Thursday 18 March 2021

Barcode added to 2nd class business sheet stamps: improved facilities for customers, and possible anti-fraud device.

Royal Mail is adding barcodes to a limited number of 2nd Class stamps from March 23rd, as part of the company's extensive modernisation drive. The unique barcodes are poised to pave the way for innovative customer services and benefits in future.

New 2nd class business sheet Machin definitive with datamatrix code.
Click on all images to see enlarged versions

The initial pilot will see the new-look barcodes appear on around 20 million 2nd Class stamps supplied to UK businesses through the retailer Viking Direct and through Royal Mail online channels.

These first trial stamps will not be available from Post Offices but are being distributed by Royal Mail philatelic.  However as these are a different product not normally supplied, a new arrangement has been made.  All normal category preferences (strip, pair, 2/3, cylinder, gutter) have been combined into a single offer.  Royal Mail recognise that 

customers getting the most simple and basic item will of course say 'I normally get xyz'...but they need to bear in mind this xyz comes from a completely different type of sheet.

Indeed even we dealers are only being supplied with 5 singles or complete business sheets at this stage. 

No coil printing

Both the singles and stamps on first day covers have been cut/peeled from the business sheets.  There has not been a special printing for application to first day covers as there is, for example, with tariff change stamps.

The barcodes, which will match the stamp colour, will sit alongside the main body of the stamp, separated by a simulated perforation line.

According to Royal Mail the move forms part of its ongoing modernisation drive aimed at bringing even greater convenience to its customers. 

But we would be surprised if they missed the opportunity to do more to combat the widespread use of forged stamps with each stamp incorporating a different datamatrix code.

Nick Landon, Chief Commercial Officer at Royal Mail, said: 'This initiative will see Royal Mail become one of the first postal authorities in the world to add unique barcodes to stamps. By doing this, we are looking to transform the humble stamp so that we can offer our customers even more convenient, new services in the future.

Datamatrix codes

The stamps use datamatrix technology which means that every stamp will be different.  The so-called 2D-barcode at the right of the new stamp will be scanned on use, and any reuse could show that the stamp has already been used.  Of course if these stamps too are forged but all have the same code pattern, every one of them should be rejected.  There are no die-cuts where the blue printed 'perforations' appear.

Anybody with a smartphone can use a QR-reader app to decode the information in the datamatrix (DM) code on this stamp. For those who don't, the code reads 

JGB S11231017031159975990006623112001   0CC21532C9BBE27301

Some of this data is the same on every stamp, but some strings of characters vary.  


UPDATE 23 March (yes, I know it's apparently random, but this is illustrated above!)   Eagle-eyed readers have spotted that the 231120 is probably the printing date of 23 November 2020, and at least the 66 is the current price.  I don't think that is coincidence, but it does make you wonder whether we will find a new price before the new price is announced! 


UPDATE 22 March: my thanks to an eBay seller who was 'identifying' the stamps that you would receive, individually.  The datastring includes a sheet number, and a stamp number within the sheet.  The bigger surprise was that these are numbered 1-100, sort of. 

These are the first two stamps on a sheet, on the header.

These are the last two stamps on the next sheet, on pane 5.  On this you can also see the iridescent printing showing the M21L MBIL coding.

Royal Mail 2021 2nd class Datamatrix coded stamps with iridescent codes M21L MBIL


These are the datamatrix codes from the first two followed by the last two

Two sets of Royal Mail datamatrix codes showing stamp numbers 01 - 100

Now this may mean that first sheet number 41338 has 01-50 and the second has 51-00, but the last digit of the sheet number increments as well, so maybe there is no sheet number as such and the stamp numbers simply increment from a starting point through to the end.  Obviously whatever the lead characters on the datastring the first will end 01, and the last will therefore be 50, followed by 51-x00.

It will be interesting to see just where the numbers are contstant, and where they change in the strong before the highlighted characters.

