packages with limited space to use this shorter version of the UPC code instead of the longer UPC-A code. 

UPC-E barcode

Other UPC Barcode Types

In addition to the standard UPC barcode, there are several other types that are less widely used. Here are some supplemental UPC barcode variants. 


UPC-B is a 12-digit barcode developed for the National Drug Code and National Health Related Items Code. This barcode contains 11 digits plus an additional product code, totalling 12 digits without a check digit. However, it is not widely used due to its limited application.


UPC-C is a 12-digit code comprising a product code and a check digit.


UPC-D is a variable length code that can be 12 digits or more in length. The 12th digit of this code is the check digit. Although this version is not widely used, it still remains part of the UPC system.


UPC-2 is a 2-digit extension of the UPC barcode system. It is typically used to indicate the edition number of magazines and newspapers.


UPC-5 is a 5-digit supplement to the UPC code. It is used primarily in the book industry or for weighed products (like food) to indicate the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

UPC-A vs UPC-E - What’s the Difference?

Difference between UPC-A and UPC-E barcodes
Number of digits
12 numeric digits
8 numeric digits
Bigger in size. Used on larger products, such as electronic items, books etc.
Smaller in size. used on smaller products, such as candy bars or bottles of shampoo.

Structure of a UPC Bar Code

Structure of a UPC barcode

A UPC barcode consists of a series of numbers and has a structure (from left to right) that includes.

  • Leading quiet zone,
  • Guard pattern (start character),
  • Six symbol characters containing data,
  • Centre guard pattern (centre character),
  • Six symbol characters with a check digit,
  • Quard pattern (stop character), and
  • Trailing quiet zone

The start and stop characters are composed of three modules: a narrow bar, a narrow space, and a narrow bar.

The centre character comprises five modules: a narrow space, narrow bar, narrow space, narrow bar, and narrow space. Centre characters are also called security bars because they are wider than those containing data. The centre guard pattern also divides the left and right halves of the code into six digits each.

UPC encoding stores up to 11 digits of numeric message data together with a check digit, making it 12 digits in total. This symbology uses four different widths to represent each numeric character making it one of the most effective ways to encode information using minimal modules per character. It can also come in different lengths, but these lengths cannot vary as much as with other symbologies.

Anatomy of a UPC Barcode

In this section, we will break down the different parts of a UPC barcode to help you understand how this code works.

Anatomy of UPC-A Barcode

UPC-A barcode anatomy

A UPC-A code is a 12-digit number that consists of three distinct groups.

  • Manufacturer Code
  • Product Code
  • Check Digit

Manufacturer Code

The first six digits of the UPC-A code are known as the manufacturer code or GS1 Company Prefix. It is a unique number that represents the original seller’s name and helps identify the manufacturer of the product.

GS1 Company Prefix is assigned by GS1, an organisation devoted to supporting global standards in product identification and barcoding.

Product Code

The next five digits are known as the product code. It is assigned to each individual product by the manufacturer and is used to differentiate products from one another. The manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that the same code is not repeated.

For instance, if two products are similar in shape or size but have different flavours – such as a six-pack of strawberry yoghurt and a single container of blueberry yoghurt – their item numbers would be different from one another. This ensures that each product can be accurately tracked and found in store inventories.

Check Digit

Finally, the last digit of the UPC-A code is known as the check digit. It is used to verify that the correct code has been entered or scanned during a purchase transaction. UPC-A codes use a mathematical formula called Modulo-10 or Luhn Algorithm to calculate the check digit. 

UPC-E Anatomy

Anatomy of UPC-E barcode

UPC-E code consists of eight digits. It comes with an implied number system of 0 or 1. It contains three groups – 

  1. Manufacturer code 
  2. Product Code 
  3. Check Digit 

Manufacturer Code

The first five digits of UPC-E represent UPC Company Prefix.

The UPC Company Prefix is the same as the GS1 Company Prefix but does not include the leading zero.

Product Code

The next two digits are the product code which is given by the manufacturer as a way to differentiate products.

Check Digit

The last digit is the check digit, calculated using Modulo-10 or Luhn Algorithm.

How to Get a UPC Code

There are two main ways to obtain a UPC: the free method and paid method.

Both of these methods have their own advantages and disadvantages. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at both paid and free methods of obtaining a UPC.

Free UPC

Generating UPC barcodes is a free and accessible process that anyone can take advantage of. 

