Where do barcodes come from?

A James and James team member scans a barcode in one of our fulfilment centres

Almost every mass produced product in the world has its own barcode, yet no two are ever the same. That’s not just coincidence but due to international agreements that mean every product can be identified from its unique barcode, no matter where it is in the world. So while you can just make up your own for purposes such as fulfilment, if you’re not working to the same standard as everyone else, you’ll eventually be at a disadvantage.

Barcode formats

Almost all barcodes for commercial use are from the GTIN family, but there are several different lengths and encodings. The main three standards are EAN-13, EAN-14 and UPC (12). The first two are European and the latter is American, though almost all barcode scanning equipment can read all three without issues. (If you are looking to sell products into smaller USA stores, then UPC might be required). You really don’t need to worry yourself too much over this, but it’s worth knowing what format yours are in case someone asks.

EAN-13 vs EAN-14

The standard convention is that products have 13 digit codes and cases of products have 14 digit codes. For example, a twelve pack of coke will have a different barcode on the twelve pack than on a can, so the store or fulfilment house can tell the two apart. GS1 can help you with allocating these correctly.


GS1 UK is the issuing body for all UK – based barcodes and is a not-for-profit organisation. All the codes they issue are generally EAN codes and start 5060 (which shows it’s a UK code). They are the ONLY official body that can provide you with internationally recognised barcodes.

They work on a subscription basis where you pay for an annual license (from £117/yr as of Dec 2013)  for which they assign you one thousand (or more) barcodes for your use.

It is worth noting that the registration of your barcode ensures it is unique, but doesn’t add your product details to any central database. You’ll need to tell each retailer, warehouse and fulfilment centre what your barcodes are and what products they relate to.


For those people who need just a few barcodes, you can buy them from eBay for £1 or two per barcode. While this might seem cheaper, remember you don’t own the right to that number (even though you paid for it) as it’ll be licensed to someone else.

In our opinion, if you are going to sell product seriously, you should invest in registering with GS1.


There are lots of specifications about the size of the barcode, line spacings, height, checksum and other encoding details. Generally, if you use professional printers all you need to do is let them know the number and how you want it printed. e.g. 50601234567891 printed to EAN-13 standards.