How to Avoid Character Encoding Problems in PHP

Character sets can be confusing at the best of times. This post aims to explain the potential problems and suggest solutions.

Although this is applied to PHP and a typical LAMP stack you can apply the same principles to any multi-tier stack.

If you’re in a hurry you can skim past this first “The boring history” section.

The boring history

Back in 1963 ASCII was published, it was a simple character set conceived in the US and designed as a standard to allow different systems to interact with one another. It includes alphanumeric characters, numbers and some common symbols. It’s a 7-bit character set (ASCII Table)

This works OK for English speaking countries but doesn’t help with other languages that have different characters, accented characters like é. Twenty or so years later the ISO-8859 set of standards were established. By then bytes (8-bits) had become a standard sized chunk of data to send information around in. These new character sets allowed space for another 128 characters. This was enough space to create different sets for different languages/regions but not enough to put everything into a single character-set.

ISO-8859-1 is probably the most commonly used (also known as “latin1” or “Western European”) and other 15 other character sets were defined too including ISO-8859-2 (Central European), ISO-8859-3 (South European), etc, etc. There’s a full list on Wikipedia.

This created a big problem, you need to know which character-set you’re using because although the common ASCII characters are the same in different languages the same sign is £ in one character-set and Ł, Ŗ, Ѓ or ฃ in various different sets!

An easier solution would be to have all possible characters in some single character set and that’s what UTF-8 does. It’s shares the same first 7 bytes with ASCII (it’s backwardly compatible) but can be anything from one byte to four bytes in length. That gives it a staggering choice of 1,112,064 different characters. That makes life a bunch easier, because you can use UTF-8 with your web application and it’ll work for everyone around the world.

There is another used character set called UTF-16 but it’s not backwardly compatible with ASCII and less widely used.

Conclusion of the boring history section

If you didn’t bother to read all of the section above there’s just one thing to take away from it: Use UTF-8

Where do the problems occur?

You have a potential for problems to occur anywhere that one part of your system talks to another. For a PHP/LAMP setup these components are:

* Your editor that you’re creating the PHP/HTML files in
* The web browser people are viewing your site through
* Your PHP web application running on the web server
* The MySQL database
* Anywhere else external you’re reading/writing data from (memcached, APIs, RSS feeds, etc)

To avoid these potential problems we’re going to make sure that every component is configured to use UTF-8 so that no mis-translation goes on anywhere.

Configuring your editor

Ensure that your text editor, IDE or whatever you’re writing the PHP code in saves your files in UTF-8 format. Your FTP client, scp, SFTP client doesn’t need any special UTF-8 setting.

Making sure that web browsers know to use UTF-8

To make sure your users’ browsers all know to read/write all data as UTF-8 you can set this in two places.

The content-type <META> tag
Ensure the content-type META header specifies UTF-8 as the character set like this:

<META HTTP-EQUIV="Content-Type" CONTENT="text/html; charset=UTF-8">

The HTTP response headers
Make sure that the Content-Type response header also specifies UTF-8 as the character-set like this:

ini_set('default_charset', 'utf-8')

Configuring the MySQL Connection

Now you know that all of the data you’re receiving from the users is in UTF-8 format we need to configure the client connection between the PHP and the MySQL database.

There’s a generic way of doing by simply executing the MySQL query:


…and depending on which client/driver you’re using there are helper functions to do this more easily instead:

With the built in mysql functions

mysql_set_charset('utf8', $link);

With MySQLi


With PDO_MySQL (as you connect)

$pdo = new PDO( 

The MySQL Database

We’re pretty much there now, you just need to make sure that MySQL knows to store the data in your tables as UTF-8. You can check their encoding by looking at the Collation value in the output of SHOW TABLE STATUS (in phpmyadmin this is shown in the list of tables).

If your tables are not already in UTF-8 (it’s likely they’re in latin1) then you’ll need to convert them by running the following command for each table:

ALTER TABLE myTable CHARACTER SET utf8 COLLATE utf8_general_ci;

One last thing to watch out for

With all of these steps complete now your application should be free of any character set problems.

There is one thing to watch out for, most of the PHP string functions are not unicode aware so for example if you run strlen() against a multi-byte character it’ll return the number of bytes in the input, not the number of characters. You can work round this by using the Multibyte String PHP extension though it’s not that common for these byte/character issues to cause problems.