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EDIFACT: The universal message standard

What is EDIFACT?

EDIFACT is the abbreviation for Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport. This is a global set of rules defined by the UN for the inter-company electronic data exchange (EDI) between two or more business partners via EDI.

Structure of an EDIFACT message

Like any language, the EDIFACT rules are based on a character set to be used, the vocabulary (data elements) and grammar (syntax).

Based on the data elements, data element groups/segments of the syntax and the guidelines for the development of message types, globally applicable uniform messages are created. The syntax contains rules according to which the messages exchanged between the communication partners can be structured uniformly, i.e. equally well understandable for all participants, regardless of the hardware and software used. In addition, the syntax allows the user to optimise the transfer files so that only the content actually required is transferred.

The segments and data elements are variable in length. Unlike fixed-length data records, their contents do not have to be filled with blanks or zeros. Only the segments, data element groups and data elements for which content exists in the current message are transferred. This leads to significant savings in data transmission overhead.


UN/EDIFACT syntax/ISO 9735
Elements Segments Messages

United Nations trade data in the business directory

For example:
Date, time, unit of measure, quantity, city, street (on... 35)
variable field length

Functional grouping of data elements
  • Mandatory/can elements
  • Syntax rules
For example:
NAD = name & address
= variable segment length
Grouping of segments to describe business processes
  • Mandatory/can elements
  • Syntax rules
For example:
Invoice, order

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The EDIFACT syntax

The EDIFACT Syntax defines the following facts:

Usable character sets

Two character sets are currently defined to display the message contents:

  • Typ A: printable characters only
  • Typ B: printable characters and all characters of the 7- and 8-bit code permitted in data communication.
Data elements

This is the basic module that represents information, e.g. the article number. A data element is comparable to a data field. The data elements are always in a defined sequence within a segment. They can be identified in the segment by their position.

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