How many bytes does one Unicode character take?


I am a bit confused about encodings. As far as I know old ASCII characters took one byte per character. How many bytes does a Unicode character require?

I assume that one Unicode character can contain every possible character from any language - am I correct? So how many bytes does it need per character?

And what do UTF-7, UTF-6, UTF-16 etc. mean? Are they different versions of Unicode?

I read the Wikipedia article about Unicode but it is quite difficult for me. I am looking forward to seeing a simple answer.

1/20/2015 11:32:12 PM

Accepted Answer

You won't see a simple answer because there isn't one.

First, Unicode doesn't contain "every character from every language", although it sure does try.

Unicode itself is a mapping, it defines codepoints and a codepoint is a number, associated with usually a character. I say usually because there are concepts like combining characters. You may be familiar with things like accents, or umlauts. Those can be used with another character, such as an a or a u to create a new logical character. A character therefore can consist of 1 or more codepoints.

To be useful in computing systems we need to choose a representation for this information. Those are the various unicode encodings, such as utf-8, utf-16le, utf-32 etc. They are distinguished largely by the size of of their codeunits. UTF-32 is the simplest encoding, it has a codeunit that is 32bits, which means an individual codepoint fits comfortably into a codeunit. The other encodings will have situations where a codepoint will need multiple codeunits, or that particular codepoint can't be represented in the encoding at all (this is a problem for instance with UCS-2).

Because of the flexibility of combining characters, even within a given encoding the number of bytes per character can vary depending on the character and the normalization form. This is a protocol for dealing with characters which have more than one representation (you can say "an 'a' with an accent" which is 2 codepoints, one of which is a combining char or "accented 'a'" which is one codepoint).

10/12/2016 6:07:48 PM

I know this question is old and already has an accepted answer, but I want to offer a few examples (hoping it'll be useful to someone).

As far as I know old ASCII characters took one byte per character.

Right. Actually, since ASCII is a 7-bit encoding, it supports 128 codes (95 of which are printable), so it only uses half a byte (if that makes any sense).

How many bytes does a Unicode character require?

Unicode just maps characters to codepoints. It doesn't define how to encode them. A text file does not contain Unicode characters, but bytes/octets that may represent Unicode characters.

I assume that one Unicode character can contain every possible character from any language - am I correct?

No. But almost. So basically yes. But still no.

So how many bytes does it need per character?

Same as your 2nd question.

And what do UTF-7, UTF-6, UTF-16 etc mean? Are they some kind Unicode versions?

No, those are encodings. They define how bytes/octets should represent Unicode characters.

A couple of examples. If some of those cannot be displayed in your browser (probably because the font doesn't support them), go to (replace 1F6AA with the codepoint in hex) to see an image.

    • U+0061 LATIN SMALL LETTER A: a
      • Nº: 97
      • UTF-8: 61
      • UTF-16: 00 61
    • U+00A9 COPYRIGHT SIGN: ©
      • Nº: 169
      • UTF-8: C2 A9
      • UTF-16: 00 A9
      • Nº: 174
      • UTF-8: C2 AE
      • UTF-16: 00 AE
      • Nº: 4919
      • UTF-8: E1 8C B7
      • UTF-16: 13 37
    • U+2014 EM DASH:
      • Nº: 8212
      • UTF-8: E2 80 94
      • UTF-16: 20 14
    • U+2030 PER MILLE SIGN:
      • Nº: 8240
      • UTF-8: E2 80 B0
      • UTF-16: 20 30
    • U+20AC EURO SIGN:
      • Nº: 8364
      • UTF-8: E2 82 AC
      • UTF-16: 20 AC
    • U+2122 TRADE MARK SIGN:
      • Nº: 8482
      • UTF-8: E2 84 A2
      • UTF-16: 21 22
    • U+2603 SNOWMAN:
      • Nº: 9731
      • UTF-8: E2 98 83
      • UTF-16: 26 03
      • Nº: 9742
      • UTF-8: E2 98 8E
      • UTF-16: 26 0E
      • Nº: 9748
      • UTF-8: E2 98 94
      • UTF-16: 26 14
      • Nº: 9786
      • UTF-8: E2 98 BA
      • UTF-16: 26 3A
    • U+2691 BLACK FLAG:
      • Nº: 9873
      • UTF-8: E2 9A 91
      • UTF-16: 26 91
    • U+269B ATOM SYMBOL:
      • Nº: 9883
      • UTF-8: E2 9A 9B
      • UTF-16: 26 9B
    • U+2708 AIRPLANE:
      • Nº: 9992
      • UTF-8: E2 9C 88
      • UTF-16: 27 08
      • Nº: 10014
      • UTF-8: E2 9C 9E
      • UTF-16: 27 1E
    • U+3020 POSTAL MARK FACE:
      • Nº: 12320
      • UTF-8: E3 80 A0
      • UTF-16: 30 20
    • U+8089 CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-8089:
      • Nº: 32905
      • UTF-8: E8 82 89
      • UTF-16: 80 89
    • U+1F4A9 PILE OF POO:
      • Nº: 128169
      • UTF-8: F0 9F 92 A9
      • UTF-16: D8 3D DC A9
    • U+1F680 ROCKET:
      • Nº: 128640
      • UTF-8: F0 9F 9A 80
      • UTF-16: D8 3D DE 80

