Tutorial :What is Unicode, UTF-8, UTF-16?


What's the basis for Unicode and why the need for UTF-8 or UTF-16? I have researched this on Google and searched here as well but it's not clear to me.

In VSS when doing a file comparison, sometimes there is a message saying the two files have differing UTF's. Why would this be the case?

Please explain in simple terms.


Why do we need Unicode?

In the (not too) early days, all that existed was ASCII. This was okay, as all that would ever be needed were a few control characters, punctuation, numbers and letters like the ones in this sentence. Unfortunately, today's strange world of global intercommunication and social media was not foreseen, and it is not too unusual to see English, العربية, 汉语, ×¢Ö´×'ְרִית, ελληνικά, and ភាសាខáŸ'មែរ in the same document (I hope I didn't break any old browsers).

But for argument's sake, lets say Joe Average is a software developer. He insists that he will only ever need English, and as such only wants to use ASCII. This might be fine for Joe the user, but this is not fine for Joe the software developer. Approximately half the world uses non-Latin characters and using ASCII is arguably inconsiderate to these people, and on top of that, he is closing off his software to a large and growing economy.

Therefore, an encompassing character set including all languages is needed. Thus came Unicode. It assigns every character a unique number called a code point. One advantage of Unicode over other possible sets is that the first 256 code points are identical to ISO-8859-1, and hence also ASCII. In addition, the vast majority of commonly used characters are representable by only two bytes, in a region called the Basic Multilingual Plane (BMP). Now a character encoding is needed to access this character set, and as the question asks, I will concentrate on UTF-8 and UTF-16.

Memory considerations

So how many bytes give access to what characters in these encodings?

  • UTF-8:
    • 1 byte: Standard ASCII
    • 2 bytes: Arabic, Hebrew, most European scripts (most notably excluding Georgian)
    • 3 bytes: BMP
    • 4 bytes: All Unicode characters
  • UTF-16:
    • 2 bytes: BMP
    • 4 bytes: All Unicode characters

It's worth mentioning now that characters not in the BMP include ancient scripts, mathematical symbols, musical symbols, and rarer Chinese/Japanese/Korean (CJK) characters.

If you'll be working mostly with ASCII characters, then UTF-8 is certainly more memory efficient. However, if you're working mostly with non-European scripts, using UTF-8 could be up to 1.5 times less memory efficient than UTF-16. When dealing with large amounts of text, such as large web-pages or lengthy word documents, this could impact performance.

Encoding basics

Note: If you know how UTF-8 and UTF-16 are encoded, skip to the next section for practical applications.

  • UTF-8: For the standard ASCII (0-127) characters, the UTF-8 codes are identical. This makes UTF-8 ideal if backwards compatibility is required with existing ASCII text. Other characters require anywhere from 2-4 bytes. This is done by reserving some bits in each of these bytes to indicate that it is part of a multi-byte character. In particular, the first bit of each byte is 1 to avoid clashing with the ASCII characters.
  • UTF-16: For valid BMP characters, the UTF-16 representation is simply its code point. However, for non-BMP characters UTF-16 introduces surrogate pairs. In this case a combination of two two-byte portions map to a non-BMP character. These two-byte portions come from the BMP numeric range, but are guaranteed by the Unicode standard to be invalid as BMP characters. In addition, since UTF-16 has two bytes as its basic unit, it is affected by endianness. To compensate, a reserved byte order mark can be placed at the beginning of a data stream which indicates endianness. Thus, if you are reading UTF-16 input, and no endianness is specified, you must check for this.

As can be seen, UTF-8 and UTF-16 are nowhere near compatible with each other. So if you're doing I/O, make sure you know which encoding you are using! For further details on these encodings, please see the UTF FAQ.

Practical programming considerations

Character and String data types: How are they encoded in the programming language? If they are raw bytes, the minute you try to output non-ASCII characters, you may run into a few problems. Also, even if the character type is based on a UTF, that doesn't mean the strings are proper UTF. They may allow byte sequences that are illegal. Generally, you'll have to use a library that supports UTF, such as ICU for C, C++ and Java. In any case, if you want to input/output something other than the default encoding, you will have to convert it first.

Recommended/default/dominant encodings: When given a choice of which UTF to use, it is usually best to follow recommended standards for the environment you are working in. For example, UTF-8 is dominant on the web, and since HTML5, it has been the recommended encoding. Conversely, both .NET and Java environments are founded on a UTF-16 character type. Confusingly (and incorrectly), references are often made to the "Unicode encoding", which usually refers to the dominant UTF encoding in a given environment.

Library support: What encodings are the libraries you are using support? Do they support the corner cases? Since necessity is the mother of invention, UTF-8 libraries will generally support 4-byte characters properly, since 1, 2, and even 3 byte characters can occur frequently. However, not all purported UTF-16 libraries support surrogate pairs properly since they occur very rarely.

