Working with Date and Time in PHP

A lot of people ask questions relating to date and time in PHP. Here are some answers to the most commonly asked questions and common mistakes.

Procedural vs OO

Historically PHP provided a set of commands that allowed easy parsing of dates/times into UNIX timestamps (mktime(), strtotime(), etc) and then some tools to manipulate these timestamps and return them as formatted strings (date(), gmdate(), etc).

PHP5 introduced the DateTime class but lots of users still seem to be using the old procedural classes. I’ll try to demonstrate both approaches for each example and hope to win you over that DateTime is far easier to use and more powerful.


strtotime() is probably the simplest way takes a date as a string and attempts to convert it to a unix timestamp. Here are some examples of using strtotime()

A lot of people seem to try to use mktime() and gmmktime() to create dates from data they’ve fetched from a user or from the database. In most cases you can use strtotime() which very powerful and far simpler to use.

using mktime()

$dateString = '2011-05-01 09:22:34';
if (preg_match('/^(\d{4})\-(\d{2})\-(\d{2}) (\d{2}):(\d{2}):(\d{2})$/', $dateString, $a)) {
    $t = mktime($a[4], $a[5], $a[6], $a[2], $a[3], $a[1]);
    echo date('r', $t) . PHP_EOL; // returns: Sun, 01 May 2011 09:22:34 +0100

using strtotime()

$dateString = '2011-05-01 09:22:34';
$t = strtotime($dateString);
echo date('r', $t) . PHP_EOL; // returns: Sun, 01 May 2011 09:22:34 +0100

As you can see it’s far easier to use strtotime() to do this. The DateTime class wraps this functionality too:

using DateTime

$dateString = '2011-05-01 09:22:34';
$dt = new DateTime($dateString);
echo $dt->format('r') . PHP_EOL; // returns: Sun, 01 May 2011 09:22:34 +0100


If you tried out the examples above and got a warning that a default timezone isn’t set then you should set one using either date_default_timezone_set() at runtime or by defining date.timezone in your php.ini file. There’s a full list of timezones here

Setting the timezone at runtime


Formatting/returning dates

As a UNIX timestamp isn’t human readable you’ll need to convert it back out to something readable, you can format it into just about any style you want using this list of format strings. If you ever need to find it in a hurry just search on Google for “php date“. The procedural function date() is wrapped by the format() method in the DateTime class.

$dateString = '2011-05-01 09:22:34';
$t = strtotime($dateString);
echo date('l jS \of F, Y', $t) . PHP_EOL; // returns: Sunday 1st of May, 2011
$dateString = '2011-05-01 09:22:34';
$dt = new DateTime($dateString);
echo $dt->format('l jS \of F, Y') . PHP_EOL; // returns: Sunday 1st of May, 2011

Modifying dates

strtotime() is really powerful and allows you to modify/transform dates easily with it’s relative expressions too:


$dateString = '2011-05-01 09:22:34';
$t = strtotime($dateString);
$t2 = strtotime('-3 days', $t);
echo date('r', $t2) . PHP_EOL; // returns: Thu, 28 Apr 2011 09:22:34 +0100


$dateString = '2011-05-01 09:22:34';
$dt = new DateTime($dateString);
$dt->modify('-3 days');
echo $dt->format('r') . PHP_EOL; // returns: Thu, 28 Apr 2011 09:22:34 +0100

The stuff you can throw at strtotime() is quite surprising and very human readable. Have a look at this example looking for Tuesday next week.


$t = strtotime("Tuesday next week");
echo date('r', $t) . PHP_EOL; // returns: Tue, 10 May 2011 00:00:00 +0100


$dt = new DateTime("Tuesday next week");
echo $dt->format('r') . PHP_EOL; // returns: Tue, 10 May 2011 00:00:00 +0100

Note that these examples above are being returned relative to the time now.

The full list of time formats that strtotime() and the DateTime constructor takes are listed on the PHP Supported Date and Time Formats page.

Hopefully by now I’ve won you over that using the DateTime object is easier/cleaner than using the procedural functions. I’m going to follow by solving some common problems with the DateTime object and some other friends of its.

Converting time between timezones

Displaying a time in multiple time zones

$dt = new DateTime('1 May 2011 14:15', new DateTimeZone('America/Los_Angeles'));
// returns: LA:	Sun, 01 May 2011 14:15:00 -0700
echo "LA:\t". $dt->format('r') . PHP_EOL;

$dt->setTimeZone(new DateTimeZone('Europe/London'));
// returns: London:	Sun, 01 May 2011 22:15:00 +0100
echo "London:\t". $dt->format('r') . PHP_EOL;

Here we use the DateTimeZone class to convert a known time in a known timezone to a different timezone. This could allow users to select their timezone in their profile and then display all times from your application in that time zone. You’d need to be storing all of the dates in the database in the same timezone (e.g. GMT) though.

Displaying the difference between two times

This could be handy for stuff like showing a countdown to an event on your website (e.g. an offer expiring). PHP’s built-in DateInterval class makes this really simple.

// returns 25th December of this year
$offerEnds = new DateTime('25th December');
$now = new DateTime();

$diff = $offerEnds->diff($now);

// using the public properties
echo "It's only {$diff->days} days until Christmas!" . PHP_EOL;

// using the format string
echo $diff->format("%m months, %d days, %h hours and %i minutes till Christmas") . PHP_EOL;

The first echo uses the public properties of the DateDiff class and the second one uses the format strings and format() method.

Simple handling of date/time from databases

Converting DateTime objects into MySQL date format

class MySQLDateTime extends DateTime
    public function __toString()
        return $this->format('Y-m-d H:i:s');

$now = new MySQLDateTime();

$sql = "SELECT foo, bar FROM myTable WHERE someDate<'$now';";
echo $sql . PHP_EOL;

Converting dates from MySQL into DateTime objects

while (list($id, $date) = mysql_fetch_row($r)) {
    $dateObj = new DateTime($date);


These were just a few simple examples/tricks with date/time handling which demonstrate just how easy it is to work with dates/times using these classes. Hopefully this means an end to the days of working in UNIX timestamps by subtracting seconds, crudely manipulating time differences, etc.

If you have any other specific, common use cases that you’d like included in the article just add a comment to the post and I’ll try to add them.


About James Cohen
LAMP geek with interests in building scalable web applications

2 Responses to Working with Date and Time in PHP

  1. Pingback: Brian Swan

  2. Pingback: Programowanie w PHP » Blog Archive » James Cohen’s Blog: Working with Date and Time in PHP

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: