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Character sets

MySQL defines a character set as "a set of symbols and their respective encodings". ascii, latin1, utf8 and utf16 are character sets supported by MySQL.

A collation is a set of rules for comparing characters in a character set. For example, a case-insensitive collation will make strings that only differ in case compare equal. All collations are associated to a single character set. For example, utf8_spanish_ci is a case-insensitive collation associated to the utf8 character set. Every character set has a default collation, which will be used if a character set without a collation is specified. For example, latin1_swedish_ci is the default collation for the latin1 character set.

You can find more information about these concepts in the official MySQL docs on character sets.

Every connection has an associated character set and collation. The connection's character set determines the encoding for character strings sent to and retrieved from the server. This includes SQL query strings, string fields and column names in metadata. The connection's collation is used for string literal comparison.

Every session you establish can have its own different character set and collation. You can specify this in two ways:

  • When calling connection::connect or connection::handshake, using handshake_params::connection_collation. You specify a numeric ID that identifies the collation to use, and your connection will use the character set associated to this collation. You can find collation IDs in the <boost/mysql/mysql_collations.hpp> and <boost/mysql/mariadb_collations.hpp> headers.

    The problem with this approach is that if you specify a collation ID that is unknown to the server (e.g. utf8mb4_0900_ai_ci for an old MySQL 5.7 server), the handshake operation will succeed but the connection will sillently fall back to the server's default character set, (usually latin1, which is not Unicode).

  • At any time, issuing a SET NAMES SQL statement. For example, "SET NAMES utf8mb4" will set the current connection's character set to utf8mb4 and the connection's collation to utf8mb4's default collation. If the character set is unknown, the SET NAMES statement will fail. You can use connection::query to issue the statement:
results result;
conn.query("SET NAMES utf8mb4", result);
// Further operations can assume utf8mb4 as conn's charset

Both of the above methods are shortcuts to set several session-level variables. The ones that impact this library's behavior are:

  • character_set_client determines the encoding that SQL statements sent to the server should have. This includes the SQL strings in connection::query, connection::prepare_statement, and string parameters passed to connection::execute_statement.

    Not all character sets are permissible in character_set_client. The server will accept setting this variable to any UTF-8 character set, but won't accept UTF-16.

  • character_set_results determines the encoding that the server will use to send any kind of result, including string fields retrieved by connection::query and connection::execute_statement, metadata like metadata::column_name and error messages.

    Note that, when you define a string column with a character set (e.g. "CREATE TABLE t1 (col1 VARCHAR(5) CHARACTER SET latin1)"), the column's character set will be used for storage and comparisons, but not for client communication. If you set character_set_results to utf16, any field obtained by SELECTing col1 will be UTF16-encoded, and not latin1-encoded. Note also that metadata::column_collation reflects the charset and collation the server has converted the column to before sending it to the client. In the above example, metadata::column_collation will be the default collation for UTF16, rather than latin1_swedish_ci.

The table below summarizes the encoding used by each piece of functionality in this library:


Encoding given by...

SQL query strings passed to connection::query and connection::prepare_statement


String values passed as parameters to connection::execute_statement


String fields retrieved by connection::query or connection::execute_statement:



Metadata strings:



Server-generated error messages: diagnostics::server_message


Informational messages:


ASCII. These can only contain ASCII characters and are always ASCII encoded. More info in this section.