Discrete VS Continuous Barcodes – The Ultimate 1D Barcodes Face-Off

Discrete VS Continuous Barcodes

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When it comes to tracking the movement of products and shipments, barcodes have become an essential tool for businesses. Barcodes come in different types, and one of the most common classifications is the discrete and continuous barcode. 

In this blog post, we will explore what continuous and discrete barcodes are, their differences, and their benefits and drawbacks. 

What are Discrete Barcodes?

Discrete barcodes are a type of 1-dimensional (1D) barcode (also called linear barcodes) that encodes discrete characters within their symbol. In a number string, discrete characters are those that can be read individually without relying on other characters.

Each character that is encoded in a discrete barcode can be individually interpreted without regard to the rest of the barcode. The individual characters in a discrete barcode are separated by an amount of inter-character spacing.  

In discrete barcode symbologies, inter-character spacing is a narrow space that separates each barcode character and is usually one module wide. This space is not included as part of a barcode character.

Four points on characteristics of Discrete Barcodes
List of five points about Continuous Barcodes

What are Continuous Barcodes?

Continuous barcodes are also a type of 1-dimensional barcode used to encode data in the form of a string of characters. They do not contain any intercharacter spaces, meaning that one character seamlessly follows another with no gaps in between. Each character in a continuous barcode starts with a bar and ends with a space. 

The characters encoded in a continuous barcode cannot be interpreted individually. Due to their distinct structure, continuous barcodes represent more data per unit area than discrete barcodes.

A continuous barcode uses bars of varying widths and spaces to represent different numbers or letters. Depending on the symbology used, each set of bars and spaces may represent one or multiple characters.

Examples of Discrete Barcodes and Continuous Barcodes

Data Capacity
Character Set
Printable digits
Code 11
Numeric digits and hyphen(-)
0 to 9
Old barcode format used in the telecommunication industry
Code 39
Numeric digits, all uppercase letters, seven special characters
Uppercase A to Z, 0 to 9, (%), (+), ($), (/), (.), (-), Space
Old barcode format used in the aviation industry, military and healthcare
16 characters
Numeric digits, six special characters, uppercase letters A, B, C, D
0 to 9, (%), (+), ($), (/), (.), (-), uppercase A, B, C, D
Old barcode format used in libraries, blood banks and on FedEx airbills
12 digits
Numeric digits
0 to 9
Used in retail marketplaces worldwide
Interleaved 2 of 5
30 characters
Numeric digits
0 to 9
Used in the wholesale, distribution and warehousing industry for identification purposes
Code 128
All 128 lower ASCII characters
Full 128-character ASCII set
Used in various industries, like healthcare, global distribution and warehousing
EAN 13
13 digits
Numeric digits
0 to 9
Used in retail marketplaces globally, mainly in Europe
GS1 DataBar
14 digits
Numeric digits
0 to 9
Used in worldwide retail and food & beverage labelling
MSI Plessey
Numeric digits
0 to 9
Used in warehousing industry and inventory management
All 128 lower ASCII characters
Full 128-character ASCII set
Used in universities and academic libraries, mainly in the UK
Intelligent Mail Barcode
31 digits
Numeric digits
0 to 9
Used by the United States Postal Services as the official postal barcode

Similarities Between Discrete and Continuous Barcodes

Let’s take a look at the similarities between discrete and continuous barcodes.

  • Both are 1-dimensional barcode symbologies. 
  • Both use bars and spaces to encode data.
  • They have similar structures, such as the requirement for quiet zones at the beginning and end of the barcode. 
Three points on similarities between Discrete Barcodes and Continuous Barcodes

Continuous VS Discrete Barcodes - What’s the Difference?

Structural differences between Discrete barcodes and Continuous barcodes

Structural Differences

Discrete barcodes encode individual discrete characters that can be decoded individually. Discrete barcodes use an inter-character spacing between each character to separate each barcode element. 

Continuous barcodes are made up of individual characters which cannot be interpreted by themselves. Instead, they start with a bar and end with a space and use bars of varying widths and spaces to represent different numbers or letters. 

Depending on the symbology used, each set of bars and spaces of a continuous barcode can represent one or multiple characters. The structure of continuous barcodes allows more data to be packed into a smaller area than discrete barcodes.

Data Encoding Capability

Discrete barcodes are used to encode small amounts of data, such as product codes or serial numbers.

Continuous barcodes can encode more information about the product than discrete barcodes. Continuous barcodes have a greater encoding capability than discrete ones and can store more complex pieces of data, such as expiry dates or batch numbers.

Comparison of data encoding capability between Discrete Barcodes and Continuous Barcodes
Point on difference between availability of Discrete Barcodes and Continuous Barcodes


Discrete barcodes have been around for a much longer time than continuous barcodes. 

Discrete barcodes are no longer officially used. However, anyone can still create discrete barcodes using free and open-source online tools.

Continuous barcodes are a popular and widely used type of barcode symbology. They have been officially adopted across the globe and can be obtained by registering on the GS1 website and paying any associated fees. Additionally, many online websites provide free continuous barcodes to users. 

Discrete vs Continuous Barcodes Which is Better?

When it comes to which type of barcode is better, it really depends on your specific needs and situation.

Discrete codes work best for basic information such as product prices or names. In comparison, continuous codes offer greater encoding capabilities for complex data sets like customer details or orders.

Discrete barcodes continue to be used mainly for internal operations in libraries, healthcare facilities, and warehouses. Continuous barcodes are often found at retail stores, wholesale markets, postal departments, logistics companies, healthcare and other industries.

In short, If you’re looking for a reliable solution to encode simple information, go with a discrete barcode. If you need something capable of storing more detailed information, use continuous barcodes.

Designing & Printing Labels with Discrete and Continuous Barcodes

Discrete and continuous barcodes can be designed with label making software such as BarTender.  BarTender comes in various editions such as Starter, Professional, Automation, Enterprise and Cloud. Check out our blog on how BarTender works for more information.  Once you have your label designed, you can use a thermal printer to print your labels.  Check out this article on how direct thermal and thermal transfer printers work and also how a thermal printer works.


In summary, both discrete and continuous barcodes have their uses and advantages.
Discrete barcodes are more suitable for short data strings, while continuous ones offer greater flexibility in encoding complex information like expiry dates or batch numbers.

When choosing between discrete and continuous barcodes, it is essential to consider the size of data you need to store, the scanning and readability requirements, and the application and use of the barcode.

We hope this article was useful.

Thanks for reading!

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