We are using MySQL at the company I work for, and we build both client-facing and internal applications using Ruby on Rails.

When I started working here, I ran into a problem what I had never encountered before; the database on the production server is set to Latin-1, meaning that the MySQL gem throws an exception whenever there is user input where the user copies & pastes UTF-8 characters.

My boss calls these "bad characters" since most of them are non-printable characters, and says that we need to strip them out. I've found a few ways to do this, but eventually we've ended up in a circumstance where a UTF-8 character was needed. Plus it's a bit of a hassle, especially since it seems like the only solution I ever read about for this issue is to just set the database to UTF-8 (makes sense to me).

The only argument that I've heard for sticking with Latin-1 is that allowing non-printable UTF-8 characters can mess up text/full-text searches in MySQL. Is this really true?

Are there other reasons one should use Latin-1 over UTF-8? It's my understanding that it is superior and becoming more ubiquitous.

  • 4
    @jon LATIN-1 is not English specific. Spanish is contained perfectly there, as well as French if I'm not mistaken.
    – Darkhogg
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 23:48
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    @Darkhog: Latin1 is indeed not specific for English, but it is essentially restricted to west-European alphabets. Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 11:58
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    The only possible benefit from using Latin 1 rather than UTF-8 in a modern system is sabotage. That of course is only a benefit to the saboteur, and whoever their loyalties are to, not to the owners or developers of the system.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 23:50
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    Too bad your database would not be able to hold the Euro symbol, or even my name (דותן).
    – dotancohen
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 8:39
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    user "copy and pastes" non-latin-1 characters? don't treat unicode as some irrelevant frivolous thing that only mischievous nerds care about. quite a lot of us type characters that won't fit in latin-1 on a regular basis — i hear a lot of people speak non-european languages, even ♥
    – Eevee
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 11:17

6 Answers 6


Unicode is certainly difficult, and the UTF-8 encoding has a couple of inconvenient properties. However, UTF-8 has become the de-facto standard encoding on the web, surpassing ASCII, Latin-1, UCS-2 and UTF-16. Just use UTF-8 everywhere.

The most important reason why you should support Unicode is that you shouldn't make unnecessary assumptions about user input. I have no idea what your domain is, but things like Hebrew usernames, a blog post about China, a comment with Emoji, or simply well styled text – like “this” – should be possible… Oh, those were typographically correct quotation marks (“” rather than ""), en-wide dashes, and an ellipsis, which are characters that are common in English text, but not supported by ASCII or Latin-1. So not supporting other scripts isn't just a big f*ck you to other cultures, but sticking to Latin-1 doesn't even allow you to write proper English.

The notion that Unicode only allows “bad characters” is wrong. Yes, text is really complicated, and Unicode won't hide that from you. Your boss may be thinking about composed characters, where one base codepoint such as a is modified by subsequent codepoints that e.g. represent diacritics to form one visual character such as á. This doesn't really get into your way when trying to do searches if you do some kind of normalization. For example, you could store all text in the NFC form which collapses such compositions into their precomposed form if one is available. When doing searching, you could also strip all composing characters from the text, but this may substantially change their meaning in some languages.

Unicode also adds a lot of unprintable characters – but even ASCII has loads of them. Will you handle a NUL in the middle of a string? How about 0x1C, a “File Separator”? I've never seen half of those. Latin-1 adds a soft hyphen that indicates word break opportunities, but is otherwise invisible. Does that also break your full-text search? In other words, even ASCII and Latin-1 allow you to completely break your input if you assume it's all just printable text!

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    From a database perspective, some of those characters are not/should not be allowed in a text type field (text/varchar/char/etc.). MySQL does allow null characters in these data types, but other databases like PostgreSQL do not. You're supposed to use BLOB (MySQL) or BYTEA (PostgreSQL) if you want to be able to store such characters.
    – cimmanon
    Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 17:24
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    "sticking to Latin-1 doesn't even allow you to write proper English" That's a good thing, otherwise unicode would be resisted even stronger. ;-) Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 4:18
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    @PaŭloEbermann Embedded NUL characters means your data is a binary blob, not just a string. NULs was a strange example, since I believe UTF-8 avoids ever using a \0 byte as part of a multi-byte encoding, to make sure non-UTF8-aware code doesn't stop in the middle of a string. Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 11:25
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    All unicode characters are printable -- you just need the correct font :-) Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 4:30
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    @JamesAnderson the font would then be wrong and broken. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicode_control_characters
    – djechlin
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 15:08

I think beyond the technical question, your boss may not have the time to keep up to date on current standards.

Since his stance is not completely out to lunch, just out-dated, respect his position when discussing this matter (and you need to remember to discuss, not argue), and try to work through concerns he has with regards to UTF-8. I suspect the underlying issue is not a technical issue and may require some level of soft-skill negotiation.

