Unicode (UTF-8) reading and writing to files in Python

The Question :

344 people think this question is useful

I’m having some brain failure in understanding reading and writing text to a file (Python 2.4).

# The string, which has an a-acute in it.
ss = u'Capit\xe1n'
ss8 = ss.encode('utf8')
repr(ss), repr(ss8)

(“u’Capit\xe1n'”, “‘Capit\xc3\xa1n'”)

print ss, ss8
print >> open('f1','w'), ss8

>>> file('f1').read()

So I type in Capit\xc3\xa1n into my favorite editor, in file f2.


>>> open('f1').read()
>>> open('f2').read()
>>> open('f1').read().decode('utf8')
>>> open('f2').read().decode('utf8')

What am I not understanding here? Clearly there is some vital bit of magic (or good sense) that I’m missing. What does one type into text files to get proper conversions?

What I’m truly failing to grok here, is what the point of the UTF-8 representation is, if you can’t actually get Python to recognize it, when it comes from outside. Maybe I should just JSON dump the string, and use that instead, since that has an asciiable representation! More to the point, is there an ASCII representation of this Unicode object that Python will recognize and decode, when coming in from a file? If so, how do I get it?

>>> print simplejson.dumps(ss)
>>> print >> file('f3','w'), simplejson.dumps(ss)
>>> simplejson.load(open('f3'))

The Question Comments :

The Answer 1

113 people think this answer is useful

In the notation


the “\xe1” represents just one byte. “\x” tells you that “e1” is in hexadecimal. When you write


into your file you have “\xc3” in it. Those are 4 bytes and in your code you read them all. You can see this when you display them:

>>> open('f2').read()

You can see that the backslash is escaped by a backslash. So you have four bytes in your string: “\”, “x”, “c” and “3”.


As others pointed out in their answers you should just enter the characters in the editor and your editor should then handle the conversion to UTF-8 and save it.

If you actually have a string in this format you can use the string_escape codec to decode it into a normal string:

In [15]: print 'Capit\\xc3\\xa1n\n'.decode('string_escape')

The result is a string that is encoded in UTF-8 where the accented character is represented by the two bytes that were written \\xc3\\xa1 in the original string. If you want to have a unicode string you have to decode again with UTF-8.

To your edit: you don’t have UTF-8 in your file. To actually see how it would look like:

s = u'Capit\xe1n\n'
sutf8 = s.encode('UTF-8')
open('utf-8.out', 'w').write(sutf8)

Compare the content of the file utf-8.out to the content of the file you saved with your editor.

The Answer 2

751 people think this answer is useful

Rather than mess with the encode and decode methods I find it easier to specify the encoding when opening the file. The io module (added in Python 2.6) provides an io.open function, which has an encoding parameter.

Use the open method from the io module.

>>>import io
>>>f = io.open("test", mode="r", encoding="utf-8")

Then after calling f’s read() function, an encoded Unicode object is returned.


Note that in Python 3, the io.open function is an alias for the built-in open function. The built-in open function only supports the encoding argument in Python 3, not Python 2.

Edit: Previously this answer recommended the codecs module. The codecs module can cause problems when mixing read() and readline(), so this answer now recommends the io module instead.

Use the open method from the codecs module.

>>>import codecs
>>>f = codecs.open("test", "r", "utf-8")

Then after calling f’s read() function, an encoded Unicode object is returned.


If you know the encoding of a file, using the codecs package is going to be much less confusing.

See http://docs.python.org/library/codecs.html#codecs.open

The Answer 3

50 people think this answer is useful

Now all you need in Python3 is open(Filename, 'r', encoding='utf-8')

[Edit on 2016-02-10 for requested clarification]

Python3 added the encoding parameter to its open function. The following information about the open function is gathered from here: https://docs.python.org/3/library/functions.html#open

open(file, mode='r', buffering=-1, 
      encoding=None, errors=None, newline=None, 
      closefd=True, opener=None)

Encoding is the name of the encoding used to decode or encode the file. This should only be used in text mode. The default encoding is platform dependent (whatever locale.getpreferredencoding() returns), but any text encoding supported by Python can be used. See the codecs module for the list of supported encodings.

So by adding encoding='utf-8' as a parameter to the open function, the file reading and writing is all done as utf8 (which is also now the default encoding of everything done in Python.)

The Answer 4

18 people think this answer is useful

So, I’ve found a solution for what I’m looking for, which is:

print open('f2').read().decode('string-escape').decode("utf-8")

There are some unusual codecs that are useful here. This particular reading allows one to take UTF-8 representations from within Python, copy them into an ASCII file, and have them be read in to Unicode. Under the “string-escape” decode, the slashes won’t be doubled.

This allows for the sort of round trip that I was imagining.

The Answer 5

15 people think this answer is useful

Actually, this worked for me for reading a file with UTF-8 encoding in Python 3.2:

import codecs
f = codecs.open('file_name.txt', 'r', 'UTF-8')
for line in f:

The Answer 6

14 people think this answer is useful
# -*- encoding: utf-8 -*-

# converting a unknown formatting file in utf-8

import codecs
import commands

file_location = "jumper.sub"
file_encoding = commands.getoutput('file -b --mime-encoding %s' % file_location)

file_stream = codecs.open(file_location, 'r', file_encoding)
file_output = codecs.open(file_location+"b", 'w', 'utf-8')

for l in file_stream:


The Answer 7

7 people think this answer is useful

except for codecs.open(), one can uses io.open() to work with Python2 or Python3 to read / write unicode file


import io

text = u'á'
encoding = 'utf8'

with io.open('data.txt', 'w', encoding=encoding, newline='\n') as fout:

with io.open('data.txt', 'r', encoding=encoding, newline='\n') as fin:
    text2 = fin.read()

assert text == text2

The Answer 8

6 people think this answer is useful

To read in an Unicode string and then send to HTML, I did this:

fileline.decode("utf-8").encode('ascii', 'xmlcharrefreplace')

Useful for python powered http servers.

