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PDF barcode form fields

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This document explains the PDF barcode form fields in Acrobat. (If you are looking for more information on form fields properties, click the appropriate link above.)


About barcodes

Barcode fields translate a user’s form entries into a visual pattern that can be scanned, interpreted, and incorporated into a database. Barcodes are helpful when users submit the form on paper or by fax.

The advantages of using barcodes are that they save time, eliminate the need for responses to be manually read and recorded, and bypass data-entry errors that can occur.

A typical barcode workflow includes the following phases:

  • The form author makes sure that Automatically Calculate Field Values is selected in the forms preferences, and then creates the form in Acrobat, setting up all the other fields as usual.

  • The form author adds the barcode field to the form, setting up the barcode so that it captures the needed data.

  • The form author enables the form for Acrobat Reader users (if the author wants to allow the users to save their own filled-in copy of the form or if it contains certain barcode fields).

  • The form author distributes the form to other users.

  • Users fill in the form on their computers and submit it electronically or print a copy and deliver the copy to the form distributor.

  • The received barcode data is interpreted in one of the following ways, and can then be reviewed, sorted, and used by the form receiver:

    Forms faxed to a fax server

    The form receiver can use Adobe Acrobat Capture® to collect TIFF images from the fax server and place them in an Adobe LiveCycle Barcoded Forms Decoder watched folder, if the receiver owns those products.

    Forms delivered on paper

    The form receiver can scan paper forms and then use an application such as LiveCycle Barcoded Forms Decoder to decode the barcodes within those forms.


Acrobat Capture and LiveCycle Barcoded Forms Decoder are stand-alone products appropriate for enterprise workflows and are sold separately from Acrobat.

Design tips for barcodes

Issues that affect how you design and place barcodes include usability and space. As an example, the barcode size can also limit the amount of data that can be encoded. For the best results, follow these guidelines.

  • Position the barcode so that it’s unlikely to get folded when placed in an envelope, and position it far enough from the edges of the page so that it won’t get clipped off during printing or faxing.

  • Position it so that it can be easily seen and scanned. If a handheld scanner will be used, avoid barcodes wider than 4 inches (10.3 cm). Tall, narrow barcodes generally work best in this case. Also, avoid compressing the contents of the barcode when using a handheld scanner.

  • Make sure that the size of the barcode can accommodate the amount of data to encode. If the barcode area is too small, it turns a solid gray. Be sure to test a completed form before distributing it to make sure that the barcode area is large enough.

Create, test, and edit barcode fields

One of the ways in which you can improve a PDF form barcode is by creating custom scripts. Writing such scripts requires a basic competency with JavaScript and a familiarity with Acrobat-specific JavaScript. For more information, see Developing Acrobat®Applications Using JavaScript™ on (PDF, English only). For information about basic JavaScript, see any of the many resources available on that subject.


After inserting a barcode of maximum size, changing the cell size or decode condition may cause the barcode to cross the page borders. Avoid this behavior by selecting the appropriate cell size and decode conditions for the barcode.

Add a barcode field

  1. Open the form in Acrobat. Open the Preferences dialog box (Edit > Preferences), and select Forms on the left. Then select Automatically Calculate Field Values.

  2. Choose Tools > Prepare Form.

  3. Click the Barcode icon in the toolbar.

  4. Drag a rectangle to define the barcode area, and then double-click the barcode field to open the Properties dialog box.
  5. In the Value tab, do one of the following:
    • Select Encode Using, and then select a format (XML or Tab Delimited). Click the Pick button and select the fields that you want to be encoded in the barcode field. If you don’t want to include the field names in the barcode data, deselect Include Field Names.

    • Select Custom Calculation Script, click Edit, and then enter your custom JavaScript code in the JavaScript Editor dialog box.

  6. In the Options tab, do all of the following:
    • Select a Symbology option: PDF417, QR Code, or Data Matrix.

    • Select Compress Data Before Encoding To Barcode if you want to apply this compression. Do not select this option if a handheld scanner is used to capture data from returned forms.

    • In Decode Condition, choose the type of hardware to process returned forms: Handheld Barcode Scanner, Fax Server, Document Scanner, or Custom.

    • If necessary, click Custom and enter values for X Dimension, Y/X Ratio, and Error Correction Level.

  7. Make any other changes in the General and Actions tabs. Then close the Barcode Field Properties dialog box.

    JavaScript code is generated automatically to encode the selected fields in the XML or Tab Delimited format. The Barcode Field Properties dialog box closes, and the barcode for which you specified values appears on the form.


    If you add a new field to a form after you have created the barcode, it is not automatically included in the data for existing barcodes. However, you can manually include additional data fields in the barcode.

