Use of Universal Product Codes (UPCs) is common in North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. These codes carry varied information about items that make it through point of sale terminals.

What Is UPC?

Technically, UPC refers to UPC-A. This code comes with 12 numbers, and no letters or characters. A unique UPC-A is assigned to different variants of the same item. UPCs, along with their related International Article Number (EANs), are commonly used to scan items at point of sale terminals according to GS1 standards. The data structure of UPC is a component of Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs).

Every UPC-A comes with a barcode of black bars printed over white space that may be scanned using a suitable device. The barcode is placed directly above the 12-digit UPC-A. There is a direct relation between the barcode and the numbers. Representing the set of numbers through the barcode is possible in only one way, and the reverse holds true as well.

The UPC-A standard follows a simple format. The first number represents the number system digit. The next set of five to eight numbers identifies the manufacturer number that is assigned by GS1. The next set of numbers represents specific products, with each variant having a unique UPC-A. The last number functions as a check digit.

The number system digit indicates the type of numbering system used by the code in its entirety.

  • 0, 1, 6, 7, 8, and 9. Most products
  • 2. Variable weight items sold by local stores and warehouses
  • 3. National Drug Code (NDC) based
  • 4. Set aside for local businesses, typically for coupons and loyalty cards
  • 5. Specifically for coupons

The UPC standard comes with a few other variants, which include:

  • UPC-2. This two-digit alternative is used to identify specific editions of magazines or periodicals.
  • UPC-5. This five-digit version is used to point toward recommended retail prices for books.
  • UPC-B. This 12-digit version comes with no check digit. It was developed specifically for the National Health Related Items Code and the National Drug Code (NDC). Its use is not very common.
  • UPC-C. Use of this 12-digit code is not common.  It comes with a check digit.
  • UPC-D. This code comes in varied lengths, with 12 or more digits. The 12th digit serves as a check digit. Use of this standard is not common.
  • UPC-E. This six-digit standard was developed for use on small packages where using a 12-digit code is not feasible. This coding system does not come with middle guard bars that are seen in UPC-A. The last digit determines how a UPC-E relates to a UPC-A.

Organization in Charge of UPC

GS1, an international non-profit organization headquartered in Brussels, is responsible for developing, maintaining, and regulating the UPC standard. The Uniform Code Council controls the UPC-A system and assigns manufacturer numbers in the United States.

History of UPC

The UPC standard was developed by IBM in the early 1970s. The task was mainly assigned to George Laurer and Heard Baumeister.

Example Codes

Here are a few UPC-As to serve as examples:

190198071842 – iPhone 7, 128 GB, Unlocked, Silver

190198155795 – iPhone 7 Plus, 32 GB, Unlocked, Black

190198459107 – iPhone X, 64 GB, Unlocked, Silver