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08 Nov 2023 | 12:00

What is a 2D barcode and how does one work?


2D barcodes have emerged as the champions of the retail world, driving a profound transformation that has reshaped the way we work, shop, and interact with our surroundings. 2D barcode applications extend to industries as diverse as logistics, healthcare, and manufacturing.

Since 1974, black and white lines, better known as 1D barcodes, have been omnipresent on product packaging in the world of retail. These linear codes have made tasks faster and more efficient, thanks to the power of scanning technology. However, the retail landscape has undergone a dramatic transformation, driven by the rise of e-commerce. In this fast-evolving environment businesses now require a higher level of traceability. A new contender has emerged: 2D barcoding. This innovative technology includes QR codes, Data Matrix codes, PDF417 codes, and a host of others. Unlike their one-dimensional counterparts, 2D barcodes use patterns of shapes to encode data, offering a revolutionary way to store and retrieve information.

In this blog post, we will explore what exactly a 2D barcode is and how it is changing the game in the world of retail and beyond. We will delve into 2D barcode types, their unique features and applications, and the many advantages they bring to a rapidly evolving industry.

Read on to learn more about:

  1. What is a 2D barcode?
  2. How do 2D barcodes work?
  3. Types of 2D barcodes
  4. Applications of 2D barcodes
  5. Are 2D barcodes better than their 1D counterparts?
  6. Invest in better barcode scanning from The Barcode Warehouse

What is a 2D barcode?

A 2D barcode, or two-dimensional barcode, stores data in both horizontal and vertical directions, creating a grid of black and white squares. Unlike 1D barcodes, which consist of a single row of lines, it encodes more information, like text, numbers, and images, thanks to its matrix format.

2D barcodes are scanned using specialised 2D barcode scanners or smartphone apps equipped with camera functionality. When scanned, the encoded information is extracted, allowing for various applications, such as accessing websites, displaying text, tracking inventory, and more.

How do 2D barcodes work?

2D barcodes work by encoding data in a two-dimensional matrix of black and white squares or dots. When a 2D barcode is scanned, a barcode reader or scanner captures the pattern of squares or dots and interprets the information encoded within it. Here's how the process generally works:

  1. Encoding data: to create a 2D barcode, data is converted into a series of black and white squares or dots according to a specific encoding standard; for example, QR codes use a specific algorithm to create their pattern.
  2. Printing or displaying: the generated 2D barcode can be printed on a physical object, such as product packaging, a business card, or a label, or it can be displayed on a digital screen, such as a smartphone or TV screen.
  3. Scanning: to read the 2D barcode, a compatible scanner or mobile device equipped with a camera is used.
  4. Decoding: the captured image is then processed and decoded by specialised software that recognises the unique structure of the 2D barcode. The decoded data may include text, numbers, website URLs, contact information, or other types of information, depending on what was initially encoded.

Action: depending on the content of the 2D barcode, various actions can be taken. For example, if the 2D barcode contains a URL, the software can open a web browser and direct the user to the associated website. If it contains contact information, it can save that information to the device's contacts.

The key advantage of 2D barcodes is their ability to store a significant amount of data and their versatility in various applications. The process of working with 2D barcodes is efficient and user-friendly, making them a valuable tool for businesses and consumers alike.

Types of 2D barcodes

Here are some of the most common 2D barcode types:

  1. QR Code (Quick Response Code) is perhaps the most well-known type of 2D barcode. QR codes consist of black squares arranged on a white square grid. They can store a variety of data, including text, URLs, contact information, and more. They are widely used for providing quick access to websites, apps, and information.
  2. Data Matrix Code is composed of a grid of black and white squares or dots. Data Matrix codes are highly compact and can store information like serial numbers, product details, and part numbers. They are commonly used for product tracking and inventory management.
  3. PDF417 Code consists of stacked 2D barcodes that can store a substantial amount of data, including text, numbers, and even images. They are used for applications like driver's licences, identification cards, and transport tickets.
  4. Aztec Code is a circular 2D barcode that can store a large amount of data and still maintain their compact size. They are commonly used in transportation and ticketing applications, such as boarding passes.
  5. MaxiCode is a 2D barcode used primarily by courier and logistics companies, such as UPS and FedEx. It contains information about the destination and the package details, making it ideal for shipping labels.
  6. DOT Code is used in the automotive industry for tire identification and tracking. DOT Codes are typically found on the sidewalls of tires and store information like manufacturing details and specifications.
  7. Semacode is designed to store URLs and is often used for mobile tagging and connecting physical objects to digital content. Semacodes are less common than QR codes but serve a similar purpose.