Test a barcode field

  1. Click the Preview button in the toolbar.

  2. Fill in the form. Use sample data that represents the maximum amount of information for each field or that you expect users to enter.
  3. If the barcode field is dimmed, follow either the procedure for resizing the barcode field or for adjusting the content data. (See the following tasks.)
  4. Make sure that the barcode field area is large enough to contain all of the incoming data. To remove the sample data, in the right hand pane, choose More > Clear Form.

  5. Select File > Save.

The barcode form field is now ready for distribution.

Include additional data fields in the barcode

  1. If you are not in the form editing mode, choose Tools > Prepare Form.

  2. Double-click the barcode field.
  3. In the Value tab, do one of the following:
    • If Encode Using is selected, click Pick, and select additional form fields to be encoded.

    • If Custom Calculation Script is selected, click Edit, and write additional JavaScript to include the additional fields.

After including new data fields in the barcode, be sure that the barcode area is large enough by testing sample data. If the barcode area is dimmed, adjust the barcode size or text field properties so that the data content fits into the barcode area.

Adjust data content to fit in a barcode field

  1. If you are not in the form editing mode, choose Tools > Prepare Form.

  2. Double-click the barcode field, and do any of the following:

    • In the Options tab, click the Custom button and enter lower values for Error Correction Level and Y/X Ratio.

    • In the Options tab, select Compress Data Before Encoding To Barcode, but only if you are using an Adobe software decoder (available separately).

    • In the Value tab, select Tab Delimited rather than XML as the data-encoding format. XML requires more barcode area to encode information than Tab Delimited does.

    • In the Options tab, select a different Symbology option.

    • In the Value tab, click the Pick button, and deselect any fields that don’t need encoding. For example, don’t include fields with redundant information.

    • In the Value tab, enter a custom script that converts user-entered text to either all lowercase or all uppercase characters during the encoding process.


    The National Association of Computerized Tax Processors (NACTP) guidelines, used by the United States Internal Revenue Service and state tax agencies, recommend using all uppercase characters for 2D barcode data.

  3. To minimize the amount of barcode area for containing the data, double-click the barcode field, and in the Value tab, write a custom script that restricts data to alphanumeric characters and to a single case. (Text that is either all uppercase or all lowercase requires less barcode area than the same text written in a mixture of uppercase and lowercase characters.)

Consider creating additional barcode fields in the form and mapping different data to each barcode field.

Set form field navigation

If a PDF document doesn’t have a specified tab order, the default tabbing order is based on the document structure unless the user has deselected the Tab Order option in the Accessibility preferences.

You can change the tabbing order after you create the fields. If you are in form editing mode, you can order the tabs by document structure (default), row, or column. You can also choose the order manually by dragging and dropping fields in the Fields panel. If you are not in the editing mode, you can change the page properties to order the tabs by row or column. However, you can’t customize the tab order manually.

Set tabbing order in edit mode

  1. If you are not in form editing mode, choose Tools > Prepare Form.

  2. In the Fields panel on the right, make sure that you have selected Sort By > Tab Order.

  3. (Optional) To view the tabbing order for the fields, in the Fields panel, choose Tab Orders > Show Tab Numbers.

  4. Select a Tab Order option:

    Order Tabs By Structure

    Tabs based on the document structure, and follows the order that is set up in the tagging.

    Order Tabs By Row

    Tabs from the upper-left field, moving first left to right and then down, one row at a time.

    Order Tabs By Column

    Tabs from the upper-left field, moving first from top to bottom and then across from left to right, one column at a time.

    Order Tabs Manually

    Allows you to drag and drop a field where you want it within the Fields panel. You can’t move a field to a different page, a radio button to another group, or a field to a radio button.

    Order Tabs Unspecified

    Specifies that no tab order is specified. The tab order is determined by the settings in the page properties.

Set tabbing order in Page Properties

  1. If you are in the form editing mode, click the cross button towards the right in the toolbar to exit the mode.

  2. Click the Page Thumbnails button  or choose View > Show/Hide > Navigation Panes > Page Thumbnails to open the Page Thumbnails panel.

  3. Select one or more page icons, and choose Page Properties in the Options menu of the Page Thumbnails panel. You can also righ-click and then choose Page Properties.

  4. Select a Tab Order option:

    Use Row Order

    Tabs from the upper-left field, moving first left to right and then down, one row at a time.

    Use Column Order

    Tabs from the upper-left field, moving first from top to bottom and then across from left to right, one column at a time.

    Use Document Structure

    For forms with tagged fields, follows the order set up in the tagging.


    Uses the existing sequence.

  5. Click OK.

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