How to Obtain a UPC Code

If your business is set up to sell your own products, there’s one thing you will absolutely need, and that’s a UPC code. UPC barcodes are the symbols you see on every product in the marketplace. While it’s not a legal requirement to have them, few retailers will carry your product without a barcode.

UPC symbols and barcodes allow retailers to instantly access the information they need about your product — its product code, the manufacturer’s suggested retail price and any information they want to keep in their own store records. Explore the procedures and the steps you need to take to obtain a UPC code so you can easily sell your company’s goods and services on the open market.

A (Very) Brief History of UPC Barcodes

The history of universal product codes (UPCs) goes all the way back to 1932 when the first proposed system of automated inventory and checkout systems used punch cards. In the 1960s, that morphed into a universal numeric barcode system called the Uniform Product Code. It was first standardized by the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council, and the first barcode ever scanned with a UPC symbol was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum. It was in 1974, and the actual item ended up on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

At the time, people knew they were onto something, but probably didn’t know it would become a worldwide standard for selling goods on the open market. In fact, getting there took five years of different designs for barcodes, with companies as big as IBM being involved in the discussion.

The debates ranged from the design of the code itself to the kind of scanner that would be needed to read it. Proposals ranged from a straight-line laser scanner to a scanner that could be used like a wand or even worn like a bracelet or ring. Eventually, UPC numbers reached the standard we know today.

Why UPC Numbers Matter

We live in a global economy, and it’s essential that retailers have a universal means by which they can handle a diverse range of products — into the thousands. This is where UPC numbers come into play. They allow retailers to uniquely identify every product that comes through their store. They allow you as a product creator to identify your business, which means you have a much easier time tracking your sales and profit margins.

It’s not surprising that the largest national and international vendors require UPC barcodes these days. If you want to sell to these markets, you will need one.

Where to Get Your Codes

This is the single most important thing you need to understand. Only get your UPCs from Global Standard 1, or GS1. GS1 is a nonprofit organization that represents the market standard globally for supply chain codes. When you get your UPC symbol from GS1, you’re getting a Global Trade Item Number.

More and more, companies are crosschecking barcodes against GS1’s database and may start removing inauthentic barcodes from their listings. Amazon is among the retailers that are expected to begin doing this in the near future. In the end, it’s much better to get your codes from Global Standard 1.

Global Trade Item Numbers

So what is a Global Trade Item Number? Also known as a GTIN, these numbers are different from barcodes. They describe the structures of numbers that identify unique services or products. They are codes that identify and separate your product from others, including your competition. The code you receive will be encoded with eight, 13, 14 or 21 digits. The full GTIN is always 14 digits, so if your product’s code is fewer than that, the remaining fields will simply be zeroes.

UPC-A vs. UPC-E

There are two different formats for UPC codes. This came about when UPC codes caught on in popularity and became the global standard for product coding. These two codes are UPC-A and UPC-E codes. The main difference between the two is that the UPC-E code doesn’t include zeroes in the corresponding GTIN. These product codes are by far the universal method of differentiating products in the United States and Canada. In Europe, while most countries have the ability to read UPC barcodes, they tend to use EANs, instead.

UPC vs. EAN

While UPC stands for “universal product code,” EAN stands for “European Article Number,” also called “International Article Number.” These GS1 barcodes are similar to UPC codes but include specific country codes within their string. This gives EANs a maximum 13-digit string as opposed to the maximum 12-digit string of UPCs.

Like UPC symbols, EANs have two divisions — the EAN-13 and EAN-8 and the difference between the two largely comes down to usage, product categories and distribution channels.

UPC vs. ISBN Barcodes

One area where many people become confused is the difference between a UPC and an ISBN barcode. These are not the same, and you don’t need both. If you are issuing any sort of media publication — a book, piece of software, music media (like a CD), movie on DVD or Blu-ray or the like, you will not use a UPC number. Rather, you will get a Bookland EAN or an ISBN-13 code. There will still be a barcode associated with your publication, but it will list your ISBN or Bookland EAN instead of the UPC.

All ISBN codes should be purchased directly through Bowker. Some self-publishing companies offer ISBN services; these can be very convenient, but you should always confirm that the ISBNs provided come directly from Bowker. As with any service, beware of discount providers that offer steep cost cuts; this can be a red flag.

