What is a UPC barcode?

A UPC Barcode is short for a Universal Product Code, which is one of the most common types of barcode symbology. It is a 12 numeric digit code, with each complete code assigned to a unique trade item. These codes are most commonly used at point of sale systems. This system can be either used as part of a global specification that keeps each UPC code unique across multiple companies, or a localized version of the system that only ensures each code is unique within the one company. Either way, each code will be associated with a single item (or type of item), which can be linked up with any type of information.

The History of UPC Barcodes

This system was first proposed in 1932 using punch cards. The type of UPCs we see today were formed in 1973 when a trade group from the grocery industry formed the Uniform Product Code Council. This council worked to define the numerical format that is used in this system. The series of lines that are commonly seen today as UPCs was the proposal from IBM, which was accepted by the trade group. The first item to be scanned at a retail checkout took place in 1974. It was a 10 pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

Types of UPC Barcodes

While most people are only familiar with the barcodes that look like a small rectangle made of multiple black lines of varying thickness, they can actually come in different types. The most common option is the UPC-A or UPC-E, both of which have the normal look that people are used to.  There are also circular ‘bull’s eye’ style barcodes that are used in certain areas.

Need barcodes?  

Our free barcode generator allows you to create custom barcodes readable with any scanner.

Long Lasting Popularity

After that first pack of gum was scanned in 1974, trillions of additional products have had UPC barcodes scanned around the world. It is only in recent years that the QR code technology has begun to encroach on the popularity of UPC. In most retail and other situations the UPC is still far more popular than QR codes or any other alternative.


View all Barcoding Q&A

Free E-Book

Barcoding Guide

Learn how barcode technology can help your business thrive.


Free E-Book

QR Code Guide

QR codes are perfect for training employees and distrubuting information quickly.


Free Samples

Barcoding Labels

Sample our most popular barcoding labels so you can see the quality before you buy.

Other FREE Resources:

Helpful Resources