How To Choose The Right Barcode For Your Application

by Maverick Label | June 29, 2020

With so many different types of barcodes available (more than 100!), understanding which one to use for your specific application can be daunting. We’ll walk you through the most popular 1D and 2D barcode types as well as the common applications for each and the characters they support. The barcode types covered: Code 39, Code 128, UPC, EAN, Interleaved 2 of 5, Codabar, QR code, Data Matrix, and PDF417.

See our quick guide to help narrow down the best barcode for your application:

One-Dimensional (1D) Barcodes

One-dimensional, or 1D, barcodes are the most recognized or traditional barcode types. Used for product labeling or asset management, these barcodes are made of a set of parallel lines on a contrasting background. Because of this, they are also called linear barcodes. The data is encoded using the width of the lines and the spacing between them. Common symbologies include Code 39, Code 128, UPC, EAN, and Interleaved 2 of 5.

Barcode with code 39 symbology

Code 39 barcodes are the most popular, general-purpose barcode. It can be read by virtually any barcode reader. It’s similar to, but not as compact as, the Code 128 barcode and is used extensively by the automotive industry and for asset tracking. Its name comes from the fact that originally it was able to encode only 39 characters; that has since increased to 43.

  • Other names: Code 3 of 9, Code 9/3, Type 39, USS Code 39, USD-3
Code 128 barcodes allow for more information than code 39

These compact, high-density barcodes are used for applications that require larger sets of numbers. Often used for supply chain applications and asset management, Code 128 barcodes can support any character in the ASCII 128.

  • Common uses: Asset/property ID tags, supply chain, industrial applications
  • Characters supported: Upper and lowercase alphanumeric (including special characters)
  • Other names: Code 128A, B, or C
Barcode featuring UPC-A symbology

UPC (Universal Product Code) barcodes are required for all retail products and are mainly used in the United States. The UPC-A encodes 12 numeric digits, while the UPC-E codes are compressed UPC codes used primarily for retail products that have packaging and labeling space constraints.

  • Other names: UPC-A, UPC-E
EAN-13 barcodes are used mostly in Europe for retail products

Similar to UPC codes, EAN barcodes are required for all retail products, but are primarily used in Europe. The EAN-13 encodes 13 numeric digits, while EAN-8 codes are compressed versions for small products with packaging and labeling space constraints. ISBNs are unique numeric book identifiers.

  • Common uses: Product labels
  • Characters supported: Numeric only
  • Other names: EAN-13, EAN-8, ISBN
Barcode with interleaved 2 of 5 symbology

Interleaved 2 of 5, or ITF, barcodes are often used around the globe for labeling packaging materials, because it can handle high-printing tolerances required for use on corrugated cardboard. Because of the imprecise nature of printing on cardboard, ITF barcodes are often printed with a black border, or bearer bar, for scanner readability.

  • Common uses: Packaging
  • Characters supported: Numeric only
  • Other names: Code 2 of 5, ITF, ITF-14
Barcode with codabar symbology

Developed by Pitney Bowes, Codabar barcodes can be produced by any impact style printer, including typewriters. They're used primarily by logistics and healthcare industries, including U.S. blood banks, libraries, photo labs, and FedEx. This self-checking symbology encodes up to 16 characters, plus four additional start/stop characters.

  • Common uses: Logistics, healthcare, education
  • Characters supported: Alphanumeric (including special characters)
  • Other names: Code 2 of 7, USD-4, Ames Code

Two-Dimensional (2D) Barcode

Two-dimensional, or 2D, barcodes were born from the need to store more information, as well as increase fault tolerance. These types of barcodes are usually a square shape and represent data using two-dimensional symbols and shapes. Common symbologies include QR codes, Datamatrix, and PDF417.

QR barcode

QR codes are a type of 2D matrix barcode that provide easy access to information through a smartphone, not a laser scanner. These 2D codes have a high fault tolerance, are flexible in size and orientation, and are in the public domain. You can also incorporate color into their design. As a result, they're great for applications with a strong consumer focus, including product labels, business cards, or marketing purposes.

  • Common uses: Product labels, business cards, marketing & advertising
  • Characters supported: All
  • Other names: 2D
Barcode with data matrix symbology

Data Matrix codes are 2D barcodes consisting of black and white modules, arranged in either a square or rectangle pattern. The code can be very compact, and is ideal for labeling small items and goods. They have a high fault tolerance and fast readability. A data matrix symbol can store up to 2,335 alphanumeric characters.

  • Common uses: Electronics, government, product labels
  • Characters supported: Alphanumeric
  • Other names: Micro-Datamatrix
Barcode with PDF417 symbology

Another type of 2D barcode, PDF417 codes are often used for applications that require large amounts of data. This includes things like identification, transportation, and inventory management. PDF stands for Portable Data File, while the 417 signifies that each code pattern consists of four bars and spaces that are 17 units long. More powerful than other 2D barcodes, PDF417 codes can hold over a kilobyte of machine-readable data.

  • Common uses: Government, logistics
  • Characters supported: All
  • Other names: Truncated PDF417

Once you’ve decided what barcode is best for your application, the next step is printing your barcode on labels. Check out our barcode page to see our full range of custom-printed and stock labels to fit any of your barcode labeling needs. We only list the most commonly requested types. If you need a special barcode and it's not listed, reach out to Customer Care!


Should I Use 1D or 2D Barcode Format, Sagedata: About Barcodes, Computalabel: Types Of Barcodes, Scandit: