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How to Get a UPC Barcode for Your Product

Store clerk scanning an UPC barcode at checkout

You know those barcodes that you swipe across a scanner at checkout to total up your purchase? If your business makes anything to wholesale to retail stores, you’re going to need one of those barcodes. Technically, they’re called UPC barcodes, UPC numbers, or UPC codes. We’ll tell you what they are, how to get one, and mistakes to avoid.

Note that when we say barcode, we mean the rectangular ones with the stripes. The square ones with the dots and blots are technically also barcodes. But these days, most people know the square ones as QR codes. If you’re looking for information on QR codes, here’s our detailed article. You won’t need a QR code to sell into retail stores.

QR codes are fairly recent, but UPC codes go a bit back. The first item sold by scanning a UPC code was a 10 pack (50 sticks) Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, on June 26, 1974.

Now that we’re done with fascinating trivia, let’s dig into UPC codes.

What is a UPC Barcode?

To put it in the simplest, most intuitive way, UPC barcodes are those rectangular boxes with stripes going up and down that you find on packages. Usually, they’re near the bottom of the package. You scan them at store checkouts to total up your purchase.

More formally, UPC stands for Universal Product Code. The version you typically see on product packages is called UPC-A. There’s a smaller version for smaller packages called UPC-E. There are other variations specifically for shipping packages like cardboard boxes or pallets (ITF-14) and pharmaceuticals (GS1 DataBar Truncated).

We expect most of our readers will work with the UPC-A barcode. If you make products in smaller packages, you might work with UPC-E as well.

The Anatomy of a UPC Barcode

We’re not going over the anatomy of a UPC code for trivia (although we love those too). You’ll need to understand a little bit of it so you can work with your barcode.

At first glance, a UPC code looks like it’s made up of dark bars of random width, with white spaces of random width in between. But both the dark bars and the white spaces mean something. There’s actually a defined width for each dark bar and white space. When the bars and spaces are combined in specific ways, they represent a number 0-9. In fact, most UPC barcodes will show the numbers right across the bottom.

Let’s take a closer look at these numbers. Grab a package with a barcode that has the numbers at the bottom. Ignore the first and last digits. What you have left, going from left to right, are five numbers, a space, and then five more numbers.

The first five numbers are called Company Prefix. That is a number unique to your company. The second five numbers are called the Global Trade Item Number, or GTIN. You assign your own GTIN for each product packaging combination (e.g. widgets sold in a single pack, in a five-pack, per dozen, etc.).

This is pretty much all you need to know about the numbering system of a UPC. That last digit to the right of the GTIN is a check digit for error correction. It’s usually automatically calculated by software, so you don’t need to worry about it much.

Where Can You Get a UPC Barcode?

Earlier, we said that the Company Prefix is a number unique to your business. In order to make sure each number is only assigned to one business, someone has to keep track. This someone is a nonprofit organization called GS1.

GS1 is based in Belgium. It is responsible for the overall administration of barcodes all over the world. To do this, GS1 works with subchapter organizations in countries that use barcodes. For example, in the US, the organization is called GS1 US.

You get your barcode through your country’s local organization. (They call it buying a license.) When you buy a license, you automatically become a member of GS1. Not only will you have your barcode to use, you’ll also get access to customer support, rules and literature to help you set up and use your barcode, and a database called GS1 US Data Hub to help you keep track of and manage your UPC barcodes.

If you’re in the US, here’s the page where you can buy the barcode. If you’re outside the US, go to this GS1 page, where you can be directed to your country’s GS1 subchapter’s website.

How Much Does It Cost to Get a Barcode?

The cost and pricing structure for getting a barcode is different for every country (we checked Australia’s as an example.) Below, we’ll focus on the pricing structure and costs for the US.

You Can Buy Individual Barcodes or Buy in Bulk

If you’re a very small company and just need a few barcodes, you can buy them from GS1 US at $30 each. It’s a little bit unclear, but we think GS1 US uses a general Company Prefix and then assigns you specific GTINs for each barcode you buy. In other words, if you buy your barcodes this way, you don’t get your unique Company Prefix. But this $30 is a flat fee that you pay once and you’re done.

