When you start selling on Amazon, there are many details and features to master. While you naturally tend to think primarily about the products you’ll be selling and how to best promote them, you also have to pay attention to Amazon’s policies and regulations.
One thing that confuses many newcomers and even some experienced sellers are the many types of barcodes associated with selling products on Amazon. Some of these are global barcodes that have been around since before the internet. Others are Amazon-specific.
What do all of these barcodes mean? Which ones are essential and which can you skip? Where can you get discounted UPC codes? In this guide, we’ll be covering the major types of barcodes you have to understand. While barcodes have many uses in retail, the focus here will be on barcodes required for selling on Amazon.
The Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN) is a way for Amazon to track products. Unlike barcodes such as UPC, ASIN numbers are Amazon-specific. These are 10-digit codes found on product pages. If you look up any product on Amazon, you’ll see the ASIN in the same area as shipping information, date first listed, seller’s rank, and average customer review.
When you sell anything on Amazon, an ASIN for that product will automatically be issued. You don’t have to do anything to set this up. It can be useful for both sellers and customers to know ASINs as it provides a way to look up products. Since Amazon sells millions of products, many of which are very similar (in some cases, very similar items sold by the same brands), ASINs are essential to identify each unique product.
Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is a general term that includes various barcodes, including UPC, EAN, and others. GTIN is not a specific barcode in itself. The particular type of barcode you might need to sell on Amazon depends on the country from which your selling and the type of product you’re selling.
For example, books require an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), which is a type of GTIN. If you’re selling physical products in the U.S., you need a UPC unless you’re eligible for an exemption, which we’ll discuss below.
UPC and EAN
Universal Product Code (UPC), or, more technically UPC-A, is one of the most widely-used barcodes you will find on most products sold in stores and other marketplaces throughout the world. UPC is closely related to another barcode, the European Article Number (EAN), which is also known as the International Article Number. UPC and EAN serve the same purpose. Which you use depends on the country in which you’re operating.
When people talk about barcodes in the United States of Canada, they’re usually referring to UPC-A, the familiar 12-digit barcode seen on products everywhere. The EAN is similar but contains 13 digits. While the UPC is the original barcode, as products started getting manufactured globally, there was a demand for additional country codes and a new type of barcode. The two, however, look almost identical and only differ in the country codes and the extra digit on the EAN. Another GS1-issued barcode that’s fairly common is JAN, for Japanese Article Number.
UPC, EAN, and JAN barcodes are issued by GS1, a non-profit organization that maintains international guidelines and standards for business. They’ve been operating since 1974, though their services are now far more in demand in the age of online selling.
While UPC and EAN barcodes are classified according to country, they don’t necessarily indicate where a product was manufactured. For example, the codes starting with 000-019 are assigned to the US and Canada. However, businesses operating in these countries may be selling products that originate elsewhere.
Do You Need a UPC or EAN?
One of the first questions Amazon sellers ask about barcodes is, “Do I need a barcode for my products?” You do need some barcode so Amazon can recognize and track your products. The particular type you need depends on your circumstances. You need a UPC or EAN to sell many items on marketplaces such as Amazon. However, there are some cases in which you can apply for an exemption.
You may be able to get an exemption from UPC (or EAN) barcodes when selling certain products on Amazon. Smaller businesses and those reselling existing products (as opposed to creating their own new products) may be exempt. However, you have to apply for an exemption before you start selling. In other words, you can’t simply conclude that you’re exempt and send products to Amazon without a barcode.
Amazon issues a guide that lets you know if you might be eligible for an exemption. For example, if you sell certain private label or artisan products, you could qualify for an exemption. In general, exemptions are reserved for those who sell in smaller quantities or who make their own products. Businesses that sell mass-produced items are less likely to be eligible.
Certain types of products, such as shoes, musical instruments, Kindle products, and others are not eligible for exemptions. In many other cases, Amazon requires that you obtain a UPC if you’re a “major brand.” Smaller vendors may obtain an exemption, but this is always at Amazon’s discretion.
Amazon also has a list of specific brands that require a GTIN. If you’re selling something made by one of these brands, you’ll have to obtain a UPC (or the appropriate barcode depending on your country), and there’s no possibility of an exemption.
