What is a UPC Code?

A UPC code, which is stands for Universal Product Code, is a 12-digit numeric based code that a company uses to uniquely identify its product.  The term GTIN (Global Trade Item Number) is often used when speaking about UPCs and refers to the same thing. 

UPC codes all originate through a single non-profit organization named Global Standard 1 (GS1) that develops and maintains global standards for business communication. Most, if not all products purchased at a store have their own UPC code. 

This code is required by most retailers and distributors since it facilitates a standard way of identifying products.

What is a Barcode?

A barcode or UPC symbol is a series of black vertical lines that can be clearly visible on any Point of Sale product. 

This symbol is unique to each product and represents the twelve digits that identify an individual product marked for sale. The barcode is the part of the UPC code that is scanned at the Point of Sale.

How to read UPC Barcode?

At a first glance, barcodes may appear to be a random assortment of lines and numbers. The vertical lines are used so scanners can read the information, however, those lines are associated with the numbers which provide some product information. 

The UPC code is a series of 12 numbers and is broken into three components – the company prefix, item reference number (product number), and a check digit.

Company Prefix

The company prefix is the first six to ten numbers on a UPC barcode and is a unique identifier of the manufacturer and different types of products sold.

There are two parts of the company prefix which include the product information and the manufacturer’s identification code.

The first number on the far left provides some information on the product type.

  • 0, 1, 6, 7 & 8 – Common products
  • 2 – Products that are sold by weight
  • 3 – Pharmaceutical products
  • 4 – Non-food item
  • 5 – Coupon

Item Reference Number

The next series of digits is the item’s product number. This number is assigned by GS1 to the individual product the UPC code is being created for. 

This is a unique number and would be different for each variant of the product such as size, color, and the like.

Check Digit

The last number on a barcode label is called a check digit. The check digit is used to detect any errors in the code through a calculation.  This verifies the accuracy of the other numbers on the barcode.

How to Get a UPC Code?

GS1 has strict standards and as a consequence individual companies cannot create their own UPC codes. In order to have a barcode that will scan at a Point of Sale, you must have a GS1 Company Prefix which is assigned to the company by GS1. So in other words, you can not create UPC codes on your own.

It’s also noteworthy to mention that there are a few different ways to get a free UPC code for a product by using a “free UPC ” or “UPC Generator” online. While these are available and “free”, products with these types of barcodes are not accepted by most retail stores or online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay because unique product numbers or codes may not be generated. 

If the codes are not unique, managing inventory is nearly impossible. The free barcode option might only be useful if you’re selling your own products through your own website and maybe some local brick-and-mortar stores.

If you are selling your product at major retailers, distributors, online marketplaces, and other countries, a GS1 (Global Standard 1) certified UPC is a must. 

Universal Product Codes (UPCs) are managed by GS1 who ensures that they create codes that are unique. This globally unique number is critical to track inventory turnover from the manufacturers to the final consumers.

How Many UPC Codes do I Need for my Products?

All unique products that are being proposed for sale will need their own unique UPC Code.  

While the Company Prefix is assigned by the GS1 and it will remain the same, any new product will need to have assigned to it a unique product number and check digit.

UPC and EAN – What’s the Difference?

Universal Product Codes are most commonly used in the United States of America, while European Article Numbers (EANs) are used internationally.

It should be noted that most places will accept both UPC and EAN codes, however, if the enterprise intends on selling your products outside of the United States of America, an EAN code might be best suited.

EAN  barcodes contain thirteen (13) digits, leading with a zero (0) in front of the standard GTIN- twelve (12) digit UPC codes. Both UPC and EAN barcodes are otherwise identical.

UPC Barcodes – How To Obtain?

In the global marketplace today, retailers, wholesalers, and online marketplaces such as Amazon require that every product has a unique identifier assigned to it. 

Unlike a manufacturer’s part number, the required identifier must be unique and strictly adhere to a worldwide standard as established by GS1. As mentioned earlier with regard to the United States of America, this product identifier is the UPC barcode.  

The UPC number usually consists of three main components:-

(1)  UPC Company Prefix,  (2) Product Number, and (3) The Check Digit

Obtaining barcodes for your products is an easy four-step process:

  • First Step: Apply for an approved GS1 Company Prefix
  • Second Step: Assign a Unique Product Number for each individual product.
  • Third Step: Decide how the product will display barcodes with size, color, and layout considered.
  • Fourth Step: Obtain accurate UPC codes for each product and its variations.

Placing Barcodes on Products

Once a company prefix is obtained and the company is given an allotment of UPC’s, the company is now ready to place barcodes on its products. 

Additional digital UPC code files can be created for new items. Further, for companies with already existing packaging printed labels can be obtained.

Two primary elements for placing UPC codes on products are the sizing and the actual location on the product packaging.

Standard UPC Barcode Size

The sizing range of width and height dimensions for UPC codes are well defined.  The main two factors that determine the minimum sizing dimension are one (1) the type of scanners used to read the UPC and two (2) the printing technology used to create them. 

Smaller codes have tighter print tolerances and this can be problematic for some scanners.

Some companies that offer barcode services may also provide access to a business consultant who will assist in determining the correct barcode size and also provide the required file format. 

It’s not uncommon for startup companies to alter the sizing of their UPC codes and subsequently realize that those changes have caused numerous problems which led to additional fees and charges.

Placement on Packaging

Placement issues can be caused by a wide range of circumstances. In an effort to minimize this GS1 has established general specifications for UPC barcode placement on most types of products and packaging. 

This document has explicit guidelines and is extremely comprehensive.

Some companies or consultants that offer barcode services are up to date with the GS1 requirements and assist clients with these types of situations on a daily basis.