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How do I scan QR codes?

QR codes are almost everywhere, they encode URLs, phone numbers, WiFi access data, business cards and much more. In this post we describe what you need to scan QR codes.

As the codes are so popular, it's not surprising that most recent smartphones can be used to scan QR codes. Today, the cameras on most smartphones are easily good enough to detect, recognize and decode a QR code even under not so good lighting conditions. While there are dedicated apps that specialize in scanning barcodes (the free Google Barcode Scanner being the prime example), you can also use the built-in "Camera" app - provided you have a somewhat recent device.

On iOS, the "Camera" app can scan QR codes out of the box since iOS 11. On Android, the availability depends on the individual manufacturer. However, it is safe to assume that all major brands (Samsung, Huawei / Honor, Xiaomi etc.) support reading QR codes for several years now. The same goes for the Google Pixel, which supports QR codes since the Pixel 3. Note that it may be necessary to manually activate the QR scanning function in the respective app's settings, that again depends on the manufacturer.

Scan QR codes with the Camera app

Let's look at an example (all codes below were created with the Softmatic QR Designer for Illustrator, the screenshots are from a current iPhone with iOS 15). This QR code encodes the text "QR Scanner Demo":

Screenshot: QR Scanner Demo Code

Aiming the smartphone camera at the code, the QR is detected and scanned, the text "QR Scanner Demo" shown under the code. Note that you don't have to take a photo of the code - the detection happens in real time from the camera's live image.

Depending on the encoded data, the camera app will offer choices on what to actually do with the data. Being plain text, we are offered to search for the text:

Screenshot: QR Scanner App Text

Tapping the button will launch the default browser (Safari in this case) and load Google, the search phrase already filled in (on Android devices, the default browser and search engine depend on the manufacturer).

Scan QR code with URL, web address

QR codes can also contain structured data, the most common case being web addresses or URLs. The following QR code contains the URL "https://softmatic.com":

Screenshot: QR Scanner Demo Code URL

Here, the camera app will offer to directly launch the linked site in the browser; a very useful shortcut that explains the popularity of QR codes for marketing and similar purposes:

Screenshot: QR Scanner App URL Web Address

Scan QR code with a phone number

Finally, an example QR code with a phone number (+18005551234):

Screenshot: QR Scanner Demo Code Phone Number

Again, the phone number is detected as such and the camera app offers to dial the encoded number:

Screenshot: QR Scanner App Phone Number

Tapping the round yellow button in the bottom right brings up a context menu; the available options depend on the encoded data. With plain text, there are commands to copy the text to the clipboard. With contact data like the phone number, a range of more options is offered, like creating a new contact or sending a message:

Screenshot: QR Scanner App Contacts Business Card

Tips for scanning QR codes with your cellphone

  • The code must appear "sharp" in the camera's live view for the detection to work. If the camera can't focus on the code, the recognition rate will go down rapidly. In most cases this comes from being too close to the code. With a standard smartphone camera (26mm equivalent focal length) the best reading distance is at around 15-20cm (6-8") for standard sized codes (25-50mm or 1-2 inches on each side).
  • The camera app can not detect if the encoded URL leads to a "bad" or nefarious website. Exercise caution before blindly following links.
  • Same goes for phone numbers which may be premium-rate numbers ("900").
  • QR code can encode the complete Unicode character set, including accented and diacritic characters and non-latin scripts. It depends on the scanner app if that kind of content will be displayed correctly. We provide some sample QR code with non-ASCII data on our page QR code explained which you can use for testing.

Online scanners for QR codes

When reading a code with a smartphone is not an option, online scanners come to the rescue. We recommend Google Zxing which uses the same QR recognition engine as many Android scanner and camera apps. Codes need to be in either JPEG or PNG format. If you have codes in any other format (SVG, PDF etc.), simply make a screenshot and upload that to Zxing.

Dedicated barcode scanners for QR code

Standard CCD or laser barcode scanners (aka "1D scanners", for one dimensional) will not scan QR codes - or any other 2D barcode for that matter. Same goes for old fashioned barcode wands. Devices that scan QR codes go by the name "barcode imager" or "2D scanner", they mostly use cameras for detection much like a smartphone. Manufacturers include Metrologic / Honeywell, Datalogic plus a large number of chinese vendors. Prices start at $100 for basic USB-connected models, at $150 for cordless devices with Bluetooth.

Create your own QR codes

The Softmatic QR Code Designer for Illustrator can be downloaded here. We also provide QR code extensions for Photoshop and InDesign, see here.

Want to know more? Read QR codes explained.