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  1. Is UTF-16 fixed-width or variable-width? I got different results from different sources:


    UTF-16 stores Unicode characters in sixteen-bit chunks.


    UTF-16 (16-bit Unicode Transformation Format) is a character encoding for Unicode capable of encoding 1,112,064[1] numbers (called code points) in the Unicode code space from 0 to 0x10FFFF. It produces a variable-length result of either one or two 16-bit code units per code point.

  2. From the first source

    UTF-8 also has the advantage that the unit of encoding is the byte, so there are no byte-ordering issues.

    Why doesn't UTF-8 have byte-order problem? It is variable-width, and one character may contain more than one byte, so I think byte-order can still be a problem?

Thanks and regards!

share|improve this question
This great article The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!) will help answer all your questions about Unicode and UTF.. – Sorceror Jul 23 '11 at 14:19
up vote 10 down vote accepted

(1) What does byte sequence mean, an arrary of char in C? Is UTF-16 a byte sequence, or what is it then? (2) Why does a byte sequence have nothing to do with variable length?

You seem to be misunderstanding what endian issues are. Here's a brief summary.

A 32-bit integer takes up 4 bytes. Now, we know the logical ordering of these bytes. If you have a 32-bit integer, you can get the high byte of this with the following code:

uint32_t value = 0x8100FF32;
uint8_t highByte = (uint8_t)((value >> 24) & 0xFF); //Now contains 0x81

That's all well and good. Where the problem begins is how various hardware stores and retrieves integers from memory.

In Big Endian order, a 4 byte piece of memory that you read as a 32-bit integer will be read with the first byte being the high byte:


In Little Endian order, a 4 byte piece of memory that you read as a 32-bit integer will be read with the first byte being the low byte:


If you have a pointer to a pointer to a 32-bit value, you can do this:

uint32_t value = 0x8100FF32;
uint32_t *pValue = &value;
uint8_t *pHighByte = (uint8_t*)pValue;
uint8_t highByte = pHighByte[0]; //Now contains... ?

According to C/C++, the result of this is undefined. It could be 0x81. Or it could be 0x32. Technically, it could return anything, but for real systems, it will return one or the other.

If you have a pointer to a memory address, you can read that address as a 32-bit value, a 16-bit value, or an 8-bit value. On a big endian machine, the pointer points to the high byte; on a little endian machine, the pointer points to the low byte.

Note that this is all about reading and writing to/from memory. It has nothing to do with the internal C/C++ code. The first version of the code, the one that C/C++ doesn't declare as undefined, will always work to get the high byte.

The issue is when you start reading byte streams. Such as from a file.

16-bit values have the same issues as 32-bit ones; they just have 2 bytes instead of 4. Therefore, a file could contain 16-bit values stored in big endian or little endian order.

UTF-16 is defined as a sequence of 16-bit values. Effectively, it is a uint16_t[]. Each individual code unit is a 16-bit value. Therefore, in order to properly load UTF-16, you must know what the endian-ness of the data is.

UTF-8 is defined as a sequence of 8-bit values. It is a uint8_t[]. Each individual code unit is 8-bits in size: a single byte.

Now, both UTF-16 and UTF-8 allow for multiple code units (16-bit or 8-bit values) to combine together to form a Unicode codepoint (a "character", but that's not the correct term; it is a simplification). The order of these code units that form a codepoint is dictated by the UTF-16 and UTF-8 encodings.

When processing UTF-16, you read a 16-bit value, doing whatever endian conversion is needed. Then, you detect if it is a surrogate pair; if it is, then you read another 16-bit value, combine the two, and from that, you get the Unicode codepoint value.

When processing UTF-8, you read an 8-bit value. No endian conversion is possible, since there is only one byte. If the first byte denotes a multi-byte sequence, then you read some number of bytes, as dictated by the multi-byte sequence. Each individual byte is a byte and therefore has no endian conversion. The order of these bytes in the sequence, just as the order of surrogate pairs in UTF-16, is defined by UTF-8.

So there can be no endian issues with UTF-8.

share|improve this answer

Jeremy Banks' answer is correct as far as it goes, but didn't address byte ordering.

When you use UTF-16, most glyphs are stored using a two-byte word - but when the word is stored in a disk file, what order do you use to store the constituent bytes?

