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UTF-8 is a variable-length character encoding, which in this instance means that it uses 1 to 4 bytes per symbol. So, the first UTF-8 byte is used for encoding ASCII, giving the character set full backwards compatibility with ASCII. UTF-8 means that ASCII and Latin characters are interchangeable with little increase in the size of the data, because only the first byte is used. Users of Eastern alphabets such as Japanese, who have been assigned a higher byte range are unhappy, as this results in as much as a 50% redundancy in their data.

Character encodings

What is a character encoding?

Computers themselves do not understand printed text as a human would. For computers, every character of text is represented by a number. Traditionally, each set of numbers used to represent alphabets and characters (known as a coding system, encoding, or character set) was limited in size due to limitations in computer hardware.

The history of character encodings

The most common (or at least the most widely accepted) character set is ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). It is widely held that ASCII is the most successful software standard ever created. Modern ASCII was standardized in 1986 (ANSI X3.4, RFC 20, ISO/IEC 646:1991, ECMA-6) by the American National Standards Institute.

ASCII is strictly seven-bit, meaning that it uses bit patterns representable with seven binary digits, which provides a range of 0 to 127 in decimal. These include 32 non-visible control characters, most between 0 and 31, with the final control character, DEL or delete at 127. Characters 32 to 126 are visible characters: a space, punctuation marks, Latin letters and numbers.

The eighth bit in ASCII was originally used as a parity bit for error checking. If error checking is not desired, it is left as 0. This means that, with ASCII, each character is represented by a single byte.

Although ASCII was enough for communication in modern English, in other European languages that include accented characters, things were not so easy. The ISO 8859 standards were developed to meet these needs. They were backwards compatible with ASCII, but instead of leaving the eighth bit blank, they used it to allow another 127 characters in each encoding. ISO 8859's limitations soon came to light, and there are currently 15 variants of the ISO 8859 standard (8859-1 through to 8859-15). Outside of the ASCII-compatible byte range of these character sets, there is often conflict between the letters represented by each byte. To complicate interoperability between character encodings further, Windows-1252 is used in some versions of Microsoft Windows instead for Western European languages. This is a super-set of ISO 8859-1, however it is different in several ways; these sets do all retain ASCII compatibility.

The necessary development of completely different single-byte encodings for non-Latin alphabets, such as EUC (Extended Unix Coding) which is used for Japanese and Korean (and to a lesser extent Chinese) created more confusion. Other operating systems still used different character sets for the same languages, for example, Shift-JIS and ISO-2022-JP. Users wishing to view cyrillic glyphs had to choose between KOI8-R for Russian and Bulgarian or KOI8-U for Ukrainian, as well as all the other cyrillic encodings such as the unsuccessful ISO 8859-5, and the common Windows-1251 set. All of these character sets broke most compatibility with ASCII. Although it should be mentioned KOI8 encodings place cyrillic characters in Latin order, so in case the eighth bit is stripped, text is still decipherable on an ASCII terminal through case-reversed transliteration.

All of this has led to mass confusion, and to an almost total inability for multilingual communication; especially across different alphabets. Enter Unicode.

What is Unicode?

Unicode throws away the traditional single-byte limit of character sets. It uses 17 "planes" of 65,536 code points to describe a maximum of 1,114,112 characters. As the first plane, aka. "Basic Multilingual Plane" or BMP, contains almost everything character a user will ever need. Many have made the wrong assumption that Unicode was a 16-bit character set.

Unicode has been mapped in many different ways, but the two most common are UTF (Unicode Transformation Format) and UCS (Universal Character Set). A number after UTF indicates the number of bits in one unit, while the number after UCS indicates the number of bytes. UTF-8 has become the most widespread means for the interchange of Unicode text as a result of its eight-bit clean nature; it is therefore the subject of this document.

What UTF-8 can do

UTF-8 allows users to work in a standards-compliant and internationally accepted multilingual environment, with a comparatively low data redundancy. It is the preferred way for transmitting non-ASCII characters over the Internet, through Email, IRC, or almost any other medium. Despite this, many people regard UTF-8 in online communication as abusive. It is always best to be aware of the attitude towards UTF-8 in a specific channel, mailing list, or Usenet group before using non-ASCII UTF-8.

Setting up UTF-8 with Gentoo Linux

Finding or creating UTF-8 locales

Now that the principles behind Unicode have been laid out, get ready to start using UTF-8 locally!

The preliminary requirement for UTF-8 is to have a version of glibc installed that has national language support. The recommend means to do this is the /etc/locale.gen file. It is beyond the scope of this document to explain the usage of this file. For users interested in more knowledge further explanation can be found in the Gentoo Localization Guide.

