Python and unicode

See Introducing Unicode for an introduction to Unicode.

See also:

Python 2 supports unicode with unicode strings:

s = u'Hello world'

Python 3 strings are always unicode. Python 3 as of Python 3.3 allows (but ignores) the u prefix for strings, so I will use that convention for unicode strings for compatibility with Python 2 and Python 3.

There are various ways of inputing characters you cannot type at your prompt. The most basic is to give the unicode code point in hexadecimal:

question = u'\u00bfHabla espa\u00f1ol?'  # ¿Habla español?

where 00bf is the hexadecimal unicode code point for the inverted question mark; see Use the \u0000 format, i.e. \u followed by 4 hexadecimal digits. For code points outside the 16 bit range (outside the BMP – see Introducing Unicode) – use capital U and eight hexadecimal digits, like this:

complicated = u'\U0001D11A is musical symbol 5 line staff'

See below for some complications of using these 32 bit unicode characters in some builds of python 2.

You can also use the standard unicode name (see ):

less_opaque = u'\N{MUSICAL SYMBOL FIVE-LINE STAFF} is more obviously a five line staff'

To create an UTF-8 encoded version of a string - for example to write to a text file:

question = u'\u00bfHabla espa\u00f1ol?'  # ¿Habla español?
raw_str = question.encode('utf-8')

Similarly for UTF-16, or other encodings:

raw_str = question.encode('utf-16')

To get a unicode string from text that has been encoded:

question = raw_str.decode('utf-8')

In Python 3, raw_str will be a byte string rather than a standard (unicode) string.

Python internal encoding of unicode strings

The internal encoding of unicode strings depends on the version of Python.

Python versions 2.2 through 3.2

The internal representation of unicode stirngs Pythons 2.2 through 3.2 depends on flags with which the Python program binary was built. Pythons built with the build flag --enable-unicode=ucs2 use UTF-16 as the internal representation. Yes, it is confusing that the flag value is ucs2 and the actual result is UTF-16. Pythons built with build flag --enable-unicode=ucs4 use UCS-4 (or equivalently, UTF-32) as their internal representation.

To tell which format your Python uses:

import sys
utf_16 = sys.maxunicode == 65535

If utf_16 is True, you have a UTF-16 build, otherwise you have UCS4.

See also:

UTF-16 (ucs2) builds of Python and 32 bit unicode code points

If you have a UTF-16 build of python, and want to use a 32 bit code point, then some oddness occurs:

complicated = u'\U0001D11A '
print ord(complicated[0])
print ord(complicated[1])

On a UTF-16 build the above gives you:


In this case, the 32 bit value has been represented by two 16 bit values - a UTF-16 surrogate pair - see Introducing Unicode.

On a UCS-4 build you get:


which might have been more what you were expecting - 119066 is the decimal representation of hexadecimal 1D11A. The difference between the two builds can mean some oddness in slicing strings… (as noted in

Some discussion about UTF-16 / UCS-2, UCS-4 and Python 3 here:

Python versions from 3.3

Python versions 3.3 and above use a flexible internal representation of the string that depends on the string contents – see

Relevant python modules and commands


String methods

  • encode

  • decode


  • unichr - unicode equivalent of chr in Python 2.

  • unicode - constructor for unicode strings in Python 2.


  • UnicodeEncodeError