UPC vs EAN.
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
The difference between UPC and EAN barcodes explained.
The UPC (Universal Product Code) a 12 digit barcode and the EAN (European Article Number, also known as the International Article Number) a 13 digit barcode, are one dimensional symbologies used most commonly in the retail industry worldwide.
UPC-A barcodes are a subset of EAN-13 barcodes. If the first digit in the EAN-13 number sequence is a ‘0’, then the image, i.e. the actual bars, of both the EAN-13 and the UPC-A will be identical. However, the format of the human readable numbers below the bars between EAN-13 and UPC-A barcodes will differ. (See above graphic).
Scanners read the bars and not the human readable numbers. The numerals are there merely as a back up should software fail to scan the barcode image properly and it requires manual entry into the retail POS (Point Of Sale). Both formats can be scanned by the majority of modern barcode scanners worldwide.
UPC-A format barcodes have traditionally been used in the US and Canada, whilst EAN-13 format barcodes have been used throughout the rest of the world. In the modern era however, the majority of stores globally accept barcodes in either format. Some retailers may still employ older systems that only accept one or the other format. It’s therefore advisable that if you are selling your products predominantly in the US or Canada, you use the UPC-A format barcode. If your product is international or sold in a country other than the USA and Canada, then the EAN-13 Barcode is preferable.
In the event of a store having difficulty reading an EAN-13 or UPC-A barcode, they can either ignore the leading ‘0’ or add a leading ‘0’ depending on how many digits their particular system prefers. The barcode will then read exactly the same as the opposite format, the bars being identical, and will remain universally unique.
Our thanks to George Joseph Laurer lll, engineer and inventor of the UPC (and EAN) barcode, https://www.barcodeireland.ie/post/george-j-laurer-iii-inventor-of-the-upc-barcode, the original author of this comprehensive and somewhat technical and historical explanation of the difference between the UPC and EAN barcodes:
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.
The 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 recognised the usefulness of the U.P.C. but realised 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 recognises a series of digits as the right half of a symbol if the parity of the characters is all even and it recognises the left half if it is composed of all odd OR if three characters are odd parity and three characters are even parity characters.
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.”
UPC-A and EAN-13 barcodes are therefore technically the same, the main difference being visual. The UPC is predominantly used in the US and Canada and the EAN in the rest of the world, although both are easily scannable worldwide.
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