What’s the difference between EAN and UPC barcodes?

People often as us ‘What’s the difference between EAN and UPC barcodes?’

UPC barcodes are a 12-digit ‘subset’ of the 13-digit EAN13 barcodes. When the first digit of an EAN13 barcode is a “0” the bars of both EAN13 and UPCA formatted barcodes are identical. The only real difference between the two barcode formats, in that situation, is the placement of the numbers below the bars. Most barcode scanners worldwide are capable of reading either barcode format easily.

Most countries use EAN13 format barcodes (the European Standard format). UPC is more common in USA and Canada. Almost all shops today accept both barcode formats. However, there may be a small number of stores globally that can only accept one barcode format due to their older inventory or barcode scanning systems. If you are ONLY selling your product in the United States and Canada we would advise that you get an UPCA format barcode. If you are selling your barcode in Hong Kong and/or internationally however, we would advise that you get a EAN13 format barcode.


Further information about the formatting

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 1970’s by George Laurer. UPCs work with 2 different parities; a left side odd parity and a right side even parity (each with 6 digits).

Later, a 13 digit EAN-13 system was introduced as a superset of the UPC barcodes. EAN-13s were deliberately designed to be used in conjunction with UPC-A barcodes.  EAN-13 format employs both the left odd parity and the right even parity of the UPC barcodes, and added an additional parity (a left-even parity). The left-even parity is used on a selection of the left hand side digits.

The left and right hand side 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, no EAN-13 barcode has the first digit encoded in the barcode, however 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. This means that the bars look the same in EAN-13 format 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 actual 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. 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 generally 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.

If you are selling only in the USA or Canada please order UPCs instead of EANs.

Please contact us if you have any questions about this.

You can purchase EAN13 format (or UPC format) barcodes from us here.