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How Do Barcodes Work – and How to Make a Barcode

Updated on August 14, 2017

Almost everywhere you go shopping, you find products with UPC barcodes. This type of product identification (Universal Product Code) has become commonplace for the last 35 years or so. Perhaps you’ve been curious to know how those lines and numbers in the UPC barcodes work.

If you’re a manufacturer or a re-seller, large or small, using UPC barcodes can help streamline the whole merchandising chain..saving you time and money, and likely increasing your profits. I’ll tell you how to make a bar code for each of your products a little later.

How can you use UPC barcodes in your business…?

While bar codes can be used to keep track of any number of things, I’ll give you a typical example:

Ok, let’s say you run a small retail store. It’s a modest size, and you have hundreds of items for sale, both large and small. You obviously need to keep track of what you have in stock, and when to order more of any given item. You can’t waste your time checking each shelf and writing down what seems to be in short supply. This is where barcode software and barcode readers or scanners come into play.

The barcode software is basically a database program, designed to keep track of your stock, by scanning the barcodes of supplies as they arrive..with a barcode reader, or scanner.

Apart from ensuring that no two UPC or EAN numbers are alike, there is no global database that contains detailed information about the product. In order to make it faster to search the database, each retailer or distributor has their own database (or a company-wide database), with details about each item and its associated UPC or EAN. This means that new items that were not previously stocked would initially need this information to be input into the local database, including the current store price.

At the store checkout, or point-of-sale, another scanner (either a hand-held pen or wand, or a larger countertop CCD or laser scanner, or more recently, a miniature digital camera device) verifies the barcode of the purchased item, and compares the UPC or EAN with that item in the database, then calls up the current price of that item from the database.

The barcode software also enables you to tell the customer whether you have a particular item in stock via any computer screen in the store that’s wired to the database. The information in the database can also be used to compile and compare various statistics about buying patterns and any number of other interesting facts. Some of these factors can be shared with suppliers to keep the most popular items in stock, while perhaps dropping items that just seem to stick around, unpurchased.

A short history of UPC barcodes

Although a number of concepts for product identification go back to the early 1930’s, including a ‘bulls-eye’ pattern of concentric circles of varying line thickness, and another of semi-circular lines, the bar code system we know today was developed in the early 1970’s, by George Laurer, who was working for IBM at the time. The UPC barcode, or UPC-A, consists of a series of parallel lines and white spaces of specific thickness and spacing. It uses a 12 number code.

Here’s a video that explains what the various lines and numbers mean…

The numbers below the barcode are not read by the scanner, they are the human-readable version of the code number, in case the barcode is damaged or unreadable by the scanner, in which case the 12-digit number is entered manually by the operator.

There’s also a short version of the code, known as UPC-E. This is used on smaller packages where the standard barcode size would be too large.

Each product and package needs its own special barcode. It’s up to the manufacturer to make sure that no two barcodes are alike. This is quite easy to do with the barcode software.

EAN product codes

Outside the U.S. and Canada, the product barcode is a slightly different system known as EAN (European Article Number), which uses a 13 number system. The extra digit allows for the inclusion of the country of the company that packaged the product (not necessarily the country the product was manufactured in).

The EAN code (known as EAN-13) also has a shortened version..EAN-8.

Most recently made scanners will be able to read both UPC and EAN (both long and short forms). However, if you have older UPC scanners, they may not be able to read the EAN barcodes.

How to make a barcode

If you intend to sell your products through major retailers, you must have a UPC barcode on your products. Depending on the size of your business you may have to register with GS1, the international organization that co-ordinates the assigning of barcodes. Here’s a list of local GS1 websites for each country:

Find your local GS1 website

The initial registration cost is based on your companies’ projected yearly earnings, but it generally costs a few hundred dollars, plus a much smaller annual fee. There’s lots of helpful information on these sites, to answer any questions you may have about implementing a barcode system.

About other barcode re-sellers…

If your business is fairly small you could decide to buy your barcodes from a third-party for a smaller fee. These sellers have bought thousands of numbers from GS1, at a low price, and re-selling them to you. Depending how long ago they bought them, there may not be an annual renewal. However, you must be careful with some of these online companies (eBay re-sellers, for instance). Usually, the first part of the barcode is their company. So the retailer you deliver your goods to, may initially have trouble identifying your products. Also, if the online barcode re-seller goes out of business, you may have a problem tracking where your products are, and getting your money back from the re-seller. Buyer beware.