Next, the user needs to decide whether a UTF-8 locale is available for the language of choice, or whether one needs to be generated.

user $locale -a | grep 'en_GB'

From the output of the above command, look for a result with a suffix similar to .UTF-8. If there is no result with a similar suffix a UTF-8 compatible locale must be created.

Only execute the following code if the system does not have a UTF-8 locale available for the language of choice.

Replace "en_GB" with the desired locale setting:

root #localedef -i en_GB -f UTF-8 en_GB.UTF-8

Another way to include a UTF-8 locale is to add it to the /etc/locale.gen file and generate necessary locales using the locale-gen command.

CODE Line in /etc/locale.gen
en_GB.UTF-8 UTF-8

Setting the locale

There is one environment variable that needs to be set in order to use the new UTF-8 locales: LC_CTYPE (optionally modify the LANG variable to change the system language as well). There are also many different ways to set it; some system administrators prefer to only have a UTF-8 environment for a specific user, in which case they set them in their ~/.profile (/bin/sh for Bourne shell users), ~/.bash_profile or ~/.bashrc (/bin/bash for Bourne again shell users). More details and best practices can be found in the Localization Guide.

Still others prefer to set the locale globally. One specific circumstance where the author particularly recommends doing this is when /etc/init.d/xdm is in use, because this init script starts the display manager and desktop before any of the aforementioned shell startup files are sourced. In other words, this is performed before any of the variables are loaded in the environment.

Setting the locale globally should be done using /etc/env.d/02locale file. This file should look something like the following:

CODE Demonstration /etc/env.d/02locale
## (As always, change "en_GB.UTF-8" to your locale)
It is possible to substitute LC_CTYPE for LANG. For more information on the categories affected by using LC_CTYPE read the GNU locale page.

Next, the environment must be updated with the change.

root #env-update
>>> Regenerating /etc/ld.so.cache...
 * Caching service dependencies ...
root #source /etc/profile

Now, run locale with no arguments to see if the correct variables have been loaded in the environment:

root #locale

Alternatively, using eselect to set locales

Although it is good to maintain the system as described above, it is possible to verify the correct locale configured using the eselect utility.

Use eselect to list the available locales on the system:

root #eselect locale list | grep en_GB
[213] en_GB
[214] en_GB.iso88591
[215] en_GB.utf8 *

Using eselect setting the locale is as simple as listing them. Once the correct locale has been determined invoke:

root #eselect locale set en_GB.utf8
Setting LANG to en_GB.utf8 ...

Running the following command will update the variables in the shell:

root #env-update && source /etc/profile
>>> Regenerating /etc/ld.so.cache...

That is everything. The system is now using UTF-8 locales. The next hurdle is the configuration of the applications used from day to day.

Application support

When Unicode first started gaining momentum in the software world, multibyte character sets were not well suited to languages like C, which is the base language of most commonly used programs. Even today, some programs are not able to handle UTF-8 properly. Fortunately the majority of programs, especially the common ones, are supported.

Filenames, NTFS, and FAT

There are several NLS options in the Linux kernel configuration menu, but it is important to not become confused. For the most part, the only thing you need to do is to build UTF-8 NLS support into the kernel, and change the default NLS option to utf8.

KERNEL Kernel configuration steps for UTF-8 NLS
File Systems -->
  Native Language Support -->
    (utf8) Default NLS Option
    <*> NLS UTF8
    ## (Also <*> other character sets that are in use in
    your FAT filesystems or Joilet CD-ROMs.)

When planning to mount NTFS partitions, users may need to specify a nls= option with mount. When planning on mounting FAT partitions, users may need to specify a codepage= option with mount. Optionally, users can also set a default codepage for FAT in the kernel configuration.

Using the codepage option via the mount will override the settings used in the kernel.
KERNEL FAT settings in kernel configuration
File Systems -->
  DOS/FAT/NT Filesystems  -->
    (437) Default codepage for fat

Avoid setting Default iocharset for fat to UTF-8; it is not recommended. Instead, pass the utf8=true option when mounting FAT partitions. For further information man mount or see the appropriate kernel documentation at /usr/src/linux/Documentation/filesystems/vfat.txt

For changing the encoding of filenames, app-text/convmv can be used.

root #emerge --ask app-text/convmv

The format of the convmv command is as follows:

root #convmv -f <current-encoding> -t utf-8 <filename>

Substitute iso-8859-1 with the charset being converted from:

root #convmv -f iso-8859-1 -t utf-8 filename

For changing the contents of files, use the iconv utility, it comes bundled with sys-libs/glibc and should be installed on all Gentoo systems. Substitute iso-8859-1 with the charset being converted from. After running the command be sure to check for sane output:

root #iconv -f iso-8859-1 -t utf-8 filename

To convert a file, another file must be created:

root #iconv -f iso-8859-1 -t utf-8 filename > newfile

The recode (app-text/recode) package can also be used for this purpose.

