Spreadsheet Apps & UTF: Which Uses Which UTF?

Here’s which spreadsheet applications use which UTF:

The vast majority of spreadsheet apps use UTF-8, largely because it is the most popular version around the world and conforming to that avoids formatting issues.

This list includes Google Sheets, Numbers, and Calc.

Meanwhile, Excel does not use a UTF format by default, although it can save files in UTF-8.

So if you want to learn all about the various spreadsheet applications and the UTF they use, then you’re in the right place.

Keep reading!

Spreadsheet Apps & UTF: Which Uses Which UTF? (All the Info)

What Is a UTF? (7 Things)

Female hands typing on laptop keyboard

Let’s start at the very beginning and first discuss UTF.

It stands for unicode transformation format.

Aren’t you glad you know everything now?

But seriously, a unicode transformation is a format that controls the letters and symbols that are used in relation to a keyboard.

So, when you have a keyboard plugged into a computer, you can press on any given key, and it should type out that letter, number, or symbol.

But, how does the computer know what to do?

That comes down to the transformation format.

It assigns the specific characters that you see on your screen to different keystrokes on a computer.

These formats also work for the touch keyboards on phones and tablets.

The transformation format is what holds the list of symbols that you can type for a given app.

As for UTF, it’s one specific way of formatting.

More specifically, there are six different versions of UTF, all built on similar principles.

There are transformation formats that don’t fall under the umbrella of UTF as well, and some of the more prominent will come up during the discussion.

To better understand what UTF is and how it works, we should explore each of the UTF formats:

  • UTF-1
  • UTF-7
  • UTF-8
  • UTF-16
  • UTF-32

Unfortunately, we can’t just dive into those formats.

Before they will truly make sense, we have to cover another background topic: bits.

#1 Overview on Bits

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In computers, a bit is the most basic unit of information.

A single bit is either a 1 or a 0.

You’ve probably heard of binary before and the fact that computers use 1s and 0s.

Well, this is what that all boils down to.

Any bit of information contains either a 1 or a 0, and that’s it.

As you might imagine, it’s hard to store large volumes of information with just a 1 or a 0.

Yet, computers can hold vast swaths of information, so how does that work?

It turns out that you can smash bits together.

When you have one bit, there are only two possible options: 1 or 0.

When you smash two bits together, you can have 11, 00, 10, or 01.

You double the amount of information that can be represented.

If you smash even more bits together, then you get even more complexity—bringing more total information storage and processing

As a result, computers can work with different bit rates.

A bit rate is telling you how many bits are being smashed together in a single unit of information.

If you have ever heard of an eight-bit game, that’s a game where eight bits are smashed together into a single unit of information.

Meanwhile, modern computers work with 64-bit rates, making them substantially more powerful than the old 8-bit gaming systems (like an original Nintendo).

What does all of this have to do with UTF?

Well, the various UTF versions are mostly based on upgraded bit rates.

In other words, the UTF versions with higher numbers can store much larger, more complicated tables, allowing for tons of special characters and such.

It will make more sense as we go through the UTF versions.

#2 UTF-1

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This is the very first version of UTF.

Despite the number, it was not constrained to a single bit.

Instead, UTF-1 could encode information into bytes (a standard byte is made of eight bits).

It uses variable-width encoding, meaning a symbol can be represented by any number of bits up to the maximum (which in this case was eight).

UTF-1 was designed around the traditional ASCII keyboard (the most common keyboard layout) and could account for 66 text characters.

Considering you’re probably using a modern device to read this right now, you know that 66 characters actually aren’t that many, and this is one of many reasons why UTF-1 was phased out when a better version was available.

#3 UTF-7

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Despite what I just said, UTF-7 was not the common replacement for UTF-1.

Instead, UTF-7 was designed primarily for email usage.

At the time, email communication was much simpler than what you might expect today, so a seven-bit format was sufficient for the job.

Eventually, UTF-7 was phased out for reasons similar to UTF-1.

Primarily, a better option became available and took over.

#4 UTF-8

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That brings us to UTF-8.

It is by far the most popular and most successful of all of the UTF formats.

It was developed in the early 90s, and once finished, it proved to be a faster and more reliable way to encode text for computers. 

Built on an 8-bit system, this format used multiple bytes to house the entire text list, and it could encode more than 1 million characters.

This made it robust beyond anything before it, and it quickly became the most widely adopted format around the world.

#5 UTF-16

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UTF-16 offered a substantial upgrade to UTF-8.

The new version was built on a 16-bit rate with variable widths.

This allowed for orders of magnitude more characters and choices.

UTF-16 can handle extremely complex character lists.

Despite this, it didn’t fully replace UTF-8, and that’s for a simple reason.

UTF-16 is not compatible with ASCII.

So, anything using a traditional keyboard requires a translator or a different encoding format.

Still, UTF-16 has seen a lot of use with a number of apps around the world, including many that are written around JavaScript or intended specifically for plain text format.

What you might find interesting is that Microsoft systems have long used UTF-16, largely because Microsoft has used proprietary software in text encoding all along.

Because of that, Microsoft systems already have the resources to deal with ASCII incompatibility.

#6 UTF-32

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As the name suggests, UTF-32 is a 32-bit format.

This allows it to manage absolutely vast character stores, and it can sort through large stores very quickly.

It’s a powerful version of UTF that brings a lot of options to the table.

On the downside, it uses considerably more data storage than the other formats—namely because UTF-32 uses fixed-width encoding.