Does it matter?  I think the answer must be, "we don't know yet", but assuming this continues into next year, at some point the year code will change to M22L.  I'm guessing that those who study these things intensely will want to find the lowest number stamp for the new year, just as they presently log the lowest and highest sheet number on the back of headers for each printing date.

Similarly if the practice continues to booklets then which other characters will change?  IS there in fact a part of the code we see here that indicates that it is from a business sheet rather than counter sheet or booklet?  

Time will tell.

These stamps are produced in sheets of only 50, rather than 100, so the bar-code for point of sale use is new.  The top panel has two stamps, and is followed by four panes of 12 stamps, in three rows of 4. The whole is narrower than the existing sheets, each panel being 170 x 100 mm.


A further surprise is that not only is the stamp wider due to the addition of the DM code, it is taller, as this comparison with a 2017 counter sheet stamp shows.  The dimensions of the design are 34 x 27 mm, the stamp being 38 x 30 mm.

The normal security features remain, with the U-shaped cuts at the foot, and the iridescent printing, although the text and U-cuts are scaled up in line with the size of the stamp and the letters are more or less in the same place as on the smaller stamp.  As expected the source code is MBIL and the year code is M21L.  There is no date or sheet number on the reverse of these first supplies.

As this is likely to be the first of a completely new range of stamps I have decided to start a new range of Norvic numbers.  These have '50' as the first two digits, then follow the same pattern as the stamps they replace. Finally the year code reverts to a single digit. Replacing 2911B.20, the small 2nd class business sheet stamp with year code M20L, this one is 5011B.1.

First Day Covers

We are servicing a few first day covers for this stamp.  If the trial is successful and other values are produced we will add the others so as to produce double-dates covers for as many as we can.

In addition to Royal Mail's usual Windsor and Tallents House First Day of Issue postmarks there is now one for Swindon which is where Royal Mail's engineering and technology development unit is based.  (Thanks to Stuart 'Post & Go' Leigh for noticing this.)

Sponsored handstamp for date of issue of these datamatrix stamps.

UPDATE 18 October. Although none of these have yet been seen on commercial mail, Royal Mail are trying a new postmark layout aimed to ensure that the code is not obscured.  This despite our testing of used examples showing that existing postmarks are no problem in scanning with a QR-code reader. 

Trial postmark layout Bristol IMP 6 October 2021

Printer etc.

The stamps are printed by ISP/Walsall in gravure, perf 15 x 14½ with backing paper SBP2 with small upright text above Large inverted (suLisiLu).  We don't know what type of machine is used; it might have been sheet-fed for this trial run, or it may be web.

Technical Details (not provided by Royal Mail).

The datamatrix code is printed by a digital ink-jet printer with what seems to be a glossy UV coating (more specifically using a Digital Inkjet Spot UV Coater).  These operate on sheets and at least one company printing in this way uses Artificial Intelligence alignment to make sure the 'varnish' is properly positioned even if the sheet it is being applied to is misaligned or the precise area slightly distorted.

The stamp itself is gravure printed in a single colour.  Below are some pictures of the datamatrix code area which show that it is printed in 4 colour process, topped with a layer of possibly waterproof varnish.

20x magnification under light, showing how light is reflected from UV varnish.

2400 dpi scan revealing magenta dots misaligned so that some are above the edge of the cyan.

400x magnification showing uneven 'splash' of magenta at random (which shows as darker blue), and more rounded and sharp black dots, possibly regularly spaced (further investigation needed on these).

UPDATE 27 July 2021

I have been sent information about the new "advanced hybrid print, finishing and inspection systems for barcoding of postage stamps."   I'll write this up separately soon, but in the meantime you can read it at Digital Labels & Packaging website.

Use of Datamatrix codes on other countries' stamps

Datamatrix codes in the post are not new despite Royal Mail's claims, although the way that they are going to be used probably is.  In the USA a similar code has been used on machine vended stamps as far back as at least 2001.  

Block of 4 Neopost Online 'stamps', USA, 2001.

La Poste in France introduced stamps with the code in 2015, but the code is the same on all the stamps, and continues on the following design, so possibly only indicates the service being performed - they are used on international mail rather than internal.  Both types of these have been forged (the forgeries are below the genuine.)

