Working with Strings

This topic explains how Windows supports Unicode strings for UI elements, file names, and so on (Unicode is the preferred character encoding because it supports all character sets and languages).

Windows represents Unicode characters using UTF-16 encoding, in which each character is encoded as one or two 16-bit values. To distinguish them from 8-bit ANSI characters, UTF-16 characters are called wide characters. The Visual C++ compiler supports the built-in data type wchar_t for wide characters. The header file WinNT.h also defines the following typedef.

typedef wchar_t WCHAR;

To declare a wide-character literal or a wide-character string literal, put L before the literal.

wchar_t a = L'a';
wchar_t *str = L"hello";

The following table lists some other string-related typedefs:

Typedef Definition
CHAR char
PSTR or LPSTR char*
PCSTR or LPCSTR const char*
PWSTR or LPWSTR wchar_t*
PCWSTR or LPCWSTR const wchar_t*

Unicode and ANSI Functions

When Microsoft introduced Unicode support to Windows, it eased the transition by providing two parallel sets of APIs, one for ANSI strings and the other for Unicode strings. For example, there are two functions to set the text of a window's title bar:

  • SetWindowTextA takes an ANSI string.
  • SetWindowTextW takes a Unicode string.

Internally, the ANSI version translates the string to Unicode. The Windows headers also define a macro that resolves to the Unicode version when the preprocessor symbol UNICODE is defined or the ANSI version otherwise.

#ifdef UNICODE
#define SetWindowText  SetWindowTextW
#define SetWindowText  SetWindowTextA

The function is documented under the name SetWindowText, even though that is really the macro name, not the actual function name.

New applications should always call the Unicode versions. Many world languages require Unicode. If you use ANSI strings, it will be impossible to localize your application. The ANSI versions are also less efficient, because the operating system must convert the ANSI strings to Unicode at run time. Depending on your preference, you can call the Unicode functions explicitly, such as SetWindowTextW, or use the macros. Most recent Windows APIs typically have just a Unicode version.


In some cases it might be useful to compile the same code for either ANSI or Unicode strings, depending on the target platform. To this end, the Windows SDK provides macros that map strings to Unicode or ANSI, depending on the platform.

Macro Unicode ANSI
TCHAR wchar_t char
TEXT("x") or _T("x") L"x" "x"

For example, the following code:

SetWindowText(TEXT("My Application"));

resolves to one of the following:

SetWindowTextW(L"My Application"); // Unicode function with wide-character string.

SetWindowTextA("My Application");  // ANSI function.

The TEXT and TCHAR macros are less useful today, because all applications should use Unicode.

The headers for the Microsoft C run-time libraries define a similar set of macros. For example, _tcslen resolves to strlen if _UNICODE is undefined; otherwise it resolves to wcslen, which is the wide-character version of strlen.

#ifdef _UNICODE
#define _tcslen     wcslen
#define _tcslen     strlen

Be careful: Some headers use the preprocessor symbol UNICODE, others use _UNICODE with an underscore prefix. Always define both symbols. Visual C++ sets them both by default when you create a new project.


What Is a Window?