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UTF-16, an encoding of ISO 10646

The information below is for an old version of the document that is already published as an RFC.
Document Type
This is an older version of an Internet-Draft that was ultimately published as RFC 2781.
Authors Paul E. Hoffman , François Yergeau
Last updated 2013-03-02 (Latest revision 1999-06-01)
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Internet Draft                                          Paul Hoffman
<draft-hoffman-utf16-04.txt>                Internet Mail Consortium
June 1, 1999                                        Francois Yergeau
                                                   Alis Technologies

                     UTF-16, an encoding of ISO 10646

Status of this Memo

This document is an Internet-Draft and is in full conformance with all
provisions of Section 10 of RFC2026.

Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering Task
Force (IETF), its areas, and its working groups. Note that other groups
may also distribute working documents as Internet-Drafts.

Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six months
and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any
time. It is inappropriate to use Internet-Drafts as reference material
or to cite them other than as "work in progress."

The list of current Internet-Drafts can be accessed at

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Copyright (C) The Internet Society (1999). All Rights Reserved.

1. Introduction

This document describes the UTF-16 encoding of Unicode/ISO-10646,
addresses the issues of serializing UTF-16 as an octet stream for
transmission over the Internet, defines MIME charset naming as
described in [CHARSET-REG], and contains the registration for three
MIME charset parameter values: UTF-16BE (big-endian), UTF-16LE
(little-endian), and UTF-16.

1.1 Background and motivation

The Unicode Standard [UNICODE] and ISO/IEC 10646 [ISO-10646] jointly
define a coded character set (CCS), hereafter referred to as Unicode,
which encompasses most of the world's writing systems [WORKSHOP].
UTF-16, the object of this specification, is one of the standard ways
of encoding Unicode character data; it has the characteristics of
encoding all currently defined characters (in plane 0, the BMP) in
exactly two octets and of being able to encode all other characters
likely to be defined (the next 16 planes) in exactly four octets.

The Unicode Standard further defines additional character properties
and other application details of great interest to implementors. Up to
the present time, changes in Unicode and amendments to ISO/IEC 10646
have tracked each other, so that the character repertoires and code
point assignments have remained in sync. The relevant standardization
committees have committed to maintain this very useful synchronism, as
well as not to assign characters outside of the 17 planes accessible to

The IETF policy on character sets and languages [CHARPOLICY] says that
IETF protocols MUST be able to use the UTF-8 charset [UTF-8]. Although
UTF-8 has many beneficial properties, such as the direct encoding of
US-ASCII characters, re-synchronization after loss of octets and
immunity to the byte-order issue (see 3.1 below), it is a
variable-width encoding and is less dense than UTF-16 for characters
whose values are between 0x0800 and 0xFFFF. Some products and network
standards already specify UTF-16, making it an important encoding for
the Internet.

1.2 Terminology

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT",
document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119 [MUSTSHOULD].

Throughout this document, character values are shown in hexadecimal
notation. For example, "0x013C" is the character whose value is the
character assigned the integer value 316 (decimal) in the CCS.

2. UTF-16 definition

In ISO 10646, each character is assigned a number, which Unicode calls
the Unicode scalar value. This number is the same as the UCS-4 value of
the character, and this document will refer to it as the "character
value" for brevity. In the UTF-16 encoding, characters are represented
using either one or two unsigned 16-bit integers, depending on the
character value. Serialization of these integers for transmission as a
byte stream is discussed in Section 3.

The rules for how characters are encoded in UTF-16 are:

 - Characters with values less than 0x10000 are represented as a single
   16-bit integer with a value equal to that of the character number.

 - Characters with values between 0x10000 and 0x10FFFF are represented
   by a 16-bit integer with a value between 0xD800 and 0xDBFF (within
   the so-called high-half zone or high surrogate area) followed by a
   16-bit integer with a value between 0xDC00 and 0xDFFF (within the
   so-called low-half zone or low surrogate area).

 - Characters with values greater than 0x10FFFF cannot be encoded in

Note: Values between 0xD800 and 0xDFFF are specifically reserved for
use with UTF-16, and don't have any characters assigned to them.

2.1 Encoding UTF-16

Encoding of a single character from an ISO 10646 character value to
UTF-16 proceeds as follows. Let U be the character number, no greater
than 0x10FFFF.

1) If U < 0x10000, encode U as a 16-bit unsigned integer and terminate.

2) Let U' = U - 0x10000. Because U is less than or equal to 0x10FFFF,
U' must be less than or equal to 0xFFFFF. That is, U' can be
represented in 20 bits.

