What is the difference between a string and a byte string?


Python Problem Overview

I am working with a library which returns a byte string and I need to convert this to a string.

Although I'm not sure what the difference is - if any.

Python Solutions

Solution 1 - Python

The only thing that a computer can store is bytes.

To store anything in a computer, you must first encode it, i.e. convert it to bytes. For example:

  • If you want to store music, you must first encode it using MP3, WAV, etc.
  • If you want to store a picture, you must first encode it using PNG, JPEG, etc.
  • If you want to store text, you must first encode it using ASCII, UTF-8, etc.

MP3, WAV, PNG, JPEG, ASCII and UTF-8 are examples of encodings. An encoding is a format to represent audio, images, text, etc. in bytes.

In Python, a byte string is just that: a sequence of bytes. It isn't human-readable. Under the hood, everything must be converted to a byte string before it can be stored in a computer.

On the other hand, a character string, often just called a "string", is a sequence of characters. It is human-readable. A character string can't be directly stored in a computer, it has to be encoded first (converted into a byte string). There are multiple encodings through which a character string can be converted into a byte string, such as ASCII and UTF-8.

'I am a string'.encode('ASCII')

The above Python code will encode the string 'I am a string' using the encoding ASCII. The result of the above code will be a byte string. If you print it, Python will represent it as b'I am a string'. Remember, however, that byte strings aren't human-readable, it's just that Python decodes them from ASCII when you print them. In Python, a byte string is represented by a b, followed by the byte string's ASCII representation.

A byte string can be decoded back into a character string, if you know the encoding that was used to encode it.

b'I am a string'.decode('ASCII')

The above code will return the original string 'I am a string'.

Encoding and decoding are inverse operations. Everything must be encoded before it can be written to disk, and it must be decoded before it can be read by a human.

Solution 2 - Python

Assuming Python 3 (in Python 2, this difference is a little less well-defined) - a string is a sequence of characters, ie unicode codepoints; these are an abstract concept, and can't be directly stored on disk. A byte string is a sequence of, unsurprisingly, bytes - things that can be stored on disk. The mapping between them is an encoding - there are quite a lot of these (and infinitely many are possible) - and you need to know which applies in the particular case in order to do the conversion, since a different encoding may map the same bytes to a different string:

>>> b'\xcf\x84o\xcf\x81\xce\xbdo\xcf\x82'.decode('utf-16')
>>> b'\xcf\x84o\xcf\x81\xce\xbdo\xcf\x82'.decode('utf-8')

Once you know which one to use, you can use the .decode() method of the byte string to get the right character string from it as above. For completeness, the .encode() method of a character string goes the opposite way:

>>> 'τoρνoς'.encode('utf-8')

Solution 3 - Python

Note: I will elaborate more my answer for Python 3 since the end of life of Python 2 is very close.

In Python 3

bytes consists of sequences of 8-bit unsigned values, while str consists of sequences of Unicode code points that represent textual characters from human languages.

>>> # bytes
>>> b = b'h\x65llo'
>>> type(b)
<class 'bytes'>
>>> list(b)
[104, 101, 108, 108, 111]
>>> print(b)
>>> # str
>>> s = 'nai\u0308ve'
>>> type(s)
<class 'str'>
>>> list(s)
['n', 'a', 'i', '̈', 'v', 'e']
>>> print(s)

Even though bytes and str seem to work the same way, their instances are not compatible with each other, i.e, bytes and str instances can't be used together with operators like > and +. In addition, keep in mind that comparing bytes and str instances for equality, i.e. using ==, will always evaluate to False even when they contain exactly the same characters.

>>> # concatenation
>>> b'hi' + b'bye' # this is possible
>>> 'hi' + 'bye' # this is also possible
>>> b'hi' + 'bye' # this will fail
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: can't concat str to bytes
>>> 'hi' + b'bye' # this will also fail
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: can only concatenate str (not "bytes") to str
>>> # comparison
>>> b'red' > b'blue' # this is possible
>>> 'red'> 'blue' # this is also possible
>>> b'red' > 'blue' # you can't compare bytes with str
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: '>' not supported between instances of 'bytes' and 'str'
>>> 'red' > b'blue' # you can't compare str with bytes
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: '>' not supported between instances of 'str' and 'bytes'
>>> b'blue' == 'red' # equality between str and bytes always evaluates to False
>>> b'blue' == 'blue' # equality between str and bytes always evaluates to False

Another issue when dealing with bytes and str is present when working with files that are returned using the open built-in function. On one hand, if you want ot read or write binary data to/from a file, always open the file using a binary mode like 'rb' or 'wb'. On the other hand, if you want to read or write Unicode data to/from a file, be aware of the default encoding of your computer, so if necessary pass the encoding parameter to avoid surprises.

In Python 2

str consists of sequences of 8-bit values, while unicode consists of sequences of Unicode characters. One thing to keep in mind is that str and unicode can be used together with operators if str only consists of 7-bit ASCI characters.

