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PDF417 Barcodes: Everything You Need to Know in 2024

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In this article, we explore what PDF417 barcodes are and their two variants. We also cover their pros and cons and applications. Read on to learn more.

PDF417 barcode

What is a PDF417 Barcode?

A PDF417 barcode is a 2D barcode known for its high data capacity that can store over 1,000 characters in a compact space. This versatility has led to its widespread use across various industries. The name "PDF417" derives from its structure, with "PDF" meaning Portable Data File and "417" indicating its pattern of 4 bars and spaces spanning 17 units.


Consider the "InfoStash PenDrive": a tiny device yet, thanks to its integrated PDF417 barcode, it can hold the details of 5 entire business cards in an area the size of a postage stamp. The "417" in its name signifies its design of 4 bars and spaces spread over 17 units.


Anatomy of PDF417 Barcode

The barcode is made up of multiple linear rows that resemble multiple one-dimensional barcodes stacked on top of each other. Here are the primary elements of a PDF417 barcode:

Start and Stop Patterns: 

These are patterns on either side of the barcode that allow scanners to recognize the beginning and end of the PDF417 barcode.

Data Columns: 

The barcode is divided into columns of data, with each column containing multiple rows.

Error Correction Codewords: 

This ensures that the data can be read even if a portion of the barcode is damaged.

Row Indicators: 

These are present at the beginning of each row and provide information about the row's position and the barcode's overall structure.

Data Compaction of PDF417 Barcode

PDF417 uses different methods to compact data to enable the storage of a significant amount of information. Let's explore each below:

Text Compaction: 

This mode allows for the storage of letters, numbers, and some special characters. It's the most efficient mode for storing text.

Byte Compaction: 

Used for storing binary data and can represent all 256 possible byte values.

Numeric Compaction: 

The most efficient mode for storing long strings of numbers.

Variants of PDF417 Barcodes

While PDF417 is the standard, there are also variants of this barcode to suit specialized needs. We will explore each variant below:


This is a truncated version of the PDF417 barcode. It's designed for applications where space is at a premium and a traditional PDF417 barcode would be too large.

Compact PDF417: 

As the name suggests, this version is more compact than the standard PDF417 but typically has a storage capacity of up to 1500 alphanumeric characters, compared to the standard's 1850 characters.

Pros of PDF417 Barcodes

Here are some of the advantages that PDF417 barcodes offer:

High Data Capacity: 

PDF417 barcodes can hold up to about 1.1 kilobytes of machine-readable data which makes them suitable for applications requiring the storage of more information.

Error Correction: 

They come with built-in error correction which allows for data recovery even if a portion of the barcode is damaged or obscured.


It can encode a variety of data types, including text, numbers, and binary data.

Multi-row Format: 

Since it is a stacked barcode, it can be more compact in width than linear barcodes of the same data length.


Due to their complexity and high data capacity, PDF417 barcodes can be used for security applications, such as ID cards and driver's licenses.


The barcode does not need to be linked to an external database to provide the necessary information; the data is stored directly within the barcode.

Cons of PDF417 Barcodes

While PDF417 barcodes offer numerous advantages, they have their own limitations. Some of them include:


PDF417 can be larger than other 2D barcodes (like QR codes) when encoding the same amount of data.

Scanner Requirement: 

Not all barcode scanners can read PDF417. Specialized scanners equipped to read 2D barcodes are required.

Printing Constraints: 

Due to its size and complexity, higher resolution printers are often required to print clear, readable PDF417 barcodes. This can lead to increased printing costs.

Lack of Global Standardization: 

While PDF417 is used internationally, it's not as universally recognized or standardized as some other barcode formats.

Processing Time: 

Since they can hold more data, it might take slightly longer to decode and process than simpler, smaller barcodes.


They may not be as aesthetically pleasing or as easily integrated into design elements as some other 2D barcode options, like QR codes.

pdf417 bar code

Applications of PDF417 Barcodes

PDF417 barcodes have found applications across various industries. Some of them include:

Identification Cards: 

Many jurisdictions use PDF417 barcodes on their driver's licenses and ID cards to store personal data securely.


Airlines and transportation services often use PDF417 barcodes on boarding passes and tickets for rapid check-ins and to ensure authenticity.


Patient identification bracelets in hospitals may have PDF417 barcodes to store medical records, ensuring quick access to vital information during treatments.


Some retailers use PDF417 barcodes to track inventory and manage product details, especially for items that require a significant amount of data storage.

Logistics and Shipping: 

PDF417 barcodes are utilized on shipping labels and manifests for detailed tracking information, shipment contents, and origin-destination data to be stored efficiently.

Document Management: 

Companies and organizations use PDF417 barcodes on documents to store meta-information, facilitate indexing, or ensure document authenticity.

We hope our article has now left you with a better understanding of what PDF417 barcodes are and how they are utilized.  

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like our article on barcode verifiers or our article on what a code 39 barcode is. 

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