With the help of online tools and free barcode generators, you can quickly create your own codes in just a few steps. 

All you need to do is provide the numeric digits of your products, and the generator will generate the UPC barcode for you – allowing you to print it out right away.

Paid UPC and How to get a UPC From GS1?

You can get your company prefix and UPCs from GS1 by paying a fee. GS1 is an organisation devoted to supporting global barcoding standards. 

To get your UPC from GS1, you need to follow some basic steps:

  • Firstly, you need to calculate how many barcodes you need. Different types and variants of a product need different UPCs. For example, if a sweater has five different styles and five colour options, you’ll need 25 different UPCs for each colour and style.
  • Once you’ve calculated the number of UPCs you will need, you must go to GS1’s official website to get a Company Prefix from GS1 by paying a fee. With a GS1 Company Prefix, you can start assigning identification numbers to various entities, including products, locations, assets, and services.
  • Once you’ve received your assigned GS1 Company Prefix, assign all your item numbers and calculate the check digit, you can now use barcode generators to create the barcode images needed for labelling products.
  • Once you’ve gathered all the necessary information and barcode images, it’s time to print your barcodes on labels and affix them to your products.

Free UPC vs Paid UPC

Free UPC barcodes have several limitations that make them unsuitable for certain applications. With free UPCs, you won’t receive any form of verification or authentication for your product or the associated UPC code. This means that retailers may not accept your product or mark the barcode as invalid. 

Additionally, e-commerce websites such as Amazon and Walmart only accept GS1-assigned codes and will reject products or even unlist them if unauthorised free UPCs are used.

EAN barcodes from GS1’s official website provide more assurance regarding the authenticity of the UPC code. By buying UPCs from GS1, you receive a unique company prefix and GTIN, which helps to increase recognition in different marketplaces.

Deciding which kind of UPC bar code is appropriate for a business largely depends on the type of application they need it for. If the codes are needed for internal operations only, free UPCs can be used. However, if the aim is to market products on major platforms like Amazon and eBay, then paid UPC codes must be purchased to meet those platforms’ standards. 

Designing and Printing UPC Code - Things to Consider

In order to ensure that your UPCs will scan correctly every time, there are a few design and printing considerations to keep in mind.

Designing UPC Barcode

Dimensions of UPC Code

Five design rules of dimensions of UPC code

Designing a UPC barcode involves several key steps, including.

  • Selecting an appropriate x-dimension
  • Determining the module widths of each bar and space
  • Extending certain bars downwards by five times the x-dimension to form guard patterns
  • Setting up quiet zones

The x-dimension, which is the width of the narrowest bar in a barcode, is the significant dimensional parameter. For UPC codes, the x-dimension should be at least 0.33 mm (0.013 inches).

UPC barcodes are printed at various densities to accommodate different printing and scanning processes. The module widths of each bar and space are determined by multiplying the x-dimension with 1, 2, 3 or 4 units.

The S (start), M (middle) and E (end) guard patterns are extended downwards by 5 times x-dimension to achieve a nominal symbol height of 27.55 mm (1.08 inches). This also applies to the bars of a UPC-A barcode’s first and last numerical digits.

Furthermore, a quiet zone with a width of at least nine times the x-dimension must be present on either side of the scannable area for scanners to work properly.

Sizing of UPC Code

Sizing rules of UPC barcode

UPCs can be reduced or magnified anywhere from 80% to 200%.

When encoding GTIN-12 numbers in UPC-A barcodes, the first and last digits are always placed outside the symbol to indicate those necessary quiet zones around it.

All UPCs consist of exactly 30 bars – 6 representing guard patterns and 24 representing numerical digits – which makes them easily identifiable when scanned correctly.

Printing UPC Barcode

Accurately printing a UPC symbol is essential for businesses that rely on scanning products in the checkout line.

A scannable UPC requires precise adherence to size requirements, which were first established when the guidelines for UPCs were published.

The standard size of a UPC barcode is known as 100% magnification and has dimensions of 1.46 inches x 1.02 inches. However, there are acceptable ranges between 80-200%, with each percentage having its own specific measurements.

It is also important to ensure that the printed material meets tolerance requirements of within 1/100 mm. Furthermore, all barcode components must be printed in the same size and orientation, as any variations of even 0.1 mm can affect its ability to scan properly. 

The correct contrast between light and dark lines should also be maintained; otherwise, it may negatively impact the ability of barcode readers to read and decode the data contained within a UPC barcode correctly.

