Which character-encoding is used by the dbf-file in shapefiles? It seems it is handled different, based on the program and the local encoding-settings of the machine. Which encoding is 'right' - specified for the format?

  • You should definitly grant the answer flag to alfonx. @underdark No offense! – JJD Jul 28 '12 at 23:07

The original DBF standard defines to use ISO8859-1, and only ISO8859-1. So, when you get a Shapefile that is really standards conform, it should be ISO8859-1. Of course, this (very old) restriction is a not really usable nowadays.

ArcGIS and Geopublisher, AtlasStyler and Geoserver started to extend the standard to define the encoding. For ArcGIS, e.g., just create a .cpg file (with the same basename as the other Shapefiles) and fill it with the name of the encoding.

e.g. create a myshape.cpg with a texteditor and insert 5 characters "UTF-8" and save it. If you then open the Shapefile in ArcGIS, it reads the textual contents of the DBF in that charset.

Geoserver: Geoserver WFS can export any WFS layer as a zipped Shapefile. When this is done, a .cst file is contained in the zip, doing exactly the same as the .cpg file.

Attention: All this only applies to the data, not the column names. You should really only use ASCII in the column names of a DBF if you want the file to be openable with other programs.

Hint: To change the encoding of a DBF open it with OpenOffice Calc.. choose SaveAs... click the "Filter options" in the bottom left and press save. You can then define the encoding to convert the text contents into.

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    Great post! The world would be a better place if people shipped their shapefiles with .cpg files. – underdark Nov 19 '10 at 9:54
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    Do you have a reference for the ISO8559-1 charset being the official charset? The DBF specs I've found are very short and do not mention it. – Chris Jun 22 '12 at 17:05
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    If you receive a General input/output error you probably do not have Base installed. The problem is the same whether you use OpenOffice or LibreOffice. – JJD Jul 28 '12 at 19:08
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    +1 for the OpenOffice/LibreOffice Calc hint. There you can make sure the DBF file has the assumed encoding. However, as JJD pointed out, also on Ubuntu you must have LibreOffice Base installed in order to open DBF files in Calc. – Marian Jan 21 '14 at 8:36
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    A .cpg file is supposed to work fine in QGIS, too, as of libgdal 1.9. Sometimes it even seems to be necessary: ssrebelious.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/… – krlmlr Mar 29 '15 at 15:44

I'm pretty sure that there is no "right" encoding. A .dbf file can be in any encoding and you'll be able to open the Shapefile and read the attributes correctly if you know it.

You can find the ESRI white paper here: http://www.esri.com/library/whitepapers/pdfs/shapefile.pdf

I usually expect a shapefile to be either UTF-8 or in the local of the covered country (often some Latin encoding).


Anytime I see a question on encoding I refer people to this article: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/Unicode.html

As it says:

It does not make sense to have a string without knowing what encoding it uses. You can no longer stick your head in the sand and pretend that "plain" text is ASCII.

  • Exactly! It happens all the time that people tell me that I have sent them a file in the wrong encoding just because an editor (np++ most of the times) takes wild guesses. +1 – unicoletti Jul 24 '12 at 18:02

A simple way is convert shp file to a csv file. And use enca or iconv to detect the encoding. I tried with UTF8 and gb18030 files and it works.

  • +1 for the answer as a way to figure out the current encoding. I do think though that the question was looking more for what a standard encoding would be, if any. – Get Spatial Oct 10 '12 at 21:32
  • this post also addresses the question of how to detect encoding: gis.stackexchange.com/questions/12218/… – toms Apr 2 '14 at 17:09

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