Counting characters: There exist combining characters in Unicode. For example the code point U+006E (n), and U+0303 (a combining tilde) forms ñ, but the code point U+00F1 forms ñ. They should look identical, but a simple counting algorithm will return 2 for the first example, 1 for the latter. This isn't necessarily wrong, but may not be the desired outcome either.

Comparing for equality: A, А, and Î' look the same, but they're Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek respectively. You also have cases like C and â…­, one is a letter, the other a Roman numeral. In addition, we have the combining characters to consider as well. For more info see Duplicate characters in Unicode.

Surrogate pairs: These come up often enough on SO, so I'll just provide some example links:



  • Unicode
    • is a set of characters used around the world
  • UTF-8
    • a character encoding capable of encoding all possible characters (called code points) in Unicode.
    • code unit is 8-bits
    • use one to four code units to encode Unicode
    • 00100100 for "$" (one 8-bits);11000010 10100010 for "¢" (two 8-bits);11100010 10000010 10101100 for "€" (three 8-bits)
  • UTF-16
    • another character encoding
    • code unit is 16-bits
    • use one to two code units to encode Unicode
    • 00000000 00100100 for "$" (one 16-bits);11011000 01010010 11011111 01100010 for "𤭢" (two 16-bits)


Unicode is a fairly complex standard. Don’t be too afraid, but be prepared for some work! [2]

Because a credible resource is always needed, but the official report is massive, I suggest reading the following:

  1. The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!) An introduction by Joel Spolsky, Stack Exchange CEO.
  2. To the BMP and beyond! A tutorial by Eric Muller, Technical Director then, Vice President later, at The Unicode Consortium. (first 20 slides and you are done)

A brief explanation:

Computers read bytes and people read characters, so we use encoding standards to map characters to bytes. ASCII was the first widely used standard, but covers only Latin (7 bits/character can represent 128 different characters). Unicode is a standard with the goal to cover all possible characters in the world (can hold up to 1,114,112 characters, meaning 21 bits/character max. Current Unicode 8.0 specifies 120,737 characters in total, and that's all).

The main difference is that an ASCII character can fit to a byte (8 bits), but most Unicode characters cannot. So encoding forms/schemes (like UTF-8 and UTF-16) are used, and the character model goes like this:

Every character holds an enumerated position from 0 to 1,114,111 (hex: 0-10FFFF) called code point.
An encoding form maps a code point to a code unit sequence. A code unit is the way you want characters to be organized in memory, 8-bit units, 16-bit units and so on. UTF-8 uses 1 to 4 units of 8 bits, and UTF-16 uses 1 or 2 units of 16 bits, to cover the entire Unicode of 21 bits max. Units use prefixes so that character boundaries can be spotted, and more units mean more prefixes that occupy bits. So, although UTF-8 uses 1 byte for the Latin script it needs 3 bytes for later scripts inside Basic Multilingual Plane, while UTF-16 uses 2 bytes for all these. And that's their main difference.
Lastly, an encoding scheme (like UTF-16BE or UTF-16LE) maps (serializes) a code unit sequence to a byte sequence.

character: π
code point: U+03C0
encoding forms (code units):
      UTF-8: CF 80
      UTF-16: 03C0
encoding schemes (bytes):
      UTF-8: CF 80
      UTF-16BE: 03 C0
      UTF-16LE: C0 03

Tip: a hex digit represents 4 bits, so a two-digit hex number represents a byte
Also take a look at Plane maps in Wikipedia to get a feeling of the character set layout


Originally, Unicode was intended to have a fixed-width 16-bit encoding (UCS-2). Early adopters of Unicode, like Java and Windows NT, built their libraries around 16-bit strings.

Later, the scope of Unicode was expanded to include historical characters, which would require more than the 65,536 code points a 16-bit encoding would support. To allow the additional characters to be represented on platforms that had used UCS-2, the UTF-16 encoding was introduced. It uses "surrogate pairs" to represent characters in the supplementary planes.

Meanwhile, a lot of older software and network protocols were using 8-bit strings. UTF-8 was made so these systems could support Unicode without having to use wide characters. It's backwards-compatible with 7-bit ASCII.


This article explains all the details http://kunststube.net/encoding/


if you write to a 4 byte buffer, symbol あ with UTF8 encoding, your binary will look like this:

00000000 11100011 10000001 10000010

if you write to a 4 byte buffer, symbol あ with UTF16 encoding, your binary will look like this:

00000000 00000000 00110000 01000010

As you can see, depending on what language you would use in your content this will effect your memory accordingly.

e.g. For this particular symbol: あ UTF16 encoding is more efficient since we have 2 spare bytes to use for the next symbol. But it doesn't mean that you must use UTF16 for Japan alphabet.


