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Types of Barcode Symbologies

May 3, 2008
3 min read

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the barcode symbology that is used on everything from cereal to deodorant in your favorite retail and grocery stores, but there are many other types of barcodes that are used just as frequently in other industries. I compiled the following list of the most commonly used barcode symbologies, and how they’re used, to show the variety available to you and your applications.


This is the barcode you probably see on a daily basis. UPC symbols are mandatory in the retail and food industry and it is rarely used for anything else. Formally known as just UPC(Universal Product Code), it was adopted internationally and is now known as EAN(European Article Numbering) as well. The UPC was developed to meet the needs of the retail industry, so it is a fixed length of 12 digits, compact and uses only numbers.

Code 39

Code 39 is one of the earliest and most widely used barcode symbologies. It is a variable length barcode, meaning the symbol can be as long as necessary to encode the data. It also supports alphanumeric characters, which is one of the reasons Code 39 was developed. Many industries need to encode the alphabet as well as numbers into barcodes, making Code 39 the symbology of choice for many industries. Code 39 is typically the non-food standard barcode and is used for inventory and tracking in industries such as manufacturing.

Code 128

Code 128 is a high-density barcode that supports alphanumeric characters. Much like Code 39, Code 128 offers a wide selection of characters, but is much more compact. Code 128 is actually designed to use the least amount of space for data with 6 characters or more of any 1D symbology. The compact result is perfect for industries such as shipping, where label size is an important factor.

Interleaved 2 of 5

Interleaved 2 of 5 is a variable length numeric only barcode. It is referred to as “interleaved” because the first number is encoded in a bar and the second number is encoded in the white space between bars. Interleaved 2 of 5 is widely used in the shipping and manufacturing industries. The symbology is also used on canisters of 35mm film to indentify manufacturer, number of exposures and other important information.


The PostNET (Postal Numerical Encoding Technique) symbology is unique to the United States Postal Service and is used to encode zip codes for accurate and timely delivery of mail You’ve probably seen this barcode on the bottom of letters you’ve received that were delivered by the U.S. Mail.


Unlike the previous 1D barcode symbologies, PDF417 is a 2D barcode that is actually a portable data file (PDF) rather than just a reference number. PDF417 is a high-density, non-linear symbology that has the ability to store and transfer large amounts of data securely and inexpensively. Because this symbology is a PDF, it has the capability of containing data files such as fingerprints, photographs and even signatures. Depending on what state you live in, you may have this barcode on your driver’s license, which has enough room to contain information about your driving record, name, address and your photo. This symbology is also appearing on airline tickets and postal packages more frequently.

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