3) Initialize two 16-bit unsigned integers, W1 and W2, to 0xD800 and
0xDC00, respectively. These integers each have 10 bits free to encode
the character value, for a total of 20 bits.

4) Assign the 10 high-order bits of the 20-bit U' to the 10 low-order
bits of W1 and the 10 low-order bits of U' to the 10 low-order bits of
W2. Terminate.

Graphically, steps 2 through 4 look like:
U' = yyyyyyyyyyxxxxxxxxxx
W1 = 110110yyyyyyyyyy
W2 = 110111xxxxxxxxxx

2.2 Decoding UTF-16

Decoding of a single character from UTF-16 to an ISO 10646 character
value proceeds as follows. Let W1 be the next 16-bit integer in the
sequence of integers representing the text. Let W2 be the (eventual)
next integer following W1.

1) If W1 < 0xD800 or W1 > 0xDFFF, the character value U is the value of
W1. Terminate.

2) Determine if W1 is between 0xD800 and 0xDBFF. If not, the sequence
is in error and no valid character can be obtained using W1. Terminate.

3) If there is no W2 (that is, the sequence ends with W1), or if W2 is
not between 0xDC00 and 0xDFFF, the sequence is in error. Terminate.

4) Construct a 20-bit unsigned integer U', taking the 10 low-order bits
of W1 as its 10 high-order bits and the 10 low-order bits of W2 as its
10 low-order bits.

5) Add 0x10000 to U' to obtain the character value U. Terminate.

Note that steps 2 and 3 indicate errors. Error recovery is not
specified by this document. When terminating with an error in steps 2
and 3, it may be wise to set U to the value of W1 to help the caller
diagnose the error and not lose information. Also note that a string
decoding algorithm, as opposed to the single-character decoding
described above, need not terminate upon detection of an error, if
proper error reporting and/or recovery is provided.

3. Labelling UTF-16 text

Appendix A of this specification contains registrations for three MIME
charsets: "UTF-16BE", "UTF-16LE", and "UTF-16". MIME charsets represent
the combination of a CCS (a coded character set) and a CES (a character
encoding scheme). Here the CCS is Unicode/ISO 10646 and the CES is the
same in all three cases, except for the serialization order of the
octets in each character, and the external determination of which
serialization is used.

This section describes which of the three labels to apply to a stream
of text. Section 4 describes how to interpret the labels on a stream of

3.1 Definition of big-endian and little-endian

Historically, computer hardware has processed two-octet entities such
as 16-bit integers in one of two ways. So-called "big-endian" hardware
handles two-octet entities with the higher-order octet first, that is
at the lower address in memory; when written out to disk or to a
network interface (serializing), the high-order octet thus appears
first in the data stream. On the other hand, "Little-endian" hardware
handles two-octet entities with the lower-order octet first. Hardware
of both kinds is common today.

For example, the unsigned 16-bit integer that represents the decimal
number 258 is 0x0102. The big-endian serialization of that number is
the octet 0x01 followed by the octet 0x02. The little-endian
serialization of that number is the octet 0x02 followed by the octet
0x01. The following C code fragment demonstrates a way to write 16-bit
quantities to a file in big-endian order, irrespective of the
hardware's native byte order.

void write_be(unsigned short u, FILE f)  /* assume short is 16 bits */
  putc(u >> 8,   f);                     /* output high-order byte */
  putc(u & 0xFF, f);                     /* then low-order */

The term "network byte order" has been used in many RFCs to indicate
big-endian serialization, although that term has yet to be formally
defined in a standards-track document. Although ISO 10646 prefers
big-endian serialization (section 6.3 of [ISO-10646]), little-endian
order is also sometimes used on the Internet.

3.2 Byte order mark (BOM)

The Unicode Standard and ISO 10646 define the character "ZERO WIDTH
NON-BREAKING SPACE" (0xFEFF), which is also known informally as "BYTE
ORDER MARK" (abbreviated "BOM"). The latter name hints at a second
possible usage of the character, in addition to its normal use as a
genuine "ZERO WIDTH NON-BREAKING SPACE" within text. This usage,
suggested by Unicode section 2.4 and ISO 10646 Annex F (informative),
is to prepend a 0xFEFF character to a stream of Unicode characters as a
"signature"; a receiver of such a serialized stream may then use the
initial character both as a hint that the stream consists of Unicode
characters and as a way to recognize the serialization order. In
serialized UTF-16 prepended with such a signature, the order is
big-endian if the first two octets are 0xFE followed by 0xFF; if they
are 0xFF followed by 0xFE, the order is little-endian. Note that 0xFFFE
is not a Unicode character, precisely to preserve the usefulness of
0xFEFF as a byte-order mark.

