Character Encoding

Definition of Character Encoding

Character encoding is a system that assigns a specific code, or a unique numerical identifier, to each character used in written text. This enables computers to consistently represent, store, and transmit text data across various platforms and devices. Some common character encoding standards are ASCII, Unicode (UTF-8, UTF-16), and ISO/IEC 8859.


The phonetic pronunciation of “Character Encoding” is:ˈkærəktər ɛnˈkoʊdɪŋ

Key Takeaways

  1. Character encoding is a system used for converting a set of characters into a specific sequence of bytes, enabling proper display and transmission of text across various electronic devices and systems.
  2. There are multiple character encoding standards, with the most prominent one being Unicode. Unicode includes character sets like UTF-8, UTF-16, and UTF-32, capable of representing a wide variety of characters and scripts from different languages.
  3. It’s crucial to use the correct character encoding when working with web pages or other text documents to avoid issues like incorrect display, loss of data, or unintelligible text.

Importance of Character Encoding

Character encoding is important because it enables computers, servers, and various communication systems to consistently represent and interpret the vast array of human-readable characters, symbols, and scripts.

It functions as a standardized system that assigns unique numeric codes to each character, allowing data to be reliably transferred between devices and across networks without losing meaning or causing confusion.

The widespread adoption of encoding systems such as ASCII and UTF-8 has helped facilitate global communication and information sharing, ensuring that text data remains accessible and accurately represented regardless of differences in language or hardware.


Character encoding serves a fundamental purpose in the realm of digital communication, ensuring that textual data remains consistent and usable as it goes through various processes of storage, interchange, and presentation. This technology enables the translation of characters – such as letters, symbols, and numbers – into a format that can be read, transferred, and displayed by electronic systems. By assigning unique numerical values called code points to each individual character, encoding schemes facilitate text representation in bits and bytes, the smallest data structures that electronic systems can therefore interpret.

This standardization of the process ensures that text data can be easily handled and comprehended by different devices, programs, and web services regardless of their native languages or configurations. To cater to a diverse range of languages, scripts, and specialized symbols representing different sets of characters, multiple character encoding systems have arisen over time. Some prevalent examples are ASCII, Unicode, and UTF-8.

ASCII, or the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, is one of the earliest character encoding systems developed to accommodate English letters and digits, along with some punctuation marks, non-printing control characters, and special symbols. However, with the global expansion of the internet, encoding systems needed to accommodate a plethora of characters from multiple languages. Hence, the Unicode standard was introduced, which is designed to encompass virtually every writing system in the world, including special symbols, emojis, and even historic scripts.

UTF-8, a specific and widely-used form of Unicode, is admired for its efficient backward compatibility with ASCII and its ability to minimize storage space for more commonly used characters. By selecting the most appropriate character encoding for a specific purpose, users ensure the accurate display, exchange, and persistence of textual data across numerous platforms and systems.

Examples of Character Encoding

Web Browsers and HTML: When browsing the web, character encoding is crucial for ensuring that all text and characters within HTML files are displayed correctly. Web browsers typically use the UTF-8 character encoding, as it covers a wide range of characters including those from various languages and special symbols. For a seamless browsing experience, HTML files should specify the character encoding used within their metadata, allowing the browser to recognize and display the content accurately.

Email Communication: In email communication, character encoding is essential to ensure that the text in an email message is displayed correctly for the recipient, regardless of the language being used. Email clients such as Microsoft Outlook, Gmail, or Thunderbird support multiple character encoding systems, including UTF-8, ISO-8859-1, and Windows-

By specifying the character encoding in the email’s MIME header, the email client ensures that the message’s content is transmitted and received without any loss or corruption of characters.

Database Management: In database systems such as MySQL, Oracle, or Microsoft SQL Server, character encoding plays a critical role in ensuring proper storage, retrieval, and processing of text data. For example, if a database uses a specific character encoding (e.g., UTF-8) to store text, any data stored or retrieved using a different encoding could lead to unintended alterations or corruption of the text. Specifying the correct character encoding allows for accurate and consistent representation of text data across different databases and applications.

Character Encoding FAQ

1. What is character encoding?

Character encoding is a system that assigns unique codes to represent characters, symbols, or glyphs in digital format. It enables computers to store, transmit, and display text based on standardized codes that can be universally recognized and decoded by different systems and devices.

2. Why is character encoding important?

Character encoding is important because it ensures that textual data can be consistently and accurately represented across various platforms and devices. Without a standardized encoding system, text could be misinterpreted, distorted or even lost when transferring data between different systems.

3. What is the difference between ASCII, ANSI, and Unicode character encoding?

ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) is a 7-bit character encoding scheme that represents 128 characters, including English letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and control characters. ANSI (American National Standards Institute) character encoding extends ASCII by using an additional 8th bit, allowing for a total of 256 characters, including additional symbols and characters from other languages. Unicode is a universal character encoding standard that can represent virtually all characters and scripts used in the world, with over 143,000 characters currently defined in the Unicode Standard.

4. What is UTF-8, UTF-16, and UTF-32?

UTF-8, UTF-16, and UTF-32 are three different types of Unicode Transformation Format (UTF) used to encode Unicode characters. UTF-8 uses a variable number of bytes (1 to 4) for each character, with ASCII characters using only 1 byte. UTF-16 uses 2 bytes for most characters and 4 bytes for some, while UTF-32 uses 4 bytes for all characters. UTF-8 is the most widely used format due to its compatibility with ASCII and its efficient use of space for the majority of the Latin script text.

5. How do I change the character encoding of my HTML document?

To change the character encoding of your HTML document, you need to set the appropriate ‘charset’ attribute in the ‘meta’ tag within the ‘head’ section of your HTML file. For example, to set your document’s encoding to UTF-8, you would add the following line inside the head section: <meta charset=”UTF-8″>

Related Technology Terms

  • ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange)
  • Unicode (Universal Character Set)
  • UTF-8 (Unicode Transformation Format 8-bit)
  • UTF-16 (Unicode Transformation Format 16-bit)
  • ISO-8859-1 (International Organization for Standardization 8859-1, also known as Latin-1)

Sources for More Information


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