Understanding ISO-8859-1 / UTF-8

Character mapping between ISO-8859-1 / UTF-8, decode and encode data between string and bytes, and file I/O operations including MIME encoding detection. All examples are written in Java and Python 3.


Encoding is always a pain for developers. Without being extra careful, it is easy to end up with incorrect characters in the software. I thought that using UTF-8 everywhere in the codebase can avoid such cases. It works fine for most of the time, but when integrating files from another system, we need more skills. This happened to me when writing my finance script: I need to read csv files downloaded from banks, which are all encoded as ISO-8859-1. That’s why I want to write this post.

After reading this article, you will understand:

  • What is ISO-8859-1?
  • Text editor and IDE support
  • Character mapping between ISO-8859-1 and UTF-8
  • Decode bytes to string
  • Encode string to bytes
  • Detect file encoding and read content

Examples are written in Python 3.7 and Java 8.


ISO/IEC 8859-1 is part of the ISO/IEC 8859 series of ASCII-based standard character encodings, first edition published in 1987. ISO 8859-1 encodes what it refers to as “Latin alphabet no. 1,” consisting of 191 characters from the Latin script. This character-encoding scheme is used throughout the Americas, Western Europe, Oceania, and much of Africa. It is also commonly used in most standard romanizations of East-Asian languages. It is the basis for most popular 8-bit character sets and the first block of characters in Unicode. – From Wikipedia

Who uses ISO-8859-1? From my own experience, industries like bank and telecom use this encoding. I suppose that it is because the databases were created when ISO-8859-1 was popular, and the migration to UTF-8 is difficult.

When reading an ISO-8859-1 encoded content as UTF-8, you will often see �, the replacement character (U+FFFD) for an unknown, unrecognized or unrepresentable character.

Text Editor / IDE Support

Different text editors and IDEs have support for encoding: both for the display encoding, and changing the file encoding itself. Here’re two examples from Visual Code and IntelliJ IDEA.

Visual Code:

Visual Code encoding

IntelliJ IDEA:

IntelliJ IDEA encoding

Character Mapping

The characters in string is encoded in different manners in ISO-8859-1 and UTF-8. Behind the screen, string is encoded as byte array, where each character is represented by a char sequence. In ISO-8859-1, each character uses one byte; in UTF-8, each character uses multiple bytes (1-4). Here, I would like to show you an excerpt of character mapping via a simple Python script:

for s in 'àáâãäåæçèéêëìíîï':
    i = ' '.join(['0x{:X}'.format(b) for b in s.encode('iso-8859-1')])
    u = ' '.join(['0x{:X}'.format(b) for b in s.encode('utf-8')])
    print('%s | `%s` | `%s`' % (s, i, u))
Character ISO-8895-1 UTF-8
à 0xE0 0xC3 0xA0
á 0xE1 0xC3 0xA1
â 0xE2 0xC3 0xA2
ã 0xE3 0xC3 0xA3
ä 0xE4 0xC3 0xA4
å 0xE5 0xC3 0xA5
æ 0xE6 0xC3 0xA6
ç 0xE7 0xC3 0xA7
è 0xE8 0xC3 0xA8
é 0xE9 0xC3 0xA9
ê 0xEA 0xC3 0xAA
ë 0xEB 0xC3 0xAB
ì 0xEC 0xC3 0xAC
í 0xED 0xC3 0xAD
î 0xEE 0xC3 0xAE
ï 0xEF 0xC3 0xAF

Why should you care about this mapping? This mapping helps you to understand which encoding should be used for decode. If you see byte 0xEF (ï), you should probably consider using ISO-8859-1.