Okay I'm getting carried away...

Fun facts:


Simply speaking Unicode is a standard which assigned one number (called code point) to all characters of the world (Its still work in progress).

Now you need to represent this code points using bytes, thats called character encoding. UTF-8, UTF-16, UTF-6 are ways of representing those characters.

UTF-8 is multibyte character encoding. Characters can have 1 to 6 bytes (some of them may be not required right now).

UTF-32 each characters have 4 bytes a characters.

UTF-16 uses 16 bits for each character and it represents only part of Unicode characters called BMP (for all practical purposes its enough). Java uses this encoding in its strings.


In UTF-8:

1 byte:       0 -     7F     (ASCII)
2 bytes:     80 -    7FF     (all European plus some Middle Eastern)
3 bytes:    800 -   FFFF     (multilingual plane incl. the top 1792 and private-use)
4 bytes:  10000 - 10FFFF

In UTF-16:

2 bytes:      0 -   D7FF     (multilingual plane except the top 1792 and private-use )
4 bytes:   D800 - 10FFFF

In UTF-32:

4 bytes:      0 - 10FFFF

10FFFF is the last unicode codepoint by definition, and it's defined that way because it's UTF-16's technical limit.

It is also the largest codepoint UTF-8 can encode in 4 byte, but the idea behind UTF-8's encoding also works for 5 and 6 byte encodings to cover codepoints until 7FFFFFFF, ie. half of what UTF-32 can.


In Unicode the answer is not easily given. The problem, as you already pointed out, are the encodings.

Given any English sentence without diacritic characters, the answer for UTF-8 would be as many bytes as characters and for UTF-16 it would be number of characters times two.

The only encoding where (as of now) we can make the statement about the size is UTF-32. There it's always 32bit per character, even though I imagine that code points are prepared for a future UTF-64 :)

What makes it so difficult are at least two things:

  1. composed characters, where instead of using the character entity that is already accented/diacritic (À), a user decided to combine the accent and the base character (`A).
  2. code points. Code points are the method by which the UTF-encodings allow to encode more than the number of bits that gives them their name would usually allow. E.g. UTF-8 designates certain bytes which on their own are invalid, but when followed by a valid continuation byte will allow to describe a character beyond the 8-bit range of 0..255. See the Examples and Overlong Encodings below in the Wikipedia article on UTF-8.
    • The excellent example given there is that the € character (code point U+20AC can be represented either as three-byte sequence E2 82 AC or four-byte sequence F0 82 82 AC.
    • Both are valid, and this shows how complicated the answer is when talking about "Unicode" and not about a specific encoding of Unicode, such as UTF-8 or UTF-16.

There is a great tool for calculating the bytes of any string in UTF-8:

Update: @mathias has made the code public:


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