It is important to understand that the character 0xFEFF appearing at
any position other than the beginning of a stream MUST be interpreted
with the semantics for the zero-width non-breaking space, and MUST NOT
be interpreted as a byte-order mark. The contrapositive of that
statement is not always true: the character 0xFEFF in the first
position of a stream MAY be interpreted as a zero-width non-breaking
space, and is not always a byte-order mark. For example, if a process
splits a UTF-16 string into many parts, a part might begin with 0xFEFF
because there was a zero-width non-breaking space at the beginning of
that substring.

The Unicode standard further suggests than an initial 0xFEFF character
may be stripped before processing the text, the rationale being that
such a character in initial position may be an artifact of the encoding
(an encoding signature), not a genuine intended "ZERO WIDTH
NON-BREAKING SPACE". Note that such stripping might affect an external
process at a different layer (such as a digital signature or a count of
the characters) that is relying on the presence of all characters in
the stream.

In particular, in UTF-16 plain text it is likely, but not certain, that
an initial 0xFEFF is a signature. When concatenating two strings, it is
important to strip out those signatures, because otherwise the
resulting string may contain an unintended "ZERO WIDTH NON-BREAKING
SPACE" at the connection point. Also, some specifications mandate an
initial 0xFEFF character in objects encoded in UTF-16 and specify that
this signature is not part of the object.

3.3 Choosing a label for UTF-16 text

Any labelling application that uses UTF-16 character encoding, and
explicitly labels the text, and knows the serialization order of the
characters in text, SHOULD label the text as either "UTF-16BE" or
"UTF-16LE", whichever is appropriate based on the endianness of the
text. This allows applications processing the text, but unable to look
inside the text, to know the serialization definitively.

Text in the "UTF-16BE" charset MUST be serialized with the octets which
make up a single 16-bit UTF-16 value in big-endian order. Systems
labelling UTF-16BE text MUST NOT prepend a BOM to the text.

Text in the "UTF-16LE" charset MUST be serialized with the octets which
make up a single 16-bit UTF-16 value in little-endian order. Systems
labelling UTF-16LE text MUST NOT prepend a BOM to the text.

Any labelling application that uses UTF-16 character encoding, and puts
an explicit charset label on the text, and does not know the
serialization order of the characters in text, MUST label the text as
"UTF-16", and SHOULD make sure the text starts with 0xFEFF.

An exception to the "SHOULD" rule of using "UTF-16BE" or "UTF-16LE"
would occur with document formats that mandate a BOM in UTF-16 text,
thereby requiring the use of the "UTF-16" tag only.

4. Interpreting text labels

When a program sees text labelled as "UTF-16BE", "UTF-16LE", or
"UTF-16", it can make some assumptions, based on the labelling rules
given in the previous section. These assumptions allow the program to
then process the text.

4.1 Interpreting text labelled as UTF-16BE

Text labelled "UTF-16BE" can always be interpreted as being big-endian.
The detection of an initial BOM does not affect de-serialization of
text labelled as UTF-16BE. Finding 0xFF followed by 0xFE is an error
since there is no Unicode character 0xFFFE.

4.2 Interpreting text labelled as UTF-16LE

Text labelled "UTF-16LE" can always be interpreted as being
little-endian. The detection of an initial BOM does not affect
de-serialization of text labelled as UTF-16LE. Finding 0xFE followed by
0xFF is an error since there is no Unicode character 0xFFFE, which
would be the interpretation of those octets under little-endian order.

4.3 Interpreting text labelled as UTF-16

Text labelled with the "UTF-16" charset might be serialized in either
big-endian or little-endian order. If the first two octets of the text
is 0xFE followed by 0xFF, then the text can be interpreted as being
big-endian. If the first two octets of the text is 0xFF followed by
0xFE, then the text can be interpreted as being little-endian. If the
first two octets of the text is not 0xFE followed by 0xFF, and is not
0xFF followed by 0xFE, then the text SHOULD be interpreted as being

All applications that process text with the "UTF-16" charset label MUST
be able to read at least the first two octets of the text and be able
to process those octets in order to determine the serialization order
of the text. Applications that process text with the "UTF-16" charset
label MUST NOT assume the serialization without first checking the
first two octets to see if they are a big-endian BOM, a little-endian
BOM, or not a BOM. All applications that process text with the "UTF-16"
charset label MUST be able to interpret both big-endian and
little-endian text.