That means that every single character has a 32-bit identifier, which is a lot of bits for some of the simplest text items that you might need to use.

This makes UTF-32 tables much more intensive for storage space since the simplest items take up as much space as the most complex items.

As a result, UTF-32 is primarily used for internal applications that don’t directly interact with users.

For such applications, the power of UTF-32 is more than worth the trade-off, and it allows these internal apps to access very large character tables as needed.


IBM AS400 mainframe with console

Last up is the UTF format built for compatibility with the Extended Binary Coded DEcimal Interchange Code.

EBCDIC is an older IBM format that worked similarly to UTF-8 but used its own rules and character tables.

UTF-EBCDIC is specifically made to work with those older systems while modernizing them with access to an eight-bit UTF format.

This is a limited, specific range of applications, and accordingly, UTF-EBCDIC is not a particularly common or popular variant of UTF.

What Does UTF Have to Do With Spreadsheets?

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Alright. That is an absolute ton of background information, but it’s all necessary in order to talk about which spreadsheet apps use which UTF formats.

But before we do that, I should probably explain what UTF really has to do with spreadsheets in the first place.

You might be able to guess this, but spreadsheets use characters and interact with keyboards.

Specifically, you can type numbers, letters, and symbols into a spreadsheet, and you can do so with many different fonts, sizes, and other adjustments.

As you already know, the encoding format is what holds the information that determines what you see when you hit or tap on a key on your device.

In order for “e” on your keyboard to put an “e” in the spreadsheet, you need some type of encoding format.

So, that’s what’s going on here.

When you put information into the spreadsheet, the encoding format is hard at work. 

Just as importantly, these formats impact compatibility.

If you need to take information from one spreadsheet app to another, you might run into huge formatting problems if they don’t use the same encoding format.

So, knowing your UTF versions and your spreadsheet apps can help you strategize and avoid frustrating compatibility problems.

Which Spreadsheets Use Which UTF? (4 Apps)

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You know a whole lot about UTF now.

You’ve gone through what it does, how it works, the many versions, and even some of the skeletal essentials of how all of this works.

On top of that foundation, we can build the rest of this knowledge and answer the original question.

Which spreadsheet uses which UTF? Why?

Why is pretty easy to answer.

Most of them pick a specific UTF variant for the sake of compatibility.

Since UTF-8 is the most common in the world, you’ll see that more than a few of these spreadsheet apps stick with it.

Meanwhile, the spreadsheets that don’t use UTF-8 pick something else for the sake of internal compatibility.

Microsoft will give us a good example.

But, that’s enough adieu; let’s get into the details.

#1 Google Sheets

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First up is Google Sheets.

It defaults to UTF-8, and that’s nice since so many other things use this same version.

On top of that, Sheets will automatically convert loaded and saved files into UTF-8 in order to work with them.

Because of this, Sheets is one of the easiest and most convenient UTF-8 converters you can find.

Just load your data into it, and it automatically handles the conversion into UTF-8.

It’s worth noting that this conversion can create formatting issues, depending on the encoding format that was originally used.

So, keep that in mind if you’re using Sheets with other spreadsheet apps.

#2 Excel

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Next we get to Excel.

It is probably the best-known and most widely used spreadsheet app in the world.

Excel really wrote the book on spreadsheets, and it’s the standard by which all others are compared.

Despite all of that, Microsoft made an interesting choice with Excel’s encoder. 

Excel uses ANSI by default. 

That’s a new combination of letters, but it’s not too difficult.

ANSI is just an alternative to UTF.

It serves the same function, but it uses its own tables, meaning that things made in Excel will look considerably different when converted into an app using UTF-8, and vice versa.

Why does Excel use ANSI?

Mostly, it’s because it was already built into Microsoft software.

Excel plays very nicely with the rest of the Office suite because they all use the same format.

#3 Numbers

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If you’re not familiar, Numbers is the spreadsheet app made by Apple.

It comes free with many Apple products and is part of their productivity suite.

In function, Numbers is quite similar to Excel and Sheets.

It’s particularly similar to the latter in that Numbers also uses UTF-8 by default.

As is the case with most of these apps, you can choose to save files with a different encoder if you so choose, but UTF-8 is what you’ll get if you don’t customize anything.

#4 Libre

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Liber, or LibreOffice, is a direct competitor to Microsoft Office (which is the suite that includes Excel).

Libre also has a spreadsheet app, and it’s designed to look, feel, and operate much like the other apps on this list.

The specific spreadsheet app in the Libre suite is called “Calc.”

It’s not redefining the concept or anything, but it’s free to use, and it competes pretty well with the other options.

Calc is yet another that uses UTF-8.

You might be noticing a trend by this point.

What Do Spreadsheets and the UTF They Use Mean for Users?

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Let’s revisit the idea of compatibility one more time.

If you have two different apps that are both using UTF-8, then those apps can use each others’ data without messing up the formatting.

So, you can import an entire spreadsheet from Libre into Sheets, and it should be fine.

The outlier in all of this is Excel.

Excel spreadsheets will look weird in other apps, and sheets from other apps will look wrong in Excel.

You can overcome this by converting to UTF-8—Excel is capable of working with UTF-8—but until the conversion is done, you’ll see those formatting issues.


  • Theresa McDonough

    Tech entrepreneur and founder of Tech Medic, who has become a prominent advocate for the Right to Repair movement. She has testified before the US Federal Trade Commission and been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, helping influence change within the tech industry.