These are just a few examples of the many types of 2D barcodes in existence. Each type has its own unique characteristics and is used in various industries and applications, depending on the data that needs to be encoded and the requirements of the specific use case.

Applications of 2D barcodes

Due to their ability to store a significant amount of data, 2D barcodes have a wide range of applications across various industries. Here are some 2D barcode examples:

Retail and Inventory Management:

  • Product Labelling: 2D barcodes are used on product packaging to store information such as serial numbers, pricing, and product details.
  • Inventory Tracking: Retailers and warehouses use 2D barcodes to efficiently track and manage inventory, making restocking and order fulfilment more accurate.

Marketing and Advertising:

  • QR Codes: QR codes are widely used in marketing materials, posters, and advertisements. Scanning these codes can direct users to websites, promotional content, or special offers.

Identification and Security:

  • ID Cards: 2D barcodes are found on identification cards (e.g., driver's licences and employee badges) to store personal information and enable easy verification.
  • Passports: Many modern passports use 2D barcodes to store biometric data and passport information for border control and security purposes.


  • Patient Records: 2D barcodes are used in healthcare for patient identification, medication administration, and accurate record-keeping.
  • Laboratory Sample Tracking: Laboratories use 2D barcodes to manage and track samples and test results.

Transportation and Ticketing:

  • Boarding Passes: Airline boarding passes often contain 2D barcodes for scanning at security checkpoints and gates.
  • Public Transport: 2D barcodes on transit tickets and cards enable seamless access to buses, trains, and subways.

Manufacturing and Logistics:

  • Part and Product Tracking: 2D barcodes are used to track the production and shipment of parts and products.
  • Package Labelling: Couriers and logistics companies use 2D barcodes on shipping labels to manage and track packages.

Library and Education:

  • Library Catalogues: 2D barcodes are used in library systems for cataloguing and tracking books and other materials.
  • Educational Materials: Textbooks and educational materials often contain 2D barcodes to provide links to additional digital resources.

Food Safety and Traceability:

  • Food Packaging: 2D barcodes are used in the food industry for traceability and recall purposes. They can provide information on the source and processing of food products.

Access Control:

  • Electronic Tickets: 2D barcodes on electronic event tickets enable secure entry to venues and events.
  • Facility Access: Access cards with 2D barcodes grant authorised individuals access to secure locations.

Mobile Payments:

  • Mobile Wallets: Some mobile payment systems use 2D barcodes for transactions, where the barcode on a mobile device is scanned at a point of sale.

Warranty and Product Information:

  • Consumer Electronics: 2D barcodes on electronic devices and appliances can provide access to user manuals, warranty information, and support resources.

These applications show the versatility of 2D barcodes in improving efficiency, convenience, and accuracy across a wide range of industries. They continue to evolve and find new uses as technology advances.

Are 2D barcodes better than their 1D counterparts?

Whether 2D barcodes are better than their 1D counterparts depends on the specific requirements and use cases. Both types of barcodes have their strengths and weaknesses, and the choice between them often comes down to the particular needs of the application:

  • 1D Barcodes: Choose 1D barcodes for simple and quick item identification, when working with legacy systems, on a tight budget, or in cases where wide recognition and simplicity are essential.
  • 2D Barcodes: Opt for 2D barcodes when you need to store extensive data, require data versatility, desire error correction, have limited label space, or need enhanced security and encryption for data privacy.

See our comprehensive guide on 1D vs 2D barcodes for more information.

Invest in better barcode scanning from The Barcode Warehouse

The potential of 2D barcode technology is incredible, from the popular QR codes that link to websites, apps, or contact information, to Data Matrix codes used for product tracking, 2D barcodes are transforming the way we interact with information. 

The Barcode Warehouse has been the leading provider of barcoding solutions in the United Kingdom for over three decades. We invite you to explore our range of products, including cutting-edge barcode scanners, reliable barcode printers, and high-quality barcode labels. Should you require further guidance or expert insights, our knowledgeable team is always here to assist. Feel free to contact us for friendly and expert advice tailored to your unique needs.

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