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How do barcodes work?

Updated: May 13, 2021

Since barcodes were invented, it has evolved along with digital technology. Today, various types of barcodes track and process all kinds of data. Here's a brief look at how barcodes work and how to read a barcode.

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. Each barcode has a unique combination of lines. Any given combination encodes certain information about a product. This information can then be translated into actual text that appears on a digital screen. Newer barcode formats, such as QR codes , are square and feature more complex coding that resembles pixel artwork.

To scan a barcode correctly, you'll need a device that can scan the code and a system that can interpret and read its data.

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 regularly:


Quick Response code (QR code) barcodes can store a variety of data, from website addresses to personal or business contact information.

QR codes are two-dimensional barcodes that differ from the traditional black-and-white vertical line format. QR codes are square, feature smaller squares within the upper-right, upper-left, and lower-left corners, and have what looks like pixelated artwork in the center. You'll often encounter QR codes on store windows and business cards.


UPC stands for Universal Product Code. These barcodes, first used in 1974, 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. These barcodes only store numbers.


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 they've evolved to incorporate 13.

How to Read a Barcode

Except for traditional handheld scanner, you can turn your smartphone or iPad into a barcode scanner as well with the help of apps such as Softzoo Barcode Scanner. Barcode scanning, barcode management, customer management, project and inventory management, team collaboration, etc.- all in one app. In addition to Softzoo’s own scanning function, its build-in barcode keyboard is a magic keyboard that enables all Apps on your iPhone to scan directly.

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