It might be useful to use helper functions to convert between str and unicode in Python 2, and between bytes and str in Python 3.

Solution 4 - Python

Let's have a simple one-character string 'š' and encode it into a sequence of bytes:

>>> 'š'.encode('utf-8')

For the purpose of this example, let's display the sequence of bytes in its binary form:

>>> bin(int(b'\xc5\xa1'.hex(), 16))

Now it is generally not possible to decode the information back without knowing how it was encoded. Only if you know that the UTF-8 text encoding was used, you can follow the algorithm for decoding UTF-8 and acquire the original string:

11000101 10100001
   ^^^^^   ^^^^^^
   00101   100001

You can display the binary number 101100001 back as a string:

>>> chr(int('101100001', 2))

Solution 5 - Python

From What is Unicode?:

> Fundamentally, computers just deal with numbers. They store letters and other characters by assigning a number for each one. > > ...... > > Unicode provides a unique number for every character, no matter what the platform, no matter what the program, no matter what the language.

So when a computer represents a string, it finds characters stored in the computer of the string through their unique Unicode number and these figures are stored in memory. But you can't directly write the string to disk or transmit the string on network through their unique Unicode number because these figures are just simple decimal number. You should encode the string to byte string, such as UTF-8. UTF-8 is a character encoding capable of encoding all possible characters and it stores characters as bytes (it looks like this). So the encoded string can be used everywhere because UTF-8 is nearly supported everywhere. When you open a text file encoded in UTF-8 from other systems, your computer will decode it and display characters in it through their unique Unicode number.

When a browser receive string data encoded UTF-8 from the network, it will decode the data to string (assume the browser in UTF-8 encoding) and display the string.

In Python 3, you can transform string and byte string to each other:

>>> print('中文'.encode('utf-8'))
>>> print(b'\xe4\xb8\xad\xe6\x96\x87'.decode('utf-8'))

In a word, string is for displaying to humans to read on a computer and byte string is for storing to disk and data transmission.

Solution 6 - Python

Unicode is an agreed-upon format for the binary representation of characters and various kinds of formatting (e.g., lower case/upper case, new line, and carriage return), and other "things" (e.g., emojis). A computer is no less capable of storing a Unicode representation (a series of bits), whether in memory or in a file, than it is of storing an ASCII representation (a different series of bits), or any other representation (series of bits).

For communication to take place, the parties to the communication must agree on what representation will be used.

Because Unicode seeks to represent all the possible characters (and other "things") used in inter-human and inter-computer communication, it requires a greater number of bits for the representation of many characters (or things) than other systems of representation that seek to represent a more limited set of characters/things. To "simplify," and perhaps to accommodate historical usage, Unicode representation is almost exclusively converted to some other system of representation (e.g., ASCII) for the purpose of storing characters in files.

It is not the case that Unicode cannot be used for storing characters in files, or transmitting them through any communications channel. It is simply that it is not.

The term "string," is not precisely defined. "String," in its common usage, refers to a set of characters/things. In a computer, those characters may be stored in any one of many different bit-by-bit representations. A "byte string" is a set of characters stored using a representation that uses eight bits (eight bits being referred to as a byte). Since, these days, computers use the Unicode system (characters represented by a variable number of bytes) to store characters in memory, and byte strings (characters represented by single bytes) to store characters to files, a conversion must be used before characters represented in memory will be moved into storage in files.

Solution 7 - Python

Putting it simple, think of our natural languages like - English, Bengali, Chinese, etc. While talking, all of these languages make sound. But do we understand all of them even if we hear them? -

The answer is generally no. So, if I say I understand English, it means that I know how those sounds are encoded to some meaningful English words and I just decode these sounds in the same way to understand them. So, the same goes for any other language. If you know it, you have the encoder-decoder pack for that language in your mind, and again if you don't know it, you just don't have this.

The same goes for digital systems. Just like ourselves, as we can only listen sounds with our ears and make sound with mouth, computers can only store bytes and read bytes. So, the certain application knows how to read bytes and interpret them (like how many bytes to consider to understand any information) and also write in the same way such that its fellow applications also understand it. But without the understanding (encoder-decoder) all data written to a disk are just strings of bytes.

Solution 8 - Python

A string is a bunch of items strung together. A byte string is a sequence of bytes, like b'\xce\xb1\xce\xac' which represents "αά". A character string is a bunch of characters, like "αά". Synonymous to a sequence.

A byte string can be directly stored to the disk directly, while a string (character string) cannot be directly stored on the disk. The mapping between them is an encoding.

Solution 9 - Python

The Python languages includes str and bytes as standard "built-in types". In other words, they are both classes. I don't think it's worthwhile trying to rationalize why Python has been implemented this way.

Having said that, str and bytes are very similar to one another. Both share most of the same methods. The following methods are unique to the str class:


The following methods are unique to the bytes class:



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