The Universal Product Code and the International Article Number systems are closely related methods to identify products made, distributed and sold throughout the world.
The Universal Product Code system has a history that dates back to the close of the 1960s, although the bar code system that supports it has a history that goes back quite a lot further. To avoid confusion, it should be stated clearly that the Universal Product Code (as well as the International Article number system) and bar code technology are two completely separate things. The UPC system is a way of numerically encoding a product so that it can be uniquely identified by a number. The bar code is a way to display the number on its product so that the number can be read by a machine at the checkout. Although both the UPC system and the EAN system have their own unique bar coding standards, it is important to remember that the UPC and the EAN are not simply bar codes.
The UPC system encompasses a number of different standards. Just two of them are very common, and only one of them claims the name of simply UPC without further designation.
The most common UPC system is UPC-A, or just simply UPC. That is the system widely used in the United States that appears on products of all types, flavours and most sizes. UPC-A gives each product a unique identifier of 12 numeric digits.
The UPC-E system uses six numeric digits. It is a way to achieve a smaller code that is able to fit more easily on the smallest products. It works by omitting zeros from parts of the full code.
EAN is the accepted abbreviation for International Article Number, the system used for product identification used initially within Europe, but subsequently throughout most of the rest of the world, and increasingly within the United States, where the UPC was first used and is still used alongside the EAN. The two systems, UPC and EAN, have been made to work alongside each other.
In one of those quirks of history that happen as systems develop and change, the International Article Numbering system is abbreviated to EAN rather than IAN. That’s because the system was originally called the European Article Number but it was decided to keep the designator of EAN rather than change it to IAN when the system became to be used in a much wider geographical area, rather than just within Europe.
A little like the UPC system, the EAN system comprises a number of different standards. The primary one, known simply as EAN or more properly as EAN-13, comprises 13 numeric digits, one more than the UPC.
For complete details of how a EAN-13 bar code is constructed, please see the EAN-13 barcode page.
The other main EAN type is EAN-8, which uses eight numeric digits and whose bar code is used on physically smaller items. Other types of EAN are EAN-2 and EAN-5, both of which are used for specific purposes by being used to supplement EAN-13.
A particular subset of the EAN system is the ISBN system that is used to identify books and some other book-like products. Initially the ISBN system used 10 digits, but since 1st January 2007 it became part of the EAN system and now uses 13 digits.
For more information about the ISBN system, please click here to visit our sister site ISBN Information.