Java: Char Data Type

Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

Whether you pronounce it 'char' or 'care', the Java char data type has no relation to burned beef or care. It is simply short for character (as on a keyboard). This lesson will provide an overview of the char data type, and some examples of its use.

The Java Char

In Java, char is short for character. It is 16 bits in size, double that of a byte. Most of the time however, the actual data stored in the char data type doesn't take up more than 8 bits; the reason Java allows 16 bits is so that all characters in all languages can be represented. This representation is in the Unicode format.

Let's take a quick look at Unicode, since it will help us to better understand how the char works.


Unicode is a computer encoding methodology that assigns a unique number for every character. It doesn't matter what language, or computer platform it's on. This is important in a global, networked world, and for computer systems that must accommodate multiple languages and special characters. Unicode truly unifies all of these into a single standard.

In Unicode, all characters are represented by numeric values. For example, 65 is the letter A. 66 is B and so on. The lower-case letters start at 97. There are even special system-only characters in the list: carriage returns, tabs, etc. These can be useful in displaying text; while others are leftovers from older systems.

Examples: Declaring Char Variables

You'd think that a char could be any value from a to Z, and all the numbers. That is true, except for one key item. You can either declare a char variable with single quotes, e.g., setting a char's value to the letter a. Or, you could omit the quotes, and set the Unicode representation of the value. Take a look at the following code for declaring a char variable equal to 77.

char eighty_eight = 77;

The output is not going to be 77, but the Unicode representation. Remember when we said that a char is a single character of 16 bits?

Java Char Output Unicode

If we had tried to declare the char as the actual 77, with quotes, there would be an error. Most tools, such as NetBeans, tell you right away if there is an error, as seen in the following screen capture:

Java NetBeans Char Error

But it's perfectly fine to create a char and give it a value, as long as it's a single character!

char real_seven = 'M';

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