Beyond utf8_general_ci and utf8_unicode_ci: Alternative Approaches for Text Comparison in MySQL

mysql unicode utf 8

Character Encoding (UTF-8):

  • MySQL stores text data using character encodings, which define how characters are represented as sequences of bytes.
  • UTF-8 (Unicode Transformation Format-8) is a popular encoding that can represent a vast range of characters from various languages.

Collations (Sorting and Comparison):

  • Collations determine how characters within a character set are sorted and compared.
  • They define rules for handling uppercase/lowercase, accents, special characters, and character equivalence.

utf8_general_ci vs. utf8_unicode_ci:

  • utf8_general_ci:
    • Simpler and faster collation.
    • Performs basic character-by-character comparisons.
    • May not handle certain Unicode features correctly:
      • Accents (e.g., á vs. a) might not be treated as equivalent.
      • Ligatures (combined characters like æ) might be treated as separate characters.
      • Ignorable characters (like accents for sorting) might not be ignored.
  • utf8_unicode_ci:
    • More complex and slower collation (but the performance difference is usually minimal).
    • Adheres to the full Unicode standard.
    • Handles accents, ligatures, and ignorable characters correctly, leading to more accurate sorting and comparisons for internationalization (working with multiple languages).

Choosing the Right Collation:

  • For basic text storage in a single language (mostly Latin characters) where speed is a priority, utf8_general_ci might be sufficient.
  • However, for internationalization or applications that require accurate handling of accents, ligatures, and other language-specific characters, utf8_unicode_ci is strongly recommended.

Additional Considerations:

  • MySQL 8.0 introduced utf8mb4 as the default character set, which is an improved version of utf8 that can handle the full range of Unicode characters (up to 4 bytes per character).
  • When creating new tables, consider using utf8mb4_unicode_ci for future-proofing and better internationalization support.

In summary:

  • utf8_general_ci is a faster but less accurate collation, suitable for basic scenarios.
  • utf8_unicode_ci provides more accurate text handling, making it the preferred choice for internationalization and working with diverse character sets.

Creating a Table with Different Collations:

CREATE TABLE my_table (
  name VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL COLLATE utf8_general_ci,  -- Faster but less accurate
  description TEXT COLLATE utf8_unicode_ci  -- More accurate for accents, etc.

This code creates a table named my_table with two columns:

  • id: An auto-incrementing integer for unique identification.
  • name: A string column that can store up to 255 characters, using utf8_general_ci collation.
  • description: A text column for longer descriptions, using utf8_unicode_ci collation for better handling of accents and special characters.

Selecting and Sorting with Collation Awareness:

SELECT * FROM my_table
ORDER BY name COLLATE utf8_unicode_ci;  -- Ensure proper sorting for accents

This code retrieves all data from the my_table and orders the results based on the name column. However, it explicitly specifies COLLATE utf8_unicode_ci to guarantee that the sorting considers accents and special characters correctly. This ensures that "résumé" will be sorted after "resume" instead of appearing before it.

Case-Insensitive Search with Collation:

SELECT * FROM my_table
WHERE name COLLATE utf8_general_ci LIKE '%Résumé%'  -- Faster, might not handle accents well
OR name COLLATE utf8_unicode_ci LIKE '%Résumé%';  -- More accurate for accents

This code searches for entries in the name column that contain the string "Résumé" (or any case-insensitive variation). It demonstrates two options:

  • The first uses LIKE with utf8_general_ci. This might be faster but could potentially miss records with accented variations like "résumé" depending on the specific characters.
  • The second uses LIKE with utf8_unicode_ci to perform a more accurate case-insensitive search that considers accents.


  • Choose the appropriate collation based on your specific needs and the importance of accurate text handling.
  • For future-proofing and internationalization, consider using utf8mb4_unicode_ci as the default character set and collation when creating new tables.

However, depending on your situation, here are some alternative approaches to consider when dealing with character encoding and comparisons:

  1. Using a Different Character Encoding:

  2. Normalization (Normalization Form Conversion):

  3. Custom Collation (MySQL 8.0+):

  4. Application-Level Handling (Programming Languages):

    • While MySQL offers collations for comparisons, you can also perform some character handling logic within your application code. Libraries in languages like Python or PHP might offer functions for case-insensitive comparisons, accent removal, or other specific operations.

    This approach can give you more flexibility but adds complexity to your application code and requires more development effort.

Ultimately, the best approach depends on your specific needs, the type of data you're working with, and the level of control you require over character comparisons and sorting.

mysql unicode utf-8

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