If you think you’ll use more than eight UPCs, then it probably makes more sense for you to get your own Company Prefix. The starter price for a Company Prefix is $250, with a $50 annual renewal fee for as long as you keep the prefix. The $250 also gives you 10 GTINs. You get to assign the GTINs in whatever way you like.

If you need more than 10 GTINs, you can upgrade to the $750 initial/$150 renewal/100 GTIN tier. See the pricing chart (scroll down) for more pricing tiers.

You Might Need More Barcodes than You Think

Before you confidently declare that you only need one UPC number, think through your product packaging scheme carefully.

For instance, if you make chocolate chip cookies and sell them in a bag of 5, a bag of 10, and a box of two dozen, each packaging will need its own UPC number. As well, if you decide to wholesale your cookies to a grocery store and they buy the bags of 5 cookies in carton boxes, the carton box will need its own UPC number as well.

In other words, you probably will need more UPC numbers than you think. GS1 US has a convenient barcode estimator if you need help.

Is GS1 the Only Place to Buy Barcodes?

If you’ve been doing research on barcodes, then you’ve probably already seen advertisements by various companies that claim they can sell you a barcode for a lot less than $30. Are those legit? Yes, and no.

While doing research for this article, we saw claims that some UPC numbers bought from non-GS1 sources won’t work or are duplicates. So, it seems that there are some sellers that are not legit.

There are other sellers that seem to own older Company Prefixes where GS1 has less control. These companies can issue GTINs under these older prefixes, and these codes do seem legit.

However, if you buy from these companies, you might be getting random Company Prefixes even for related products. We think it’s better to have your own Company Prefix than have random prefixes. Not only that, there are places to look up owners of Company Prefixes, and you won’t be shown as the official owner.

Even when you buy individual barcodes from GS1, you’ll be the official owner of the code. Companies such as Amazon sometimes require a seller to have UPC numbers legitimately issued by GS1 to the manufacturer of the item. So, to avoid future problems, we recommend you buy UPC numbers only from GS1.

Your Next Steps After Buying Your UPC Barcode

After you get your barcode, you’ll need to affix it to the product the code is assigned to. This might mean you’ll have to print the code on a label that you can stick to a box. It also might mean you’ll have to work with a plastic bag maker to print the code directly on your packaging material.

GS1 has rules and guidelines on where you should place your UPC code on your packaging (typically near the bottom of the box or bag). There are also recommendations on the color of the background and of the bars. The GS1 US website has a large library of resources and free and paid webinars to help you use your barcode correctly.

Once you’re able to sell into a retailer, you’ll have to send them your UPC information. Sometimes, the information can even be transferred electronically via the GS1 US Data Hub. Other times, you can probably send the UPC along with your product information using more old-fashioned methods (e.g. an information sheet you fill out or an Excel spreadsheet file).

If You’re a Maker of Anything, a UPC Number is a Must-Have

Unless you sell the things you make directly to consumers, you probably won’t be able to avoid getting a UPC number. We can’t think of any retail or grocery store that isn’t using UPC barcodes at checkout. More than likely, they’re also using the same codes for inventory management. Some retailers will even require you to get a code before they will buy from you.

So, as long as you make a physical item for sale, having a UPC barcode is pretty much mandatory.

As to where to buy that code, we at The Missed Details blog try hard to save you money. After all, startup funds can be hard to come by, and you must use them wisely so you don’t run out of money before you start making a profit. If we think you can skimp, we’ll tell you, but if we think you have to spend, we’ll tell you that too.

We think that a legitimate UPC issued by GS1 falls under the must-spend category. So, while the price does seem steep compared to other sources, we recommend you bite the bullet and buy your barcode from GS1. This one is not something you want to skimp.

Interested in starting and running a small business? Here’s the beginning of our step-by-step guide: What to do right after getting that great business idea.

Questions? Comments?