How to Read a Barcode

So you'll know what all those beeps at the checkout line mean

A man reading a QR barcode in a magazine with his smartphone.

 wundervisuals / E+

Since barcodes were invented in 1952 by Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, the technology has evolved greatly and is now seen in almost every country around the world in a variety of different formats.

From ISBN and UPC to QR Codes, barcodes can be used for tracking and processing all kinds of data.

Here's everything you need to know about how barcodes work, how to read them, where to lookup barcode data, and what sort of different barcodes exist.

Where are Barcodes Used?

Barcodes are used for tracking information across a wide range of industries most notably in product sales, travel, and food.

Here are some examples of how barcodes are used.

  • Tracking parcels and envelopes sent in the mail.
  • Checking-in passengers and luggage on planes, buses, and trains.
  • Keeping stock of store inventory.
  • Registering store or club membership cards.
  • Storing a website address or contact information.
  • Storing a Bitcoin, or other cryptocurrency, wallet address.

How Do Barcodes Work?

Barcodes work by representing numbers, letters, or special characters with deliberately spaced vertical lines that can be interpreted by a barcode reader device or a smartphone with a compatible barcode scanning app. Newer barcode formats, such as QR Codes, can appear square in shape and feature more complex coding that resembles pixel artwork.

To scan a barcode correctly, you'll need to have a device that can scan the code and a system for interpreting the data read from it.

Scanning a product in a store with that same store's barcode scanner will likely generate information on that item such as its name and price. This is because the scanner is set to interpret that specific barcode format (possibly a UPC barcode) and is connected to a database of products that are represented by those specific barcodes.

Using that same store's scanner to scan a book's ISBN barcode will likely result in an error as the device would probably not be set up to read ISBN barcodes or would not be connected to the relevant database to help it interpret the information scanned. It would be like trying to call someone on the phono with their ZIP code. It's a different number for a very different system.

What Are One and Two-Dimensional Barcodes?

There are two main categories for barcodes; one-dimensional and two-dimensional.

One-dimensional barcodes, are the first generation of barcodes and store information by using vertical black and white lines of varying length and thickness. ISBN, UPC, EAN, and Code 39 codes are all one-dimensional barcodes.

Two-dimensional barcodes, also referred to as matrix code or 2D code, are the newer second generation barcodes. 2D codes are typically square and can store more data than 1D codes. QR Code, Aztec Code, Data Matrix, and AR Code are all two-dimensional barcode formats.

What Are The Most Popular Barcode Types?

There are numerous barcode formats used around the world in different industries, by different companies, and for different purposes. These are the three that you're most likely to encounter on a regular basis.

  • QR Code: Quick Response Code (QR Code) barcodes can store a variety of data from website addresses to personal or business contact information. They are what's described as a two-dimensional barcode, a category of barcodes that differ from the traditional black and white vertical line format. QR Codes are square in shape, feature smaller squares within their upper-right, upper-left, and lower-left corners, and feature what looks like pixelated artwork in their center. You'll often encounter QR Codes on store windows and business cards.
  • ISBN: International Standard Book Number (ISBN) barcodes are used to track books and ebooks globally. The vertical black and white striped barcodes store the unique identification number assigned to a published book by an official affiliate of the International ISBN Agency. ISBN barcodes originally contained 10 digit numerical codes but, since 2007, have evolved to incorporate 13.
  • UPC: UPC stands for Universal Product Code. These barcodes are used globally for tracking products sold in online and physical stores. The UPC barcode format consists of 12 numbers represented by black and white vertical lines and was first used in 1974. UPC barcodes can only store numbers.

    How to Read a Barcode with a Scanner

    Reading a barcode with a scanner is typically something that would only be done in a business environment. You will need the following:

    • A barcode scanner. If you run your own business, a barcode scanner device can be purchased from various online marketplaces such as Amazon.
    • A computer. A computer or laptop will be needed to connect to the scanner device and receive information from it.
    • A product database or software package. Scanning a barcode with a scanner connected to a computer will simply send the barcode number to your device. This can be displayed in Word or Excel but if you want to use barcode scanning to track products or orders you will need specialized software such as WASP, CMSStores, EZ OfficeInventory, or Orderhive.

    How to Read a Barcode on iOS

    Download QR Code Reader – Barcode Maker app from the App Store. This is a free app that can scan and make barcodes in QR Code, EAN8, EAN13, UPC, ISSN, ISBN, Code 39, Code 39 Mod 43, Code 93, Code 128, Interleaved 2 of 5, ITF14, PDF417, and Aztec Code formats.

    The iOS Camera app features built-in QR Code functionality. Simply open the app and position a QR Code in front of your device. The Camera app should scan the code and extract any information from it. You don't need to take a photo of it.

    1. Tap on the large circular barcode icon in the center of the screen.

    2. Your device's camera should activate and the app will display what it sees. Position a barcode within view of the camera. The app will automatically extract information from it.

    How to Read a Barcode on Android

    To scan a barcode on Android, you'll need to download the Barcode Generator app. This app is designed for creating barcodes but it can almost every single type. Best of all it's free.

    1. Open Barcode Generator on your Android smartphone or tablet.

    2. Tap on the three horizontal lines in the top-left corner of the app to open the menu.

    3. Tap on Scan code.

    4. Your device's camera will activate from within the app. Place your barcode within the camera's line of sight.

      Your Android device's camera will need to be able to focus on text or images that are within very close range to it. Some cheap Android tablets and phones are fitted with relatively poor cameras and may not be able to scan a barcode.

    5. Once detected, the app will extract any information contained within the barcode and display it on screen. The barcode will also be saved to the app's library for easy access in the future.

    How to Lookup an ISBN or UPC Number

    It's relatively easy to lookup an ISBN or UPC barcode due to the large number of free services available that specialize in this functionality. BarcodeLookup is one such service that supports ISBN, UPC, and EAN barcodes and their related databases of registered products.

    Their official website, BarcodeLookup.com, allows for lookup via barcode number or product name while their iOS and Android apps let you scan barcodes directly using a device's camera.