The system console

The sys-apps/baselayout-1.11.9 (or higher) package is needed for Unicode on the console.

To enable UTF-8 on the console edit /etc/rc.conf Set unicode="yes" and read the comments -- it is important to have a font that has a good range of characters to make the most of Unicode. For this to work make sure the Unicode locale has been properly created.

The keymap variable, set in /etc/conf.d/keymaps, should have a Unicode keymap specified.

CODE Example /etc/conf.d/keymaps snippet
## (Change "uk" to your local layout)

Ncurses and Slang

Ignore any mention of Slang in this section if it is not installed or unneeded.

It is wise to add unicode to the global USE flags in /etc/portage/make.conf, and then to re-emerge sys-libs/ncurses and sys-libs/slang. Portage will do this automatically if the --changed-use or --newuse options are used. Run the following command to pull in the packages:

root #emerge --update --deep --newuse world

We also need to rebuild packages that link to these, now the USE changes have been applied. The tool we use (revdep-rebuild) is part of the app-portage/gentoolkit package.

root #revdep-rebuild --soname libncurses.so.5
root #revdep-rebuild --soname libslang.so.1

KDE, GNOME and Xfce

All of the major desktop environments have full Unicode support, and will require no further setup than what has already been covered in this guide. This is because the underlying graphical toolkits (Qt or GTK+2) are UTF-8 aware. Subsequently, all applications running on top of these toolkits should be UTF-8-aware out of the box.

The exceptions to this rule come in Xlib and GTK+1. GTK+1 requires a iso-10646-1 FontSpec in the ~/.gtkrc, for example -misc-fixed-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1 . Also, applications using Xlib or Xaw will need to be given a similar FontSpec, otherwise they will not work.

If you have a version of the gnome1 control center around, use that instead. Pick any iso10646-1 font from there.
CODE Example ~/.gtkrc (for GTK+1) that defines a Unicode compatible font
style "user-font"
widget_class "*" style "user-font"

If an application has support for both a Qt and GTK+2 GUI, the GTK+2 GUI will generally give better results with Unicode.

X11 and fonts

TrueType fonts have support for Unicode, and most of the fonts that ship with Xorg have impressive character support, although, obviously, not every single glyph available in Unicode has been created for that font. To build fonts (including the Bitstream Vera set) with support for East Asian letters with X, make sure you have the cjk USE flag set. Many other applications utilize this flag, so it may be worthwhile to add it as a permanent USE flag.

Also, several font packages in Portage are Unicode aware.

root #emerge --ask terminus-font intlfonts freefonts corefonts

Window managers and terminal emulators

Window managers not built on GTK+ or Qt generally have very good Unicode support, as they often use the Xft library for handling fonts. If your window manager does not use Xft for fonts, you can still use the FontSpec mentioned in the previous section as a Unicode font.

Terminal emulators that use Xft and support Unicode are harder to come by. Aside from Konsole and gnome-terminal, the best options in Portage are x11-terms/rxvt-unicode, x11-terms/xfce4-terminal, gnustep-apps/terminal, x11-terms/mlterm, or plain x11-terms/xterm when built with the unicode USE flag and invoked as uxterm. app-misc/screen supports UTF-8 too, when invoked as screen -U or the following is put into the ~/.screenrc:

CODE ~/.screenrc for UTF-8
defutf8 on

Vim, emacs, xemacs and nano

Vim provides full UTF-8 support, and also has builtin detection of UTF-8 files. For further information in Vim, use :help mbyte.txt .

GNU Emacs since version 23 and XEmacs version 21.5 have full UTF-8 support. GNU Emacs 24 also supports editing bidirectional text.

Nano has provided full UTF-8 support since version 1.3.6.


Currently, bash provides full Unicode support through the GNU readline library. Z Shell (zsh) offers Unicode support with the unicode USE flag.

The C shell, tcsh and ksh do not provide UTF-8 support at all.


Irssi has complete UTF-8 support, although it does require a user to set an option.

[irssi]set term_charset UTF-8

For channels where non-ASCII characters are often exchanged in non-UTF-8 charsets, the /recode command may be used to convert the characters. Type /help recode for more information.


The Mutt mail user agent has very good Unicode support. To use UTF-8 with Mutt, you don't need to put anything in your configuration files. Mutt will work under Unicode environment without modification if all your configuration files (signature included) are UTF-8 encoded.

You may still see '?' in mail you read with Mutt. This is a result of people using a mail client which does not indicate the used charset. You can't do much about this than to ask them to configure their client correctly.

Further information is available from the Mutt Wiki .


Man pages are an integral part of any Linux machine. To ensure that any unicode in your man pages render correctly, edit /etc/man.conf and replace a line as shown below.