Decode Bytes to String

In the following sections, we will talk about decode and encode byte array. Before going further, let’s take a look how it works. When performing “decode” operation to a byte array using a given (or default) encoding, we create a string. When performing “encode” operation to a string using a given (or default) encoding, we create a byte array. Here’s the flow:

byte[] ---------> string

Decode in Python 3

Decode byte array in Python 3 (Python Shell 3.7.2):

>>> bytes([0xE0]).decode('iso-8859-1')
>>> b'\xe0'.decode('iso-8859-1')
>>> bytes([0xC3, 0xA0]).decode('utf-8')
>>> b'\xc3\xa0'.decode('utf-8')
>>> b'\xc3\xa0'.decode()
# Summary (b -> str)
byte_array.decode() # UTF-8

If the decode operation is called using an incorrect encoding, an error is raised:

>>> b'\xe0'.decode('utf-8')
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
UnicodeDecodeError: 'utf-8' codec can't decode byte 0xe0 in position 0: unexpected end of data

Decode in Java 8

Decode byte array in Java 8 (Java Shell 11.0.2):

jshell> import static java.nio.charset.StandardCharsets.*

jshell> byte[] bytes = {(byte) 0xE0}
bytes ==> byte[1] { -32 }

jshell> new String(bytes, UTF_8)
$3 ==> "�"

jshell> new String(bytes, ISO_8859_1)
$4 ==> "à"

jshell> byte[] bytes = {(byte) 0xC3, (byte) 0xA0}
bytes ==> byte[2] { -61, -96 }

jshell> new String(bytes, UTF_8)
$5 ==> "à"

jshell> new String(bytes)
$6 ==> "à"
// Summary (byte[] -> String)
new String(bytes); // UTF-8
new String(bytes, StandardCharsets.UTF_8);
new String(bytes, StandardCharsets.ISO_8859_1);

Encode String to Bytes

When performing “encode” operation to a string, we create a byte array:

byte[] <--------- string

Encode in Python 3

Encode string to byte array in Python 3 (Python Shell 3.7.2):

>>> 'à'.encode('utf-8')

>>> 'à'.encode('iso-8859-1')

Encode in Java 8

Encode string to byte array in Java 8 (Java Shell 11.0.2):

jshell> import static java.nio.charset.StandardCharsets.*

jshell> "à".getBytes(UTF_8)
$2 ==> byte[2] { -61, -96 }

jshell> "à".getBytes(ISO_8859_1)
$3 ==> byte[1] { -32 }

File I/O

File operations is literally the same as bytes-string conversion. Because file content are bytes. Therefore, the flow that we saw previously is still valid:

 File    ---------> string
(byte[]) <---------

Before specifying the encoding for file I/O operations, it’s important to understand how to file is encoded. It’s seems obvious, but sometime we might forget to do it. There’re several ways to “detect” it:

  1. Use utility file with option MIME encoding (--mime-encoding)
  2. Use cat to print the content in terminal, see if replace character � (U+FFFD) is printed. If yes, you probably need to specify the encoding for file I/O.
  3. Use xxd to make a hex dump of this file.

For example, I have a txt file called iso-8859-1.txt. I can check its encoding using the tricks mentioned above.

$ file iso-8859-1.txt --mime-encoding
iso-8859-1.txt: iso-8859-1
$ cat iso-8859-1.txt
$ xxd iso-8859-1.txt
00000000: 7265 e775 0a                             re.u.

Note that when using xxd, the hexadecimal presentation is shown. For example, character ‘ç’ from word “reçu” is shown as e7.

File I/O in Python 3

You can use the optional parameter “encoding” to precise the encoding that you need to do I/O operations to the file.

with open(path, 'r', encoding='ISO-8859-1') as f:
    for line in f:
        # ...

If not given, it defaults to a platform dependent value. According to bultins.py:

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, but any encoding supported by Python can be passed. See the codecs module for the list of supported encodings.

File I/O in Java 8

I often use the utility methods available in class java.nio.file.Files. For example, reading all lines from a txt file txt can be done as follows. If the charset is not given, method Files#readAllLines(Path) use UTF-8 as the default charset.

List<String> lines = Files.readAllLines(txt); // UTF-8
List<String> lines = Files.readAllLines(txt, StandardCharsets.ISO_8859_1);

Read content as bytes is possible, too. In this case, we read the file without precising the encoding. Then, you can chose the charset when converting byte array to string, as mentioned in the previous section.

byte[] bytes = Files.readAllBytes(txt);
String content = new String(bytes, StandardCharsets.ISO_8859_1);


In this article, we saw the character mapping between ISO-8859-1 and UTF-8; the encoding option in some editors; decode bytes to string; encode string to bytes; and some file I/O operations in Python and Java. Hope you enjoy this article, see you the next time!