As an example, the CJK (Chinese) glyph for the word "water" has a UTF-16 encoding in hexadecimal of 6C34. When you write that as two bytes to disk, do you write it as "big-endian" (the two bytes are 6C 34)? Or do you write it as "little-endian (the two bytes are 34 6C)?

With UTF-16, both orderings are legitimate, and you usually indicate which one the file has by making the first word in the file a Byte Order Mark (BOM), which for big-endian encoding is FE FF, and for little-endian encoding is FF FE.

UTF-32 has the same problem, and the same solution.

UTF-8 doesn't have this problem, because it's variable length, and you effectively write a glyph's byte sequence as if it were little-endian. For instance, the letter "P" is always encoded using one byte - 80 - and the replacement character is always encoded using the two bytes FF FD in that order.

Some programs put a three-byte indicator (EF BB BF) at the start of a UTF-8 file, and that helps distinguish UTF-8 from similar encodings like ASCII, but that's not very common except on MS Windows.

share|improve this answer
Thanks! (1) the letter "P" is just one byte in UTF-8. Why is the replacement character added to its code? (2) In UTF-8 , there are other characters that have more than one byte in UTF-8. Why are the byte-order between bytes for each such character not a problem? – Tim Jul 23 '11 at 0:59
@Tim: (1) You don't add the replacement character to the code for P. If you see 80 FF FD, that's two characters - a P character, and a replacement character. – Bob Murphy Jul 23 '11 at 1:53
(2) You always write and read the two bytes for the "replacement character" as FF FD, in that order. There would only be a byte-ordering issue if you could also write the "replacement character" as FD FF - but you can't; that sequence of two bytes would be something other than a "replacement character". – Bob Murphy Jul 23 '11 at 1:55
@Tim: You might want to work through It's really quite good, and if you can understand all of it and the other Unicode-related Wikipedia pages, I think you'll find you have no more questions about it. – Bob Murphy Jul 23 '11 at 2:00
The reason that UTF-8 has no problem with byte order is that the encoding is defined as a byte sequence, and that there are no variations with different endianness. It has nothing to do with variable length. – starblue Jul 23 '11 at 5:59

UTF-16 produces 32 or 16 bits per character, in 16-bit chunks. However, 32 bits are only needed for rare characters high up in Unicode, so in you'll usually end up with 16 bits per character.

For this reason some people treat UTF-16 like a fixed-width encoding as an optimization, though this can produce some rough edges. The default CPython build is one example of a program that does this. It saves space, but means that rare characters will appear to be two characters.

UTF-8 produces variable-sized output per character, but its basic unit of output is a single byte, where in UTF-16 it's a two-bytes chunk. UTF-16 needs to figure out how to combine two adjacent bytes into a single value before it starts decoding it, UTF-8 can just look at each byte in turn and proceed from there.

share|improve this answer
Thanks! I still don't quite understand your reply to my second part. Both UTF-8 and UTF-16 (may) use more than one byte for a character, and why doesn't UTF-8 need to worry about byte order while UTF-16 has to? – Tim Jul 23 '11 at 0:25
@Tim, suppose we were writing to a char* dest; in C, and the source string is in UTF-32 (raw code points). If the destination format is UTF-8, the natural approach is to write each byte of dest one at a time, so unless you're doing something very funny, byte sex isn't an issue. But if the destination format is UTF-16, the natural approach would be to do a (unsigned short*) cast and write two bytes at a time. – Daniel Lubarov Jul 23 '11 at 3:56
@Daniel: Thanks! (1) Do you mean char* dest can be used to store both UTF-32 and UTF-8 characters? How can it be for UTF-32 which require four bytes, and for UTF-8 which may have one or four bytes? (2) For UTF-16, it can have two or four bytes. Can (unsigned short*) be used for both cases? – Tim Jul 23 '11 at 15:09
Also, for 99% of applications, your application can treat surrogate pairs of UTF-16 characters the same way it treats combining characters. In that sense, even UTF-32 is not "fixed width" -- after all, many would consider "é" to be one character, but it could actually be made up of 2 UTF-32 code points ("e" + combining accent) – Dean Harding Jul 24 '11 at 0:06

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