What is the difference between EAN-13 and UPC-A Barcodes?

UPC-A barcodes are a 12-digit ‘subset’ of the 13-digit EAN-13 barcodes. When the first digit of an EAN-13 barcode is a “0” the bars of both EAN13 and UPC-A 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. A barcode number can be encoded in either the 13-digit EAN-13 format or the 12-digit UPC-A format. Most barcode scanners worldwide are capable of reading either barcode format easily.

UPC-A formatted barcodes are most commonly used in the United States. Everywhere else in the world tends to prefer the EAN-13 format (the European Standard format). 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 selling your product in the United States we would advise that you get a UPC-A format barcode. If you are selling your barcode in Oman or anywhere else in the world, however, we would advise that you get an EAN-13 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 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 introduced as a superset of the UPC barcodes. These were deliberately 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, 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, 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 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 is expecting to see. Often times this occurs when a barcode that is not linked on 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 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.

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


Please contact us if you have any questions about this.

You can purchase EAN-13 format (or UPCA format) barcodes from us here. We usually supply our barcodes in EAN-13 format, as this is the most common format in Oman, however, if you require UPC-A format barcodes instead that’s fine (just put your request in the “additional information” field when ordering).