UPC vs ISBN – The Ultimate Barcode Duel 

upc vs isbn

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The differences between Universal Product Codes (UPC) and International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) extend beyond mere distinctions in format and application. Serving as pivotal systems for product and book identification, respectively, both UPC and ISBN encompass unique functionalities tailored to distinct sectors of commerce and publishing. 

This article aims to demystify ISBN and UPC codes, highlighting their key differences, similarities, and practical implications for businesses and individuals alike.

Discover barcoding with our barcode learning centre, where we make understanding this technology easy and fun. Find helpful resources and insights, all explained in plain, simple language. 

What is a UPC?

What do you mean by UPC Code

The UPC, or Universal Product Code, is a 12-digit numerical code that originated in the United States in 1974 for product identification in retail stores. The structure of a UPC code consists of a Company Prefix (first 6 to 9 digits), product numbers (following digits), and a check digit (last digit), all of which are embedded into a barcode.

UPC codes are predominantly used in the United States and Canada to track items in stores, manage inventory, and facilitate checkout. They are found in various consumer goods, from groceries to electronics.

Read our comprehensive guide on what is a UPC code to learn everything you need to know about UPC barcoding technology.

What is an ISBN?

The ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, is a unique identifier for books, introduced in 1970. An ISBN can be 10 or 13 digits long, with the 13-digit format becoming standard after January 1, 2007. The code is usually printed on the back cover of the book and is embedded into a barcode. 

ISBNs are used globally to identify individual book titles and editions for effective cataloguing and sales tracking. They are essential for publishers, libraries, and book retailers for inventory management. They are a requirement for selling books through most distribution channels.

Read our comprehensive guide on what is an ISBN number to learn everything there is to know about ISBN barcodes.

ISBN vs UPC - What's the Difference?

Differences between UPC and ISBN barcodes
Universal Product Code
International Standard Book Number
Originated in the United States in 1974
Introduced globally in 1970
12-digit code
10 or 13-digit code
Geographical Use
Predominantly used in the United States and Canada
Used globally
General retail, from groceries to electronics
Book industry, including publishers, libraries, and retailers
Primarily one type
Two types: 10-digit (pre-2007) and 13-digit (post-2007)

Let us now look at these differences in a greater detail.


The Universal Product Code was invented in the United States in 1974. It was designed to streamline the retail process, making it easier for stores to manage inventory and speed up the checkout process. 

The International Standard Book Number was introduced in 1970 as a global standard for identifying books. Unlike the UPC, which was initially an American concept, the ISBN was designed with international use in mind from the outset, making it a truly global identifier.


A UPC code consists of 12 numerical digits. These include a company Prefix, product numbers, and a check digit. The 12-digit structure is as follows:

  • The first digit: Number System Character, identifies the type of product.
  • Next 5 digits: Manufacturer or Company Prefix.
  • Following 5 digits: Product Identifier, unique to each product.
  • Last digit: Check Digit for error detection during scanning.

Geographical Usage

UPC codes are primarily used in the United States and Canada. While they have made their way into other markets, their usage is still most prevalent in North America.

On the other hand, ISBNs are used worldwide, making them a universal standard for book identification. 


UPC codes are ubiquitous in the retail industry, appearing on everything from food items to electronics. They are a critical part of how retail businesses manage inventory and sales.

ISBNs are specific to the book industry. They are used by publishers, libraries, and book retailers for cataloguing, inventory management, and sales tracking, making them indispensable in the publishing ecosystem.


UPC codes are primarily of one type, consisting of a 12-digit numerical code. 

ISBN codes come in two main types: the older 10-digit version and the newer 13-digit version. 

Similarities Between UPC and ISBN Barcodes

List of six similarities between UPC and ISBN barcodes

Both are Types of GTIN

One of the most fundamental similarities between UPC and ISBN is that both are types of Global Trade Item Numbers (GTIN). GTIN is a standard encompassing various forms of product identification, making UPC and ISBN part of a larger system designed to streamline global trade.

Both are Numeric

Both UPC and ISBN codes are numeric, meaning they consist entirely of numbers. This numeric nature makes them easily scannable and universally understood, facilitating quick and accurate data processing. Whether it’s a UPC code on a cereal box or an ISBN on a book, using numbers ensures a standardised way of identifying products across different platforms and countries.

Both are of Fixed Length

Both UPC and ISBN codes are of fixed lengths, with UPC always being 12 digits and the modern ISBN being 13 digits. 

Unified Purpose: Product Identification and Inventory Management

Both UPC and ISBN serve the core purpose of product identification and inventory management. Whether it’s a can of soup in a supermarket or a novel in a bookstore, these codes help businesses keep track of their products efficiently.

Barcode Representation

Another commonality is that both UPC and ISBN can be represented in barcode format. This makes it easy for retailers to scan the codes during the checkout process or for inventory tracking, thereby speeding up business operations.

You can learn more about barcoding technology by consulting the following guides. 

  • Barcode 101: Navigate through a beginner-friendly gateway into the essential fundamentals of barcodes.
  • Barcode types: Gain insights into the diverse world of barcode symbologies, exploring their unique characteristics and applications.
  • Discrete vs continuous barcodes: Delve into a meticulous comparison, elucidating the distinctions and utilities of 1D barcodes.
  • 2D stacked barcodes vs 2D matrix barcodes: Engage in a comprehensive discourse contrasting 2D barcode variants, enhancing your comprehension of their distinct functionalities and applications.

Practical Implications of UPC Codes and ISBN Codes for Businesses

Crucial for Retail and Publishing

Understanding UPC and ISBN is not optional; it’s a necessity for businesses in retail and publishing. These codes are the backbone of product identification, without which efficient inventory management would be nearly impossible.

Inventory Management, Sales Tracking, and Global Trade

Both UPC and ISBN directly impact how businesses manage their inventory and track sales. They are essential for data analytics, helping businesses understand sales trends and make informed decisions. On a global scale, these codes facilitate international trade by standardising product identification across borders.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are ISBN and UPC the Same?

No, ISBN and UPC are not the same. 

While both are types of Global Trade Item Numbers (GTIN), ISBN is specific to the book industry, and UPC is used across a wide range of general retail products.

Refer to the following guides to compare GTIN with other identification codes. 

  1. EAN vs GTIN
  2. GTIN vs UPC

Are ISBNs and Barcodes the Same?

No, ISBN and barcodes are not the same but are closely related. An ISBN is a unique identifier for books, while a barcode is a graphical representation that encodes identifiers like ISBN or UPC for easy scanning. Our article on what is ISBN will provide more clarity. 

How Do UPC and ISBN Codes Affect Global Trade?

Both UPC and ISBN facilitate international trade by standardising product identification. They are essential for businesses aiming for global reach, as they enable seamless cross-border transactions.

What Should Small Business Owners Know About ISBN and UPC Codes?

Small business owners should be aware that UPCs are crucial for entering larger retail systems. For self-publishers, having an ISBN is almost mandatory for wider distribution. 

Ignoring these codes can significantly limit your market reach.


In conclusion, UPC and ISBN codes are integral to the functioning of retail and publishing industries. While they differ in origin, structure, and application, both serve the universal purpose of product identification and inventory management. 

Understanding these codes is beneficial and essential for businesses aiming for efficiency and global reach. Whether a small business owner or a self-publisher, these identifiers are your ticket to streamlined operations and broader market access. 

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