The Importance of an Authentic UPC
GS1 has branches around the world. If you’re in the United States, you can apply to the GS1 US for your barcode. If you’re doing business in the U.S. or Canada, you should obtain a UPC. For sellers operating in other countries, an EAN is required. Barcodes are issued using country codes.
You begin by applying for a company prefix, the part of a barcode that identifies your company. When you get this, all the products you create will start with this prefix. Then each product will have its own unique UPC barcode. Once you have your UPC, you can order barcodes to place on your products. You don’t order these directly from GS1 but from one of the many partner companies that sell them.
Barcodes from GS1 typically cost at least $250, depending on the number of products you’re registering. Some sellers try to avoid this expense by looking for cheaper alternatives. If you search, you’ll find that there are third-party sellers that will provide barcodes for a much lower price. However, this is risky. Amazon checks the authenticity of barcodes against the GS1 database.
While some third-party sellers are legitimate, many are not. Some sell replicated codes that belong to other companies. Your product may be removed, and Amazon can even suspend your account if you don’t have an authenticated barcode. For this reason, if you’re serious about setting up a business on Amazon, you’re better off obtaining a barcode from GS1.
A Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) number is a number assigned by a company for its internal management purposes. While it’s sometimes confused with a UPC or EAN, an SKU is not a barcode. You may want to create your own system and assign SKUs to your products. This is useful if you have many products and want to make sure you can identify them all. Because these are strictly internal codes, you can create SKUs in any form you want, using as many digits or characters as you wish. If you do this, make sure you don’t confuse your SKU with ASIN or UPC numbers.
Fulfillment Network Stock Keeping Unit (FNSKU) is Amazon’s own barcodes that it uses to manage and track products in its warehouses. As we discussed, an SKU is a stock keeping unit. So FNSKU is Amazon’s own SKU system.
When you’re ready to sell your products, you can get your FNSKU issued from Seller Central. Under Inventory, you can get the labels with the barcodes printed. You can also pay Amazon to place the labels on your products for you. If a supplier ships your products, you’ll have to print the FNSKU barcodes and send them to the supplier.
UPC or FNSKU?
As a seller, it can be a little confusing to know whether you need a UPC barcode, an FNSKU, or both. So let’s look at when you need each.
The UPC is essential for listing your products on Amazon (unless you’re exempt as discussed above). However, once you have this type of barcode, it’s not essential to ship your products with them. You don’t want to ship your products to Amazon with both kinds of barcodes as this can result in errors. Thus, if you have a UPC barcode, you should cover it with an FNSKU.
You do need an FNSKU if you’re selling through FBA. This way, Amazon can easily keep track of your products, and not get them mixed up with competitors who are selling the same products.
To sum up: if you don’t have a UPC because of an exemption, you’ll need an FNSKU. If you do have a UPC, you should still ship products to Amazon with the FNSKU for better tracking and management. Finally, if you’re not using FBA, but rather shipping your products from home or your personal warehouse, you don’t have to deal with FNSKU. That’s because the products will not be handled directly by Amazon.
The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a barcode issued to books. Like the UPC and EAN barcodes, ISBN has been around for a lot longer than Amazon or the internet. The ISBN is a 13-digit number though books published before 2007 may have 10-digits.
If you self-publish on Amazon, you will only need an ISBN if your book is printable. In this case, Amazon automatically generates an ISBN if you don’t already have one. For digital books (i.e., e-books) you don’t need an ISBN. Like other products, digital books will be issued an ASIN by Amazon.
You can also obtain your own ISBN from Bowker. This is something you might do if you’ve self-published your book independently and later decide to list it on Amazon. If you publish a book through a traditional publisher, it will also be assigned its ISBN.
Getting Your Barcodes Right With Amazon
Barcodes can be challenging, especially when you’re starting as an Amazon seller. However, it’s essential to understand what you need before you start selling. If you list products without the correct barcodes, you could be putting your entire business at risk.
Amazon itself provides quite a bit of useful information about barcodes, both in its seller forums and its help pages. It’s a good idea to refer to these pages regularly as Amazon often changes its policies. International laws and regulations also change.
Resources for More Information
Here are some resources to help you clarify barcode-related issues as an Amazon Seller.
Are you a visual type in need of a video to explain all the codes? Here’s one by our friends at Jungle Scout, the Amazon product finder and research tools suite (see our Jungle Scout review and exclusive discount).