Most recently, Deutsche Post in Germany introduced DM codes with the first new stamp being issued in February 2021.  Unlike the French and British ones, the German codes are all to be printed in black.  Consequently German postmarks have been changed from black to blue (as with modern franking machines) to avoid 'interference' of the code reader.

February 2021 Germany stamp with datamatrix code 🔍.

This shows how the code will be incorporated into other sizes of stamps used in Germany.  The familiar flower definitives will be wider by almost 50%.  Note that in the first two examples one is taller after the addition of the code, while the other is shorter.

Click on image to see enlarged version. 🔍
New German blue postmark (stamp applied sideways)

One of the new stamps issued by Germany marks the 50th anniversary of a children's television cartoon mouse 'Die Maus'.  What separates this from the others is that the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) channel has produced a programme for children to show how the stamp was produced.

UPDATE 26 November: The original programme link no longer works, but a reader in Germany has sent another.  I believe this contains a lot of the same material but some different.  I have not checked the timing to see whether the detail mentioned below is still accurate.  Click here.

You can see the whole programme, in German, here, for the present.  Whilst the whole programme is interesting, and even more so if you can actually understand German, rather than just getting the gist of the commentary, the key parts for collectors are as follows (all times approximate)

6m 50 - web printing, laying down the colours  - pale orange, then the normal process colours cyan, yellow, magenta and black.  This is followed by 'Maus orange' as a specific colour, rather than being produced by a mix of CMYK.  

8m 30 highlights the Datamatrix code, or absence of it on the stamps so far, and the video then proceeds to show these being applied to the stamps, every one different as with Royal Mails.  The printing machine is, in fact, a web printer, so our research which suggested only sheet printing, missed something!  However, the coverage is very brief so we don't know whether these have the Spot UV Coating which may only be possible on sheets.  

9m 45 shows the die-cutter which enables the stamps to be removed from the backing paper, as the matrix is not removed as it is in the UK.   The roll is then cut into sheets, and stacks of sheets are guillotined into saleable size of 10 stamps (in booklet form).   A smartphone app shows how information about the stamps can be found by scanning the code.

11m 30 shows a sorting machine at the Briefzentrum (Mail Centre) though this is understandably short on footage aimed at a young audience.   That section is the last non-animation, apart from a music segment and a 'clunk-click' safety section near then end.

If anybody can provide a synopsis of the German commentary I would be pleased to include it here.

UPDATE 22 March

My thanks to Larry in the US for drawing my attention to the latest developments of La Poste in France. Known as 'Timbres Suivi' (should that be Suivis?) these stamps (in books of 9!) have unique datamatrix codes.  The important detail of the code is printed on the stamp, and on the booklet matrix, so when the stamp is used the sender retains the code.  As you will see from the left-hand page of the cover, the letter can be posted in a normal box. After which either through the website, or mobile app, or telephone, the sender can check whether the letter has been delivered.  


That certainly isn't possible with these Royal Mail stamps unless they get a receipt at the Post Office branch after the stamps are scanned - which means queueing for just that, or if they scan it and make a note of the code - but which part of the 50-odd character string is relevant?  Who knows until more information if made available on how these are to be used?


  1. I can see them doing it with all denominations. It could lead the way for them not having to frank mail. As long as all old stamps can still be used or there will be a scramble to sell old stock fast.

  2. Well That was unexpected, but a great new addition for Machin collectors.

  3. I am not old enough to remember, but how long were George VI stamps valid for after the Queen came to the throne in 1952? Could the same happen to the current definitives when Charles accedes. Be a way to phase out the non barcode ones.

    1. George V and later were valid until 29 February 1972.

    2. And I presume that was prompted more by currency decimalisation, than anything to do with the monarch featured on the stamp(s).

  4. This is an interesting development. Let's hope the Royal Mail have the machinery to detect forgeries! But if they still do not bother cancelling them, the Royal Mail will continue to lose money.