Now if you want to read the above bytes, you have to know in what encoding it was written to and decode it back correctly.

e.g. If you decode this : 00000000 11100011 10000001 10000010 into UTF16 encoding, you will end up with 臣 not あ

Note: Encoding and Unicode are two different things. Unicode is the big (table) with each symbol mapped to a unique code point. e.g. あ symbol (letter) has a (code point): 30 42 (hex). Encoding on the other hand, is an algorithm that converts symbols to more appropriate way, when storing to hardware.

30 42 (hex) - > UTF8 encoding - > E3 81 82 (hex), which is above result in binary.    30 42 (hex) - > UTF16 encoding - > 30 42 (hex), which is above result in binary.  

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Why unicode? Because ASCII has just 127 characters. Those from 128 to 255 differ in different countries, that's why there are codepages. So they said lets have up to 1114111 characters. So how do you store the highest codepoint? You'll need to store it using 21 bits, so you'll use a DWORD having 32 bits with 11 bits wasted. So if you use a DWORD to store a unicode character, it is the easiest way because the value in your DWORD matches exactly the codepoint. But DWORD arrays are of course larger than WORD arrays and of course even larger than BYTE arrays. That's why there is not only utf-32, but also utf-16. But utf-16 means a WORD stream, and a WORD has 16 bits so how can the highest codepoint 1114111 fit into a WORD? It cannot! So they put everyything higher than 65535 into a DWORD which they call a surrogate-pair. Such surrogate-pair are two WORDS and can get detected by looking at the first 6 bits. So what about utf-8? It is a byte array or byte stream, but how can the highest codepoint 1114111 fit into a byte? It cannot! Okay, so they put in also a DWORD right? Or possibly a WORD, right? Almost right! They invented utf-8 sequences which means that every codepoint higher than 127 must get encoded into a 2-byte, 3-byte or 4-byte sequence. Wow! But how can we detect such sequences? Well, everything up to 127 is ASCII and is a single byte. What starts with 110 is a two-byte sequence, what starts with 1110 is a three-byte sequence and what starts with 11110 is a four-byte sequence. The remaining bits of these so called "startbytes" belong to the codepoint. Now depending on the sequence, following bytes must follow. A following byte starts with 10, the remaining bits are 6 bits of payload bits and belong to the codepoint. Concatenate the payload bits of the startbyte and the following byte/s and you'll have the codepoint. That's all the magic of utf-8.


Unicode is a standard which maps the characters in all languages to a particular numeric value called Code Points. The reason it does this is that it allows different encodings to be possible using the same set of code points.

UTF-8 and UTF-16 are two such encodings. They take code points as input and encodes them using some well-defined formula to produce the encoded string.

Choosing a particular encoding depends upon your requirements. Different encodings have different memory requirements and depending upon the characters that you will be dealing with, you should choose the encoding which uses the least sequences of bytes to encode those characters.

For more in-depth details about Unicode, UTF-8 and UTF-16, you can check out this article,

What every programmer should know about Unicode


ASCII - Software allocates only 8 bit byte in memory for a given character. It works well for English & adopted (loanwords like façade) characters as their corresponding decimal values falls below 128 in the decimal value. Example C program.

UTF-8 - Software allocates 1 to 4 variable 8 bit bytes for a given character. What does mean by variable here? Let us say you are sending the character 'A' through your HTML pages in the browser (HTML is UTF-8), the corresponding decimal value of A is 65, when you convert it into decimal it becomes 01000010. This requires only 1 bytes, 1 byte memory is allocated even for special adopted English characters like 'ç' in a word façade. However, when you want to store European characters, it requires 2 bytes, so you need UTF-8. However, when you go for Asian characters, you require minimum of 2 bytes and maximum of 4 bytes. Similarly, Emoji's require 3 to 4 bytes. UTF-8 will solve all your needs.

UTF-16 will allocate minimum 2 bytes and maximum of 4 bytes per character, it will not allocate 1 or 3 bytes. Each character is either represented in 16 bit or 32 bit.

Then why exists UTF-16? Originally, Unicode was 16 bit not 8 bit. Java adopted the original version of UTF-16.

In a nutshell, you don't need UTF-16 anywhere unless it has been already been adopted by the language or platform you are working on.

Java program invoked by web browsers uses UTF-16 but the web browser sends characters using UTF-8.


UTF stands for stands for Unicode Transformation Format.Basically in today's world there are scripts written in hundreds of other languages, formats not covered by the basic ASCII used earlier. Hence, UTF came into existence.

UTF-8 has character encoding capabilities and its code unit is 8 bits while that for UTF-16 it is 16 bits.

Note:If u also have question or solution just comment us below or mail us on toontricks1994@gmail.com
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