How to Obtain a UPC Barcode

To obtain a UPC code, you follow a pretty basic step-by-step process. The first step is to make sure that you need a UPC number. Do your research and ask questions. Start at the Uniform Code Council (GS1) website. They will be happy to provide answers to any question your might have; it’s always important to know what you’re getting into.

When you’re ready to obtain your UPC barcode, you’ll fill out a membership application at the site. This will allow you to be a member of their Partner Connections network. You must be a member in order to get a UPC number.

Information and Fees

To become eligible to obtain a UPC barcode, you’ll need to provide information about yourself and your company, your current sales revenue and projected sales, the number of UPC symbols you’ll need, the number of business locations where the UPC barcode will be used and a few other pieces of information.

You will also be required to pay a membership fee. This exact fee can vary greatly depending on your individual circumstances and things like the size of your company and its reach. These fees start at $250, plus a $50 annual fee, but can range higher. GS1 will be happy to provide you with specific pricing information.

You’ll also need to then complete information about the specific product you’ll be tagging with a UPC number. This application can be challenging and time-consuming; it will involve acronyms and industry references that may be confusing to new business owners. Don’t let this discourage you. The GS1 website will have a step-by-step process to guide you through this, as well as provide support information via phone or email, should you get stuck or have any questions.

Determine How Many Codes You Need

When it’s granted, your code will consist of two parts. The first is a 6- to 10-digit unique company prefix, which is part of your partner membership. The smaller your company, the higher number of digits your prefix will be. The second part is the unique product number assigned to each product you will be bar-coding.

Since each UPC code is going to be different, you’ll need to settle on the number of codes you need. Keep in mind, for example, that if you offer the same sweater in two different colors, these count as two unique products for purposes of your UPC code. This means that you can quickly rack up a lot of product codes.

Using Your UPC Number

There are two different methods for using your UPC number. You can print it onto adhesive labels (or use a professional UPC printing company), so you can stick the code onto your products, or you can incorporate the code into your product design, leaving a set space on each item for the UPC code.

The second method is generally superior; you will get better consistency and higher quality by incorporating the UPC code directly on your packaging. This will, however, carry a greater cost as you will need to have professional graphic and product design done. That being said, if you are looking to build a brand, you will likely be investing in professional graphic design anyway. A good graphic designer will be well-versed in the best practices for incorporating UPC codes into product design.

There is also software and a range of printing solutions that will allow you to handle the printing of your own codes, but this can carry a learning curve with it. Still, every business owner knows that learning is part of the job.

“Discount” Barcoding Solutions

Many small business owners may balk at the cost of UPC symbols and ongoing membership in the Uniform Code Council’s Partner Network. There are less costly alternatives out there, but you should always be very careful of what you’re getting. That’s not to say these alternatives aren’t legitimate and won’t work for you, but there are risks that come with them.

For example, many companies that sell discount codes are actually resellers of old codes that are no longer in use. This means you’re not technically getting a code that represents your specific business and product; you’re getting the right to use someone else’s code that previously was attached to another company and another product.

The upside of these kinds of vendors is that their codes are generally very inexpensive — sometimes less than $100 per code. However, if you’re looking to sell through a major retailer like Amazon or a big box store, you may have problems. These big vendors demand unique product identifiers, and even if they accept you, the code can create glitches in the system where your product might appear as someone else’s.

Internal Use Barcodes

If you’re in need of barcodes that you’re only using for internal company purposes, you don’t need a UPC number or GS1 barcode. For these, you’ll generally use a “restricted distribution” number. A good example of this kind of barcode use is within your local library system. These services will generally barcode all of their items, but the barcodes they use are generated for the libraries within the system and serve only to differentiate one library from another.

Do UPC Barcodes Put My Information at Risk?

This is a common and valid question in today’s world. Everyone is concerned about information security, with the wealth of retail hacks that have occurred. The answer to this question is, no, UPC barcodes do not put your company’s information at risk in any way.

The only information that is encoded into the UPC barcode is that related to the specific product represented. That is, if you’re selling a powder blue sweater, the only thing that barcode will represent is that it’s a powder blue sweater sold by your company. There is no way that any further information could be compromised through scanning a UPC symbol.

Further Help With Your Small Business

Starting and running a small business is full of hurdles to overcome, and the steps to obtain a UPC code is just one challenge. If you’d like help with everything from funding your small business to advice for startups, you should read this small business resource guide for ideas on how to get your company up and running.

Want to dig deeper?