Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia
2.2. URL Character Encoding Issues

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2.2. URL Character Encoding Issues

2.2. URL Character Encoding Issues

URLs are sequences of characters, i.e., letters, digits, and special characters. A URLs may be represented in a variety of ways: e.g., ink on paper, or a sequence of octets in a coded character set. The interpretation of a URL depends only on the identity of the characters used.

In most URL schemes, the sequences of characters in different parts of a URL are used to represent sequences of octets used in Internet protocols. For example, in the ftp scheme, the host name, directory name and file names are such sequences of octets, represented by parts of the URL. Within those parts, an octet may be represented by the chararacter which has that octet as its code within the US-ASCII [20] coded character set.

In addition, octets may be encoded by a character triplet consisting of the character "%" followed by the two hexadecimal digits (from "0123456789ABCDEF") which forming the hexadecimal value of the octet. (The characters "abcdef" may also be used in hexadecimal encodings.)

Octets must be encoded if they have no corresponding graphic character within the US-ASCII coded character set, if the use of the corresponding character is unsafe, or if the corresponding character is reserved for some other interpretation within the particular URL scheme.

No corresponding graphic US-ASCII:

URLs are written only with the graphic printable characters of the US-ASCII coded character set. The octets 80-FF hexadecimal are not used in US-ASCII, and the octets 00-1F and 7F hexadecimal represent control characters; these must be encoded.


Characters can be unsafe for a number of reasons. The space character is unsafe because significant spaces may disappear and insignificant spaces may be introduced when URLs are transcribed or typeset or subjected to the treatment of word-processing programs. The characters "<" and ">" are unsafe because they are used as the delimiters around URLs in free text; the quote mark (""") is used to delimit URLs in some systems. The character "#" is unsafe and should always be encoded because it is used in World Wide Web and in other systems to delimit a URL from a fragment/anchor identifier that might follow it. The character "%" is unsafe because it is used for encodings of other characters. Other characters are unsafe because gateways and other transport agents are known to sometimes modify such characters. These characters are "{", "}", "|", "\", "^", "~", "[", "]", and "`".

All unsafe characters must always be encoded within a URL. For example, the character "#" must be encoded within URLs even in systems that do not normally deal with fragment or anchor identifiers, so that if the URL is copied into another system that does use them, it will not be necessary to change the URL encoding.


Many URL schemes reserve certain characters for a special meaning: their appearance in the scheme-specific part of the URL has a designated semantics. If the character corresponding to an octet is reserved in a scheme, the octet must be encoded. The characters ";", "/", "?", ":", "@", "=" and "&" are the characters which may be reserved for special meaning within a scheme. No other characters may be reserved within a scheme.

Usually a URL has the same interpretation when an octet is represented by a character and when it encoded. However, this is not true for reserved characters: encoding a character reserved for a particular scheme may change the semantics of a URL.

Thus, only alphanumerics, the special characters "$-_.+!*'(),", and reserved characters used for their reserved purposes may be used unencoded within a URL.

On the other hand, characters that are not required to be encoded (including alphanumerics) may be encoded within the scheme-specific part of a URL, as long as they are not being used for a reserved purpose.

Next: 2.3 Hierarchical schemes and relative links

Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia
2.2. URL Character Encoding Issues