The Answer 9

6 people think this answer is useful

You have stumbled over the general problem with encodings: How can I tell in which encoding a file is?

Answer: You can’t unless the file format provides for this. XML, for example, begins with:

<?xml encoding="utf-8"?>

This header was carefully chosen so that it can be read no matter the encoding. In your case, there is no such hint, hence neither your editor nor Python has any idea what is going on. Therefore, you must use the codecs module and use codecs.open(path,mode,encoding) which provides the missing bit in Python.

As for your editor, you must check if it offers some way to set the encoding of a file.

The point of UTF-8 is to be able to encode 21-bit characters (Unicode) as an 8-bit data stream (because that’s the only thing all computers in the world can handle). But since most OSs predate the Unicode era, they don’t have suitable tools to attach the encoding information to files on the hard disk.

The next issue is the representation in Python. This is explained perfectly in the comment by heikogerlach. You must understand that your console can only display ASCII. In order to display Unicode or anything >= charcode 128, it must use some means of escaping. In your editor, you must not type the escaped display string but what the string means (in this case, you must enter the umlaut and save the file).

That said, you can use the Python function eval() to turn an escaped string into a string:

>>> x = eval("'Capit\\xc3\\xa1n\\n'")
>>> x
>>> x[5]
>>> len(x[5])

As you can see, the string “\xc3” has been turned into a single character. This is now an 8-bit string, UTF-8 encoded. To get Unicode:

>>> x.decode('utf-8')

Gregg Lind asked: I think there are some pieces missing here: the file f2 contains: hex:

0000000: 4361 7069 745c 7863 335c 7861 316e  Capit\xc3\xa1n

codecs.open('f2','rb', 'utf-8'), for example, reads them all in a separate chars (expected) Is there any way to write to a file in ASCII that would work?

Answer: That depends on what you mean. ASCII can’t represent characters > 127. So you need some way to say “the next few characters mean something special” which is what the sequence “\x” does. It says: The next two characters are the code of a single character. “\u” does the same using four characters to encode Unicode up to 0xFFFF (65535).

So you can’t directly write Unicode to ASCII (because ASCII simply doesn’t contain the same characters). You can write it as string escapes (as in f2); in this case, the file can be represented as ASCII. Or you can write it as UTF-8, in which case, you need an 8-bit safe stream.

Your solution using decode('string-escape') does work, but you must be aware how much memory you use: Three times the amount of using codecs.open().

Remember that a file is just a sequence of bytes with 8 bits. Neither the bits nor the bytes have a meaning. It’s you who says “65 means ‘A'”. Since \xc3\xa1 should become “à” but the computer has no means to know, you must tell it by specifying the encoding which was used when writing the file.

The Answer 10

5 people think this answer is useful

Well, your favorite text editor does not realize that \xc3\xa1 are supposed to be character literals, but it interprets them as text. That’s why you get the double backslashes in the last line — it’s now a real backslash + xc3, etc. in your file.

If you want to read and write encoded files in Python, best use the codecs module.

Pasting text between the terminal and applications is difficult, because you don’t know which program will interpret your text using which encoding. You could try the following:

>>> s = file("f1").read()
>>> print unicode(s, "Latin-1")

Then paste this string into your editor and make sure that it stores it using Latin-1. Under the assumption that the clipboard does not garble the string, the round trip should work.

The Answer 11

4 people think this answer is useful

The \x.. sequence is something that’s specific to Python. It’s not a universal byte escape sequence.

How you actually enter in UTF-8-encoded non-ASCII depends on your OS and/or your editor. Here’s how you do it in Windows. For OS X to enter a with an acute accent you can just hit option + E, then A, and almost all text editors in OS X support UTF-8.

The Answer 12

3 people think this answer is useful

You can also improve the original open() function to work with Unicode files by replacing it in place, using the partial function. The beauty of this solution is you don’t need to change any old code. It’s transparent.

import codecs
import functools
open = functools.partial(codecs.open, encoding='utf-8')

The Answer 13

1 people think this answer is useful

I was trying to parse iCal using Python 2.7.9:

from icalendar import Calendar

But I was getting:

 Traceback (most recent call last):
 File "ical.py", line 92, in parse
    print "{}".format(e[attr])
UnicodeEncodeError: 'ascii' codec can't encode character u'\xe1' in position 7: ordinal not in range(128)

and it was fixed with just:

print "{}".format(e[attr].encode("utf-8"))

(Now it can print liké á böss.)

The Answer 14

-1 people think this answer is useful

I found the most simple approach by changing the default encoding of the whole script to be ‘UTF-8’:

import sys

any open, print or other statement will just use utf8.

Works at least for Python 2.7.9.

Thx goes to https://markhneedham.com/blog/2015/05/21/python-unicodeencodeerror-ascii-codec-cant-encode-character-uxfc-in-position-11-ordinal-not-in-range128/ (look at the end).

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