UTF-8(7) Linux Programmer's Manual UTF-8(7)
UTF-8 - an ASCII compatible multi-byte Unicode encoding
The Unicode 3.0 character set occupies a 16-bit code space. The most obvious Unicode
encoding (known as UCS-2) consists of a sequence of 16-bit words. Such strings can contain
as parts of many 16-bit characters bytes like '\0' or '/' which have a special meaning in
filenames and other C library function parameters. In addition, the majority of UNIX
tools expects ASCII files and can't read 16-bit words as characters without major modifi-
cations. For these reasons, UCS-2 is not a suitable external encoding of Unicode in file-
names, text files, environment variables, etc. The ISO 10646 Universal Character Set
(UCS), a superset of Unicode, occupies even a 31-bit code space and the obvious UCS-4
encoding for it (a sequence of 32-bit words) has the same problems.
The UTF-8 encoding of Unicode and UCS does not have these problems and is the common way
in which Unicode is used on Unix-style operating systems.
The UTF-8 encoding has the following nice properties:
* UCS characters 0x00000000 to 0x0000007f (the classic US-ASCII characters) are encoded
simply as bytes 0x00 to 0x7f (ASCII compatibility). This means that files and strings
which contain only 7-bit ASCII characters have the same encoding under both ASCII and
* All UCS characters > 0x7f are encoded as a multi-byte sequence consisting only of bytes
in the range 0x80 to 0xfd, so no ASCII byte can appear as part of another character and
there are no problems with e.g. '\0' or '/'.
* The lexicographic sorting order of UCS-4 strings is preserved.
* All possible 2^31 UCS codes can be encoded using UTF-8.
* The bytes 0xfe and 0xff are never used in the UTF-8 encoding.
* The first byte of a multi-byte sequence which represents a single non-ASCII UCS charac-
ter is always in the range 0xc0 to 0xfd and indicates how long this multi-byte sequence
is. All further bytes in a multi-byte sequence are in the range 0x80 to 0xbf. This
allows easy resynchronization and makes the encoding stateless and robust against miss-
* UTF-8 encoded UCS characters may be up to six bytes long, however the Unicode standard
specifies no characters above 0x10ffff, so Unicode characters can only be up to four
bytes long in UTF-8.
The following byte sequences are used to represent a character. The sequence to be used
depends on the UCS code number of the character:
0x00000000 - 0x0000007F:
0x00000080 - 0x000007FF:
0x00000800 - 0x0000FFFF:
1110xxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
0x00010000 - 0x001FFFFF:
11110xxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
0x00200000 - 0x03FFFFFF:
111110xx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
0x04000000 - 0x7FFFFFFF:
1111110x 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
The xxx bit positions are filled with the bits of the character code number in binary rep-
resentation. Only the shortest possible multi-byte sequence which can represent the code
number of the character can be used.
The UCS code values 0xd800-0xdfff (UTF-16 surrogates) as well as 0xfffe and 0xffff (UCS
non-characters) should not appear in conforming UTF-8 streams.
The Unicode character 0xa9 = 1010 1001 (the copyright sign) is encoded in UTF-8 as
11000010 10101001 = 0xc2 0xa9
and character 0x2260 = 0010 0010 0110 0000 (the "not equal" symbol) is encoded as:
11100010 10001001 10100000 = 0xe2 0x89 0xa0
Users have to select a UTF-8 locale, for example with
in order to activate the UTF-8 support in applications.
Application software that has to be aware of the used character encoding should always set
the locale with for example
and programmers can then test the expression
strcmp(nl_langinfo(CODESET), "UTF-8") == 0
to determine whether a UTF-8 locale has been selected and whether therefore all plaintext
standard input and output, terminal communication, plaintext file content, filenames and
environment variables are encoded in UTF-8.
Programmers accustomed to single-byte encodings such as US-ASCII or ISO 8859 have to be
aware that two assumptions made so far are no longer valid in UTF-8 locales. Firstly, a
single byte does not necessarily correspond any more to a single character. Secondly,
since modern terminal emulators in UTF-8 mode also support Chinese, Japanese, and Korean
double-width characters as well as non-spacing combining characters, outputting a single
character does not necessarily advance the cursor by one position as it did in ASCII.
Library functions such as mbsrtowcs(3) and wcswidth(3) should be used today to count char-
acters and cursor positions.
The official ESC sequence to switch from an ISO 2022 encoding scheme (as used for instance
by VT100 terminals) to UTF-8 is ESC % G ("\x1b%G"). The corresponding return sequence from
UTF-8 to ISO 2022 is ESC % @ ("\x1b%@"). Other ISO 2022 sequences (such as for switching
the G0 and G1 sets) are not applicable in UTF-8 mode.
It can be hoped that in the foreseeable future, UTF-8 will replace ASCII and ISO 8859 at
all levels as the common character encoding on POSIX systems, leading to a significantly
richer environment for handling plain text.
The Unicode and UCS standards require that producers of UTF-8 shall use the shortest form
possible, e.g., producing a two-byte sequence with first byte 0xc0 is non-conforming.
Unicode 3.1 has added the requirement that conforming programs must not accept non-short-
est forms in their input. This is for security reasons: if user input is checked for pos-
sible security violations, a program might check only for the ASCII version of "/../" or
";" or NUL and overlook that there are many non-ASCII ways to represent these things in a
non-shortest UTF-8 encoding.
ISO/IEC 10646-1:2000, Unicode 3.1, RFC 2279, Plan 9.
Markus Kuhn <firstname.lastname@example.org>
nl_langinfo(3), setlocale(3), charsets(7), unicode(7)
GNU 2001-05-11 UTF-8(7)