    1. Doesn't this mean there's less/no need to cancel? If the barcode is scanned in the sorting process and detected as "used" it will be identified as surchargeable. That should mean a higher detection rate - though maybe not an equally higher rate of recovery. Plus there's a deterrent factor; if it's general knowledge that these won't get through on second usage people won't chance it.

      I guess there will still be forgeries made; like the French ones seen they could end up with repeated barcodes. These will then appear on eBay at discount prices and some buyers may still be tempted (or oblivious).

  5. Singles (DS1199) and sheets (DS1200) are now available to pre-order on the RM website. Of course, completeness now out of the question, with each Datamatrix code being different :-)


  6. The first Belgian stamps with a Datamatrix code were issued in January 2019, one definitive depicting King Philippe and one 'MyStamp' for individual designs and deaths announcements. Both are issued for priority mail (inland standard size) and the matrix code allows to separate priority mail (delivered the next day) from the other mail (delivered later). If one wants to use other stamps on priority mail, a counter printed label (with a matrix code) has to be added to cover the difference.

  7. I don't know anything about QR codes - but in theory how many individually datamatrix codes are possible? If this is rolled out across all denominations surely there is a finite amount of stamps that can be produced?

    1. Fun to speculate, but if this pilot is successful my guess is that it will be extended to 1st & 2nd (standard and large) in the usual formats in the first instance since these seem to be the focus for forgeries. Time will tell, but it has livened-up Machin collecting!

    2. Each square in the data matrix is either on or off. There's 15 x 23 squares in the top half. A little bit of maths suggests there's at least 7 followed by 103 zeroes possible codes.

      This is only looking at the top half, and doesn't take into account error checking procedures but suffice to say there's plenty of codes.

    3. Thanks Chris.
      As you know we can’t expect any technical details from Royal Mail.

  8. Is this the "yes, I know [but] I can't tell you anything" 2nd class development that you mentioned on the 7th of March (or do we still have that to look forward to)?

  9. Initially I thought this stamp will just be a business sheet variation and can be included in the business sheets section of the collection. However, will all Machin stamps (not just NVIs) have the barcode attachment eventually - counter sheets and retail books ? In which case will they not form a new collecting group like watermark changes in the past. The introduction of phosphor bands led to the introduction of a brand new section of the Wilding definitives.

  10. sorry my eyes are getting a little worn out, is the blue perforation line just printed?

  11. An interesting read and a development I like. This will make collecting Machins even more interesting. I'm thinking that in a few years, with a unique barcode on each stamp, those kiloware bags of Machins are going to become complete collections in their own right.

    As to forgeries, will anyone bother to forge them, if you can still use non barcode stamps?

  12. Can the data matrix be removed from the stamp? Or is it integral to the design. I understand there's simulated perforations but if someone guillotines the data matrix off does that invalidate the whole stamp? I'm guessing the larger size will help identify such issues.

  13. Unless they stop the use of the normal stamps its a waste ot time to call them a forgery deterrent!

    1. This is currently a trial - if it works we will probably see more coded stamps and tracking/counterfeit detection. If just the 1st, 2nd and Large stamps are coded this will still make a massive difference to counterfeit and used stamp (unfranked) detection.

  14. Not according to Her Maj. Apparently she has been asked on more than one occasion about updating the portrait but has declined to do so. She has the final say on this or so I have been told.

  15. It seems bizarre to me that if you order this item from Royal Mail Online, not only is postage free but it comes Special Delivery Guaranteed By 1pm, but if you order from Royal Mail Stamps and Collectibles you have to pay £1.45 including a handling charge!

    1. It may be better to pay the £1.45 handling fee if the stamps are in the usual protective sleeve. Mine have just arrived as you say post free Special Delivery in a soft plastic envelope with no stiffening and of course the stamps are creased, no good for collecting.

    2. Mine came the same and I just got away with no damage to the pack! I would have thought that RM would have done better after spending £33 on the Stamps. RW

    3. Those bought from the business section of Royal Mail's shop are for use by businesses. You paid £33 for £33-pounds worth of postage, but for no special packaging. Condition isn't important as long as they are saleable/usable.