5. Examples

For the sake of example, let's suppose that there is a hieroglyphic
character representing the Egyptian god Ra with character value
0x12345 (this character does not exist at present in Unicode).

The examples here all evaluate to the phrase:


where the "*" represents the Ra hieroglyph (0x12345).

Text labelled with UTF-16BE, without a BOM:
D8 08 DF 45 00 3D 00 52 00 61

Text labelled with UTF-16LE, without a BOM:
08 D8 45 DF 3D 00 52 00 61 00

Big-endian text labelled with UTF-16, with a BOM:
FE FF D8 08 DF 45 00 3D 00 52 00 61

Little-endian text labelled with UTF-16, with a BOM:
FF FE 08 D8 45 DF 3D 00 52 00 61 00

6. Versions of the standards

ISO/IEC 10646 is updated from time to time by published amendments;
similarly, different versions of the Unicode standard exist: 1.0, 1.1,
2.0, and 2.1 as of this writing. Each new version replaces the
previous one, but implementations, and more significantly data, are not
updated instantly.

In general, the changes amount to adding new characters, which does not
pose particular problems with old data. Amendment 5 to ISO/IEC 10646,
however, has moved and expanded the Korean Hangul block, thereby making
any previous data containing Hangul characters invalid under the new
version. Unicode 2.0 has the same difference from Unicode 1.1. The
official justification for allowing such an incompatible change was
that no significant implementations and data containing Hangul existed,
a statement that is likely to be true but remains unprovable. The
incident has been dubbed the "Korean mess", and the relevant committees
have pledged to never, ever again make such an incompatible change.

New versions, and in particular any incompatible changes, have
consequences regarding MIME character encoding labels, to be discussed
in Appendix A.

7. Security considerations

UTF-16 is based on the ISO 10646 character set, which is frequently
being added to, as described in Section 6 and Appendix A of this
document. Processors must be able to handle characters that are not
defined at the time that the processor was created in such a way as to
not allow an attacker to harm a recipient by including unknown

Processors that handle any type of text, including text encoded as
UTF-16, must be vigilant in checking for control characters that might
reprogram a display terminal or keyboard. Similarly, processors that
interpret text entities (such as looking for embedded programming
code), must be careful not to execute the code without first alerting
the recipient.

Text in UTF-16 may contain special characters, such as the OBJECT
REPLACEMENT CHARACTER (0xFFFC), that might cause external processing,
depending on the interpretation of the processing program and the
availability of an external data stream that would be executed. This
external processing may have side-effects that allow the sender of a
message to attack the receiving system.

Implementors of UTF-16 need to consider the security aspects of how
they handle illegal UTF-16 sequences (that is, sequences involving
surrogate pairs that have illegal values or unpaired surrogates). It is
conceivable that in some circumstances an attacker would be able to
exploit an incautious UTF-16 parser by sending it an octet sequence
that is not permitted by the UTF-16 syntax, causing it to behave in
some anomalous fashion.

8. References

[CHARPOLICY] Alvestrand, H., "IETF Policy on Character Sets and
Languages", BCP 18, RFC 2277, January 1998.

[CHARSET-REG]  Freed, N., and J. Postel, "IANA Charset Registration
Procedures", BCP 19, RFC 2278, January 1998.

[HTTP-1.1] Fielding, R., et. al., "Hypertext Transfer Protocol --
HTTP/1.1", RFC 2068, January 1997.

[ISO-10646] ISO/IEC 10646-1:1993. International Standard -- Information
technology -- Universal Multiple-Octet Coded Character Set (UCS) --
Part 1: Architecture and Basic Multilingual Plane. Twelve amendments
and two technical corrigenda have been published up to now. UTF-16 is
described in Annex Q, published as Amendment 1. Many other amendments
are currently at various stages of standardization.

[MUSTSHOULD] Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate
Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, March 1997.

[UNICODE] The Unicode Consortium, "The Unicode Standard -- Version
2.0", ISBN 0-201-48345-9; with Unicode Technical Report #8, "The
Unicode Standard, Version 2.1",

[UTF-8] Yergeau, F., "UTF-8, a transformation format of ISO 10646", RFC
2279, January 1998.

[WORKSHOP] Weider, C., et. al., "Report of the IAB Character Set
Workshop", RFC 2130, April 1997.

