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The Difference Between EAN and UPC Barcodes

UPC-A Barcodes are effectively a subset of EAN-13 Barcodes. If the first digit on the EAN-13 number is a ‘0’, then the bars of both the EAN-13 and the UPC-A (without the leading ‘0’) will be the same. The displacement of the human-readable numbers below differs between the UPC-A and EAN-13 barcodes however – this is the biggest difference. Both barcodes can be easily scanned by the majority of scanners.

Difference EAN-13 and UPC-A

When Should You Use EAN-13 vs UPC-A?

UPC-A Format barcodes have traditionally been used in the USA and Canada, whereas EAN-13 format barcodes have been used outside of the US and Canada. The majority of stores throughout the world currently accept barcodes in either format. However, there may be some older systems that accept one but not the other. This means that if your product is being sold in the USA or Canada, the UPC-A format barcodes are best, however, if your product is international, or sold in a country other than the USA or Canada, an EAN-13 Barcode is what you should use.

If you find a store that has difficulty reading your EAN-13 or UPC-A Barcode, they can either ignore the leading ‘0’ or add a leading ‘0’ depending on how many digits their system prefers. If this is done, the barcode will read exactly the same as the opposite format (as the bars are identical regardless), and will still be globally unique.

Both UPC and EAN-13 numbers can be purchased here. – If you require a UPC-A format barcode, please ask for this in the additional information section when you are checking out.

Why does this occur?

The way a digit is encoded into every barcode is 7 blocks of either white or black making up each digit. – A full set of digits 0-9 is called a parity. – Retail barcodes have a minimum of 2 parities one for the left side and one for the right. – This is so they can be scanned upside down and still return the correct number the right way around.

Originally the 12-digit UPC system was created in the 1970s by George Laurer.  – these work with 2 different parities – a left-side odd parity and a right-side even parity (each with 6 digits) – the parities for these can be seen in the attached.

Later, a 13-digit EAN-13 system was created as a superset of the UPC barcodes. These were intentionally designed to be used in conjunction with UPC-A barcodes. And hence, employed both the left odd parity and the right even parity of the UPC barcodes, but added an additional parity (a left-even parity) which was to be used on a selection of the left-hand side digits –

The left and right-hand sides of the EAN-13 barcodes are still divided into 6 digits each. So the initial digit determines which combination of the first 6 digits will use the newly created left even parity. Hence, in no EAN-13 barcode is the first digit encoded in the barcode, although it does determine the way the other digits are encoded.

– In the case of a leading ‘0’ as with our barcodes, the 0 determines that all of the initial 6 digits will use the left odd parity, meaning that the bars look the same as a UPC barcode would without the leading ‘0’ – As the UPC version also only uses the odd parity.

How do they scan?

Because the bars are the only part of the barcode that is scanned (i.e the scanner isn’t reading the digits below the barcode), an EAN-13 barcode with a ‘0’ on the front can sometimes be confused by scanners as a UPC barcode without the ‘0’ and vice-versa. This is largely to do with what the scanner or software system is expecting to see. This often occurs when a barcode that is not linked to the system is scanned – The software has no point of reference for what format the barcode should be, and, hence, assumes that it is UPC format. When the number is first added to the system in the 13-digit format and linked to the product in the system (this is usually how stores add the barcodes based on the information provided on their buyer form), it tends to scan appropriately as an EAN-13 format barcode.

Very few stores have had issues with this in the past. And when issues occur, they are generally easily resolved. If you are going to the Musgraves in Ireland, they prefer that you fill out your barcode in its UPC format on their buyer form (without the leading ‘0’) and declare that the format is UPC – if this is done, they have no problem using our barcodes.


Please contact us if you have any questions.

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