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Special Characters Not Displaying (character encoding)

Component ID: #ti1837516307

Our TIGER/Line Shapefiles, Partnership Shapefiles, and Cartographic Boundary Files (Shapefile format) may not correctly display special characters in all systems due to character encoding differences. Special characters such as accent marks or tildes, which appear in many shapefile attributes, especially in Puerto Rico, will not look correct if your software applies the wrong character encoding.

We have created a code page file for download that will address this issue. See the directions below for instructions on how to use this code page file to ensure proper display of special characters.

More Details on Character Encoding:  In the late 2000’s, the UTF-8 character encoding became the most prevalent character encoding. Many programs, including ArcGIS, now default to the UTF-8 character encoding when the metadata does not accurately spell out the proper encoding. Our products through 2014, use the ISO-8859-1 character encoding. We will be changing to UTF-8 character encoding beginning with our 2015 products.

Products Affected:

  • TIGER/Line Files and Shapefiles through 2014
  • Cartographic Boundary Files – Shapefiles through 2014
  • Partnership Shapefiles – through 2014

To associate the appropriate code page file with your shapefile:

  1. Download the file: iso_8859_1.cpg
  2. Rename it to match the name of your shapefile keeping the .cpg extension


Take, for example, the 2014 TIGER/Line shapefile for all US counties. When unzipped, you can see that the shape file contains 7 files:

list of shapefiles

Component ID: #ti621609378

When viewed in ArcMap, the names of some counties (municipios) in Puerto Rico may not look correct. In the picture below, two counties whose names should include special characters are circled in red in the attribute table and on the map.

map with municipio names missing special characters

Component ID: #ti621609377

Since the character encoding is not specified in the original shapefile, ArcMap assumes it was encoded using UTF-8. Since the file was actually encoded using ISO-8859-1, some of the characters are not displayed correctly.

To correct this issue, download the iso_8859_1.cpg file above, and place it in the directory with your shapefile.

directory listing showing iso_8859_1.cpg added

Component ID: #ti621609376

Then re-name the .cpg file so that it matches the other files before the extension.

directory listing showing the .cpg file renamed

Component ID: #ti621609375

ArcMap should now display the special characters correctly in both the attribute table and the map display. You may need to refresh your view before the correct characters will appear.

map with municipio names now containing special characters

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