CODE man.conf changes for Unicode support
## (This is the old line)
NROFF           /usr/bin/nroff -Tascii -c -mandoc
## (Replace the one above with this)
NROFF           /usr/bin/nroff -mandoc -c

links and elinks

These are commonly used text-based browsers, and we shall see how we can enable UTF-8 support on them. On elinks and links, there are two ways to go about this, one using the Setup option from within the browser or editing the config file. To set the option through the browser, open a site with elinks or links and then Alt+S to enter the Setup Menu then select Terminal options, or press T. Scroll down and select the last option UTF-8 I/O by pressing Enter. Then Save and exit the menu. On links you may have to do a repeat Alt+S and then press S to save. The config file option, is shown below.

CODE Enabling UTF-8 for elinks/links
## (For elinks, edit /etc/elinks/elinks.conf or ~/.elinks/elinks.conf and
add the following line)
set terminal.linux.utf_8_io = 1
## (For links, edit ~/.links/links.cfg and add the following
terminal "xterm" 0 1 0 us-ascii utf-8


Samba is a software suite which implements the SMB (Server Message Block) protocol for UNIX systems such as Macs, Linux and FreeBSD. The protocol is also sometimes referred to as the Common Internet File System (CIFS). Samba also includes the NetBIOS system - used for file sharing over windows networks.

add the following under the [global] section:

root #nano -w /etc/samba/smb.conf
dos charset = 1255
unix charset = UTF-8
display charset = UTF-8

Testing it all out

There are numerous UTF-8 test websites around. net-www/w3m, net-www/links, net-www/elinks, net-www/lynx and all Mozilla based browsers (including Firefox) support UTF-8. Konqueror and Opera have full UTF-8 support too.

When using one of the text-only web browsers, make absolutely sure you are using a Unicode-aware terminal.

If you see certain characters displayed as boxes with letters or numbers inside, this means that your font does not have a character for the symbol or glyph that the UTF-8 wants. Instead, it displays a box with the hex code of the UTF-8 symbol.

Input methods

Dead keys may be used to input characters in X that are not included on your keyboard. These work by pressing your right Alt key (or in some countries, AltGr) and an optional key from the non-alphabetical section of the keyboard to the left of the return key at once, releasing them, and then pressing a letter. The dead key should modify it. Input can be further modified by using the Shift key at the same time as pressing the AltGr and modifier.

To enable dead keys in X, you need a layout that supports it. Most European layouts already have dead keys with the default variant. However, this is not true of North American layouts. Although there is a degree of inconsistency between layouts, the easiest solution seems to be to use a layout in the form "en_US" rather than "us", for example. The layout is set in /etc/X11/xorg.conf like so:

CODE /etc/X11/xorg.conf snippet
Section "InputDevice"
    Identifier "Keyboard0"
    Driver     "kbd"
    Option     "XkbLayout" "en_US" ## # Rather than just "us"
    ## (Other Xkb options here)
The preceding change only needs to be applied if you are using a North American layout, or another layout where dead keys do not seem to be working. European users should have working dead keys as is.

This change will come into effect when your X server is restarted. To apply the change now, use the setxkbmap tool, for example, setxkbmap en_US .

It is probably easiest to describe dead keys with examples. Although the results are locale dependent, the concepts should remain the same regardless of locale. The examples contain UTF-8, so to view them you need to either tell your browser to view the page as UTF-8, or have a UTF-8 locale already configured.

When I press AltGr and [ at once, release them, and then press a, 'ä' is produced. When I press AltGr and [ at once, and then press e, 'ë' is produced. When I press AltGr and ; at once, and then press a, 'á' is produced, and when I press AltGr and ; at once, release them, and then press e, 'é' is produced.

By pressing AltGr, Shift and [ at once, releasing them, and then pressing a, a Scandinavian 'å' is produced. Similarly, when I press AltGr, Shift and [ at once, release only the [, and then press it again, '°' is produced. Although it looks like one, this (U+02DA) is not the same as a degree symbol (U+00B0).

AltGr can be used with alphabetical keys alone. For example, AltGr and m, a Greek lower-case letter mu is produced. AltGr and s produce a scharfes s or esszet, etc. As many European users would expect (because it is marked on their keyboard), AltGr and 4 (or E depending on the keyboard layout) produces a Euro sign, '€'.


Reported issues and problems

System configuration files (in /etc)

Most system configuration files (such as /etc/fstab) do not support UTF-8. It is recommended to stick with the ASCII character set for these files.

This article is based on a document formerly found on our main website gentoo.org.
The following people have contributed to the original document: Thomas Martin, Alexander Simonov, Shyam Mani, nightmorph
They are listed here as the Wiki history does not provide for any attribution. If you edit the Wiki article, please do not add yourself here, your contributions are recorded on the history page.