The minimum print resolution necessary for printing UPC codes is 203 DPI; however, 300 DPI is highly suggested for optimum results.

For optimal printing of UPC label barcodes, it is critical to use a high-quality thermal printer. Thermal printers feature superior precision and accuracy, which provides sharper and clearer results while avoiding common issues experienced by inferior quality machines, such as smudging or misalignments.

Moreover, thermal printers do not require ink or toner as other printing technologies, thus providing cost savings over time. Additionally, these thermal printers can produce faster output and print for longer periods with fewer maintenance needs.

At Triton Store, we provide a comprehensive range of thermal printers from trusted brands like Honeywell, Zebra and TSC. Our vast inventory includes various printer models, such as direct thermal printers, thermal transfer printers, barcode label printers, desktop printers and industrial printers, so you’ll have no trouble finding the right solution for your needs.

We at Triton Store take pride in offering our customers superior products at unbeatable prices. Our team of customer service experts is always available to assist with any inquiries or issues that you may have. If you’re looking to purchase a high-quality thermal printer, Triton Store is the place to go!

Advantages and Disadvantages of UPC Code

In this section, we will have a look at the Advantages and Disadvantages of UPC barcodes.

List of four points on advantages of UPC code

UPC Barcode Advantages

  • One of the oldest barcode types and is widely used around the world.
  • UPC codes have a self-checking mechanism through their checksum digit.
  • Businesses benefit from using UPCs in various ways, like boosting checkout speed and tracking inventory and sales efficiently. 
  • Increases efficiency and productivity by reducing the need to manually enter product information.

UPC Barcode Disadvantages

  • Only numeric data encoding/decoding cannot encode characters and special characters.
  • Little tolerance for damage cannot be decoded even if slightly damaged.
  • There will be difficulty seeing bar codes if the colour reproduction or combination is inadequate.
  • Inefficiencies with large inventories. UPC bar codes are slower than more recent RFID technology.
List of four points on disadvantages of UPC barcode

Make Label Designing and Printing Easy With BarTender Software

Seagull Scientific’s BarTender software is the world’s most trusted label design and printing solution. With BarTender, you can quickly, precisely, and efficiently design, manage, automate, and print barcodes, labels, and tags.

BarTender integrates with your existing company systems and infrastructure, making label designing and printing simple. You can even link various data sources to create barcodes and labels at the same time, such as data from a database, CSV file, date/time, or serialisation.

BarTender features an impressive library of preformatted barcode components compliant with 105 different symbologies and more than a dozen standards, giving users an easy way to produce high-quality barcodes. With BarTender software, you can easily create UPC-A and UPC-E with and without 2-digit and 5-digit add-ons.

At Triton Store, we bring you BarTender software at unbeatable prices that you won’t find anywhere else. We have all four editions of the software available – Starter Edition, Professional Edition, Automation Edition and Enterprise Edition to meet your needs. Make sure to take advantage of this incredible offer and get your hands on BarTender today for the best value!

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Do All Products Need a UPC Code?

No, all products do not need UPC symbols. Only products that are intended for sale will require a UPC code.

Does Amazon Accept UPC Barcodes?

Yes, Amazon accepts UPC barcodes.

Where is a UPC Code Usually Located?

Usually, UPC codes are located on a product’s packaging.

Can I Sell a Product Without a Barcode?

Yes, a product can be sold without a barcode. If the manufacturer of the product does not want a UPC for their product, the product can still be sold. For example, there are many products like mobile covers, which are sold in online marketplaces as well as stores without a barcode.  

Can We Generate a UPC Code Online?

Yes, there are numerous free websites as well as paid websites and tools available online to generate UPC codes.

Is a UPC the Same as an SKU?

No, UPC and SKU are two different things.

UPC stands for Universal Product Code, and it adheres to the global standard defined by the GS1 organisation.

On the other hand, SKU stands for Stock Keeping Unit. This code allows retailers to create their own codes without following a global standard. With SKUs, retailers can control the size of their inventory and map product SKUs internally when changing manufacturers or wholesalers.


UPC codes have become essential for modern retail operations. They allow retailers to maintain accurate pricing information both in-store and online, as well as streamline their inventory management. By providing customers with better accessibility to product data while simultaneously creating efficiencies throughout the supply chain, UPCs are invaluable tools in retail today.

We hope this article has helped you to understand more about UPC codes and their usage.

Thanks for reading!

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