      They are sent by SD because RM guarantee that the retailer reselling (booklets, rather than business sheets) or small business user needs them quickly.

  16. Received the single 2nd class barcode stamp this morning, along with a 'First'. the 'First' says that the perfs are 15 x 14.5. They look more like 15 x 15 to me.

    1. They are 15 x 14.5 - the old fashioned 2cm rule will show the upright slap bang through the middle of the hole, if the other is through the middle of the tooth.

  17. why is the 2cm rule old fashioned? It is the only rule for philatelists to establish precisely a perforation gauge!

    1. I referred to it as old-fashioned because most philatelists use a reliable gauge such as the Gibbons 'Instanta', which is also good for spotting compound perfs.

  18. Hi Ian, good to see the Royal Mail actually thinking along the correct lines. Could be a whole new collection over many years in the future including change in Monarchs head.

    Regards Peter

  19. Some time ago, I had a chance to examine a full sheet of these. This sheet, like most, was printed on SBP2u backing paper. My barcode scanner revealed a date of 231120 for this sheet, the same as yours.

    I also received a single copy from the bureau on the day of issue. More unusually, this was printed on SBP2i backing paper. My barcode scanner revealed a different date of 021120.

    I just had chance to examine a header printed on SBP2i backing paper. The scanner revealed the date 021120 again.

    For lovers of Machin trivia (me), there seems to a bit more difference than just SBP2i and SBP2u.

    Of course, this way lies insanity. But it is too late for me ...

  20. Provisional SG Catalogue Number for this Stamp is U4500. Information from May GSM.

  21. Four months later has anyone worked out what is meant here by "so that we can offer our customers even more convenient, new services in the future"?
    Presumably not for 66p !

  22. Ian,
    I’ve been looking through Royal Mail’s “Our services” booklet “Valid from 1 January 2021” and under “Our Standard UK services” it states that “Online delivery confirmation is available for 1st Class and 2nd Class Small and Medium Parcels” adding “Please note that online delivery confirmation is not available for Letter and Large letter items or when customers use 1st Class or 2nd Class stamps”.
    I don’t know because I always use my own postage stamps but I suspect that the 2 D barcodes on Horizon Labels scanned at the Post Office produce a reference number that’s printed on the receipt and that “online delivery confirmation” is available after it has been scanned again by the delivery post(wo)man.
    If scanned only twice like that it is equivalent to the “Signed For” service, but without a signature of course, rather than Tracked ( some Signed For some not ) or Special Delivery which are additionally scanned at Outward and Inward Mail Centres.
    If it is thus based on Horizon Labels then “not available …. when customers use 1st Class or 2nd Class stamps” really means “not available … when customers use any postage stamps” so that is yet another nail in the coffin for proper stamps. We can still use up all those surplus post 1971 mint stamps but we’ll miss out on the delivery confirmation.
    Though “not available for Letter and Large letter” items, such as this 2ND barcoded stamp would be used on, there is surely the possibility of barcoded stamps being used for Small and Medium Parcels, the barcode on the new 2ND barcode stamp being equivalent to that on a Horizon Label and putting a barcoded stamp on a parcel not being much different to putting a Horizon Label on, and potentially quicker because it’s already been printed. I’m not suggesting this is likely, and I never expected a return of something like the five annual £1.30 to £1.60 High Value Machins we well remember from the mid-1980s, but there are fewer weight steps than in the past and it would only take three barcoded NVI stamps, that would currently sell for £3.20, £3.85 and £5.57, to cover the millions of Small Parcels posted at Post Offices each year.

  23. In fact if you PART pay in stamps and the balance is completed by Horizon label, then you will get the 2D barcode on the label. It isn’t trackable on the website as far as I know, but you can get confirmation if you phone customer services. (This may have changed since I last looked).

    1. Ian,
      Thanks for that.
      My ignorance is from always paying all the postage from the hundreds of proper postage stamps I don't mind using up !


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