9. Acknowledgments

Deborah Goldsmith wrote a great deal of the initial wording for this
specification. Martin Duerst proposed numerous significant changes.
Other significant contributors include:

Mati Allouche
Walt Daniels
Mark Davis
Ned Freed
Asmus Freytag
Lloyd Honomichl
Dan Kegel
Murata Makoto
Larry Masinter
Markus Scherer
Ken Whistler

Some of the text in this specification was copied from [UTF-8], and
that document was worked on by many people. Please see the
acknowledgments section in that document for more people who may have
contributed indirectly to this document.

10. Changes between draft -03 and -04

2: Added note at the end of the section about 0xD800-0xDFFF being
reserved for UTF-16.

3: Spelled out CCS and CES in the first paragraph. Also put a reference
to Appendix A in the first paragraph. In the last paragraph, changed
the last sentence to indicate that little-ending is already sometimes
used on the Internet.

3.3: Changed the last paragraph to explain which kind of rules it
applies to.

5: Changed "0x00012345" to "0x12345".

8: Changed the reference to [UNICODE].

A. Charset registrations

This memo is meant to serve as the basis for registration of three MIME
charsets [CHARSET-REG]. The proposed charsets are "UTF-16BE",
"UTF-16LE", and "UTF-16". These strings label objects containing text
consisting of characters from the repertoire of ISO/IEC 10646 including
all amendments at least up to amendment 5 (Korean block), encoded to a
sequence of octets using the encoding and serialization schemes
outlined above.

Note that "UTF-16BE", "UTF-16LE", and "UTF-16" are NOT suitable for use
in media types under the "text" top-level type, because they do not
encode line endings in the way required for MIME "text" media types. An
exception to this is HTTP, which uses a MIME-like mechanism, but is
exempt from the restrictions on the text top-level type (see section
19.4.1 of HTTP 1.1 [HTTP-1.1]).

It is noteworthy that the labels described here do not contain a
version identification, referring generically to ISO/IEC 10646. This is
intentional, the rationale being as follows:

A MIME charset is designed to give just the information needed to
interpret a sequence of bytes received on the wire into a sequence of
characters, nothing more (see RFC 2045, section 2.2, in [MIME]). As
long as a character set standard does not change incompatibly, version
numbers serve no purpose, because one gains nothing by learning from
the tag that newly assigned characters may be received that one doesn't
know about. The tag itself doesn't teach anything about the new
characters, which are going to be received anyway.

Hence, as long as the standards evolve compatibly, the apparent
advantage of having labels that identify the versions is only that,
apparent. But there is a disadvantage to such version-dependent
labels: when an older application receives data accompanied by a newer,
unknown label, it may fail to recognize the label and be completely
unable to deal with the data, whereas a generic, known label would have
triggered mostly correct processing of the data, which may well not
contain any new characters.

The "Korean mess" (ISO/IEC 10646 amendment 5) is an incompatible
change, in principle contradicting the appropriateness of a version
independent MIME charset as described above. But the compatibility
problem can only appear with data containing Korean Hangul characters
encoded according to Unicode 1.1 (or equivalently ISO/IEC 10646 before
amendment 5), and there is arguably no such data to worry about, this
being the very reason the incompatible change was deemed acceptable.

In practice, then, a version-independent label is warranted, provided
the label is understood to refer to all versions after Amendment 5, and
provided no incompatible change actually occurs. Should incompatible
changes occur in a later version of ISO/IEC 10646, the MIME charsets
defined here will stay aligned with the previous version until and
unless the IETF specifically decides otherwise.

A.1 Registration for UTF-16BE

Subject: Registration of new charset

Charset name(s): UTF-16BE

Published specification(s): This specification

Suitable for use in MIME content types under the
"text" top-level type: No

Person & email address to contact for further information:
Paul Hoffman <>
Francois Yergeau <>

A.2 Registration for UTF-16LE

Subject: Registration of new charset

Charset name(s): UTF-16LE

Published specification(s): This specification

Suitable for use in MIME content types under the
"text" top-level type: No

Person & email address to contact for further information:
Paul Hoffman <>
Francois Yergeau <>

A.3 Registration for UTF-16

Subject: Registration of new charset

Charset name(s): UTF-16

Published specification(s): This specification

Suitable for use in MIME content types under the
"text" top-level type: No

Person & email address to contact for further information:
Paul Hoffman <>
Francois Yergeau <>

B. Authors' address

Paul Hoffman
Internet Mail Consortium
127 Segre Place
Santa Cruz, CA  95060 USA

Francois Yergeau
Alis Technologies
100, boul. Alexis-Nihon, Suite 600
Montreal  QC  H4M 2P2 Canada