  • 6
    I couldn't approve more. Actually I regret that in my own answer I completely overlooked the "human side", which in this issue might well be paramount. Wish I could upvote more than once :-)
    – LSerni
    Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 10:38
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    calling everything outside of latin-1 bad character and thinking these are non-printable is just out-dated to you?
    – njzk2
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 15:50
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    The real issue is, "Is it a technical issue we are dealing with?" I don't believe the OP's boss went to school and was taught this, or read some technical manual/journal and came to that conclusion. I don't get the sense that the solution is strictly a technical solution. Ironically the comment shows exactly the heart of the issue; addressing this issue can be extremely offensive if done improperly.
    – Nelson
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 17:04

Which of us is right?

Once upon a time, your boss was. But as time goes by, things change. Nowadays, you are (but before running to your boss, be sure to read Nelson's answer too).

Old versions of MySQL, and old versions of mostly everything, dealt much better with the older Latin1/ISO-8859-1(5) than UTF8.

There is a reason why UTF8 has been created, evolved, and pushed mostly everywhere: if properly implemented, it works much better. There are some performance and storage issues stemming from the fact that a Latin1 character is 8 bits, while a UTF8 character may be from 8 to 32 bits long. So when planning VARCHAR you need to take this into account. And your search routines will be a tad slower. They will be able to do more things (e.g. searches with accent sensitivity or without. Can't do those in Latin1 without extensive work), but they will take a bit more time.

But on the other hand, storage is cheap, the realistic overhead on file sizes is less than 2-3%, computing power is also cheap and getting cheaper in good accord with Moore's Law; while your time and your customers' expectations definitely aren't.

You might have to worry for search tools etc. if you were the one to develop such tools. But you probably aren't. You use those tools; even those that were not completely UTF8 compliant yesterday (as the earlier MySQLs weren't), are today, or soon will be (e.g. MySQL with utf8mb4 support).

So by carefully planning and implementing UTF8 the right way (not slapping it over Latin1 as an afterthought) you can have code that is very reasonably future-proof, which, if you plan on ever doing business with any Asiatic country, is a Very Good Thing. And if you have no such plans, other people will have, and those people could be your customers, suppliers, or partners.

So when they start sending you UTF8 data, you'll have to set up a complicated thingamajig to convert to and fro Latin1, and deal with unsolvable cases.

When you factor in the budget the cost of several skirmishes against the evil mojibake ninjas, and consider that they are not going to go away - as you already discovered - then you'll realize that going UTF8 is not only simpler, it's going to be cheaper as well.


Some situations where restricting the character set only to ASCII may make sense is for limited choice fields, e.g. status fields, because you strictly control the values that can be there, and foreign key/references to external system, because there are rarely any reasons for them to have anything but alphanumeric characters and a few symbols.

For any other texts, just use UTF-8.

  • 2
    Doesn't MySQL have enums? Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 6:55
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    And since ASCII is a subset of UTF8, just use UTF8 even then. Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 10:00
  • @RemcoGerlich: I disagree that you could use UTF8 for those. In my view, external references are not text but opaque sequence of bytes. They have no charset except for notational convenience. If the sequence of bytes have an interpretation in certain charset, that is either the external system's or the application's domain, not the database's.
    – Lie Ryan
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 11:14
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    @LieRyan: I see that point, but then it shouldn't be ASCII either, probably some binary blob format or so. Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 13:03

To begin with the answer, it doesn't matter, how your server is configured. The character encoding in MySQL could be configured per-column (means, same table could hold characters in multiple encodings, easy). I.e. my server (and a number of legacy databases in it) is configured for cp1251 by default for old clients that unable to set correct collation upon connect (different hardware clients), but main databases in production are all using UTF-8.

Speaking of "wasted space" - you can't realistically call important data a waste, can you? Storage space increase, however, will be different depending on the language your data is in. From insignificant (less than 1%) increase if your site is primarily in English and up to 100%, if it is mailny using characters outside the ASCII range. And even more, if you move firther east. Later UTF-8 (so-called UTF8mb4) specifications allow up to 4 bytes per code point.

And to "who's right"… Truth is, this is a social question more than it is technical. There could be valid reasons for specific server setups, but you must know the implications. But if you ask me, there's no reason to not use UTF-8. It's the one kind to rule all texts in the world.

  • MySQL will try to convert data in Database encoding before converting it to column encoding. If you have utf8 client, latin1 database and utf8 columnt, then text data can be lost. Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 15:50
  • Ivan, that is an entirely different question. The intereaction between character-set-client, character-set-server, character-set-connection, character-set-results is a long article in the MySQL documentation. And in case of per-column collation settings, "database collation" is column collation, and it is directly converted to character-set-result, ignoring database collation.
    – AnrDaemon
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 8:12

Just explain to him that UTF-8 is the default for web traffic. And any user can enter any valid unicode character in their browser.

Its just much easier to have utf-8/unicode all the way from front end to back end than to deal with the many and various issues that result from utf-8-> latin-1-> utf-8.

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