UPC barcodes and EAN barcodes make products and services cheaper

The use of barcodes in merchandising and many other goods and services has reduced the cost of keeping track of all kinds of things. Whether it’s a localised warehouse system to help keep things sorted, or a major distribution chain, or a courier service. It all comes down to reducing the cost of keeping tabs on what you’ve got, and where it’s going.

This article ©2011 by timorous


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    • timorous profile imageAUTHOR

      Tim Nichol 

      4 years ago from Me to You

      Thanks Yomama. You are essentially correct. However, if I were to simplify the subject to the extent that you suggest, it wouldn't be much of an article. Each reader can take from it what they wish. When it comes to barcodes, it's all about saving time, and keeping track of things.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Wow your explanation was very confusing and over complicated.... In simpler terms... All a bar code is, is a short cut. When it's scanned it automatically types the numbers it's set to into the computer. Each barcode is really just a sequence of numbers. you can have a barcode that reads but without the database it's just a number. After scanning the bar code (techniqually you don't even need a bar code you could type the numbers in one by one but that would be a pain in the ass. As I said a bar code is just a short cut) your program will do a search for that number.... Just like a Google search but all internally... It matches the numbers and brings up the information. Much easier to understand.

    • timorous profile imageAUTHOR

      Tim Nichol 

      5 years ago from Me to You

      Hi createeasy. The barcode maker you mention is a way of making the barcode match a particular product design, by changing various colors and the basic font. You still have to obtain the actual barcode from a reputable provider, or register your company through GS1.

      You should keep in mind that most barcode scanners rely on a high contrast between the 'black' bars and the white areas between. So it's best to keep the bars black whenever possible.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      will this barcode maker work for us. seems new. will i make barcode with you barcode create with the above method. any idea?

    • timorous profile imageAUTHOR

      Tim Nichol 

      6 years ago from Me to You

      You're welcome. Good luck with the store.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      thank you for introducing so much abou upc borcodes. it seems great when i am going to open a store. it will save me a lot of time and can find the product immediately. i am using

    • timorous profile imageAUTHOR

      Tim Nichol 

      7 years ago from Me to You

      Thanks atotsm. I'll take all the backlinks I can get..I suspect. Glad you enjoyed the article. Invite your friends..and their friends..and their friends...LOL.

    • atotsm profile image


      7 years ago from Timbuktu

      If it is ok. We made a shortlink for you. And we placed it on our facebook page. Just as a thank you for this article.

    • timorous profile imageAUTHOR

      Tim Nichol 

      7 years ago from Me to You

      Thank you Iris. I'm glad you got some good information from the article.

    • profile image


      7 years ago from China

      This is definitely good content …for sure…. UPC is my favorite one if these barcode types, i got a UPC barcode at here

      i just want to say this is the one i wanted and i just want to share with you.

    • timorous profile imageAUTHOR

      Tim Nichol 

      7 years ago from Me to You

      Thanks for your input, blueskysinger. I have been looking into QR code, and I may include an update to this article in the near future.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Among all types of barcode ,I like QR code best.I've tried lots of online QR code generators and readers. Thanks,I have learned much about that.These are by far my favorite tools for making and reading QR codes .I have found a free barCode scannerto make my own barcodes for products and it is really convenient and useful. I just want to share it with you, everybody, maybe you can try it someday

    • timorous profile imageAUTHOR

      Tim Nichol 

      8 years ago from Me to You

      Thanks Matt. Yep, these barcodes have become practically indispensible for any business these days. It's mostly about efficiency and keeping track of things.

    • Matt in Jax profile image

      Matt in Jax 

      8 years ago from Jacksonville, FL

      Very interesting! I've always wondered about UPCs and glad that I stumbled upon your Hub.

    • timorous profile imageAUTHOR

      Tim Nichol 

      8 years ago from Me to You

      Yes Mr. Juggler, many smart phones have a barcode scanning capability. However, without a connection to a website database, it can't tell you what it means. Thanks for scanning the hub article. Cheers.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hey Tim, I was surprised to find out that I can easily turn my blackberry into a bar code scanner. An application is available which makes use of the built in camera. I think other smart phones such as iphones and such have similar apps available. Cheers.

    • timorous profile imageAUTHOR

      Tim Nichol 

      8 years ago from Me to You

      Hi sofs. I'm glad you found it useful. Perhaps it will give shoppers a better appreciation of how barcodes help speed things up at the checkout, and lower the costs of products somewhat.

    • sofs profile image


      8 years ago

      Informative hub Tim. Learned a couple of things from it. Thanks for sharing.


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