November 20th, 2021

UN/EDIFACT stands for 'United Nations/Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport, however, most just call it EDIFACT. A simplified definition would be that it’s an international standard format developed by the United Nations (UN) for electronic data exchange between trading partners via EDI (Electronic Data Interchange)—but there’s a lot more to it, of course.

The UN/EDIFACT standard was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1987 as the ISO 9735 standard, which includes a set of internationally agreed upon standards, directories, and guidelines for the electronic exchange of structured data between independent automated information systems.

The UN/EDIFACT standard was initially developed for trade and transport management, but over the years, its use has been expanded to include accounting, customs control, pensions, health care, social insurance, jurisprudence, employment, statistics, construction, finance, insurance, production, tourism, trade, freight, and container transport.

What is EDIFACT?

An extended definition of EDIFACT would be that it’s a structured data language that can describe all types of commercial activities due to its unique format. To be a little more specific, it provides a hierarchical structure for electronic messages. The EDIFACT standard and overall message structure can be used for many document types (invoices, purchase orders, packing slips, etc.). The data is broken down into elements and segments, both of which consist of commonly understood country- and industry-specific EDIFACT specifications that are further broken down into EDIFACT subsets. UN/EDIFACT syntax rules set the standards for structuring data elements into segments, segments into messages, and messages into an exchange.

EDIFACT Data Elements

Data elements are the smallest fragments of an EDIFACT file, and there are three types:

1. Simple
A simple data element consists of one piece of information, for example, a delivery month.

2. Composite
Multiple pieces of information form a composite data element, a common example being a combination of an item number (component data element 1) and an item qualification number (component data element 2).

3. Structure
Slightly different than simple and composite, service data elements are needed to structure the electronic transfer.

EDIFACT Segments

Data elements can only be sent within a segment, or rather, a collection of similar data elements in a fixed order. These EDIFACT segments are recognized by unique three-letter codes, and there are two types:

1. User Data Segments
These EDIFACT data segments contain data elements such as amounts, values, names, places, and other data to be transferred. For example, DOC (to identify specific documents) and DTM (for date and time).

2. Service Segments
These EDIFACT data segments contain service data elements that contain information such as sender, document type, priority type, and other specific data required for the transfer. Service segments always start with 'UN'. For example, a message starts with UNH (Message Header Segment) and ends with UNT (Message Trailer Segment).

EDIFACT Messages

An EDIFACT message consists of a number of segments that are structured according to specific syntax rules. Thus, as mentioned before, the message must start with the EDIFACT segment 'UNH' and end with the service segment 'UNT'.  Additionally, the official EDIFACT format requires that the message contains at least one (user) data segment, which contains at least one (user) data element.

There are two types of EDIFACT messages:

1. User Messages
User messages contain, in addition to EDIFACT segments UNH and UNT, segments about user data.

2. EDIFACT Service Messages
These messages contain service segments for error correction, either at the syntax protocol level or at the application level, as well as service segments for general free text.

Each EDIFACT message is recognized by a six-character name. Here are a few common ones:

ORDERS: Purchase order
ORDCHG: Purchase order change request
DESADV: Shipping advice
INVOIC: Invoice

EDIFACT Subsets

There are many types of business transactions that are specific to certain industries. Because of this, the EDIFACT standard format quickly became overly extensive in attempts to cover all of these transactions. Subgroups, or subsets, were created in response. EANCOM, for example, was created for the European retail sector. EANCOM has the mandatory segments of the EDIFACT standard, but also contains optional, industry-specific segments and specifications. The subsets make the EDI message traffic easier to understand for the retail industry.

In addition to EANCOM, there are other subsets for different industries, such as:

ODETTE: European automotive industry
CEFIC: Chemical Industry
EDICON: Standard used in the construction industry
RINET: The insurance sector
HL7: Standard is used in healthcare
ATA: Air transport
SWIFT: Banking
UIC 912: Rail transport
EDIFICE: Electronics, software and telecommunications industry

EDIFACT Directory

EDIFACT Directories are released twice a year by the United Nations (UN) and contain all EDIFACT messages for a particular release (e.g. Directory D01B). The reason for this update is, besides improving the usability of existing EDIFACT messages, the creation of new directories with data elements, segments, and messages. But it’s important to mention that previous versions of EDIFACT Directories are still valid despite updates. So it’s no problem if you use Directory D96.A, for example, while the latest Directory is D17B.

However, it is important to realize that newer directories will offer you more possibilities and improved usability. So in order to keep up with development in your industry, it is highly recommended to adopt the newest version. You might also run into the challenge that a new vendor uses a newer version. In that case, you’ll have to use this version before you can begin exchanging data electronically. In order to maintain directories and ensure an optimal electronic exchange process, it is wise to have a dedicated EDI specialist available to you, whether that be an internal staff member or an external vendor. By doing this, you’ll avoid running into a stand still due to not having the correct EDI format.

The standards and guidelines are approved by UNECE and published in the UNTDID (United Nations Trade Data Interchange Directory) and are maintained according to agreed procedures.