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FAQ: Chinese Characters in Microsoft Outlook

How can I get Chinese characters to display in Microsoft Outlook? On the From, To and Subject lines I see only "???", boxes and other garbage characters.

How can I send an e-mail attachment with a Chinese filename using Outlook? Either I get an error message, or the filename disappears, or the filename turns into garbage characters.

Outlook message with Chinese character display problem

I've had many adventures trying to use Chinese characters in multiple versions of Outlook. Unlike my usual clear-cut step-by-step instructions, this article is more a history of what I've survived and what I've learned so far.

Changing your locale often solves certain problems, but in Outlook that change opens a whole new world of difficulty. After describing basic issues and fixes, I will turn to what it's like using Outlook under a Chinese locale and why you may not want to go that far. And no, a Language Pack won't help either. I'll try to explain. Also I have another page for you Gmail users trying to import contacts from Gmail to Outlook.

In Windows 7 or Vista with Outlook 2007 or 2010, Chinese should display with no need for additional setup. But of course, problems do arise.

Message body settings. As I said above, on your system Chinese should display in the body of every message with no problem and no additional setup, but there are times when you need to change the encoding for some or all messages, incoming or outgoing or both. Often the problem is on the other person's computer, and you both wind up in an endless loop of changes trying to fix it. It's very frustrating and enough to make me go entirely to webmail. But, I will post instructions on Outlook encoding settings here soon.

The "From", "To" and "Subject" lines also should be no problem unless they were scrambled while going through someone else's machine. But one time all my Chinese messages looked like the screenshot above, and to be honest my settings were so tied up in knots the only way I was able to fix it was by creating an entirely new and fresh Outlook profile. Here are Microsoft's instructions for creating an Outlook profile. Open new site in new window  You'll have to setup all your accounts and preferences all over again, but you can import your old mail from the old profile's .pst file, and compared to everything else I'd tried this was the easy way out for me. If you have a better idea, please contact me.

E-mail attachment filenames should also work fine in Chinese for you. If Chinese filenames do not display on all incoming attachments, see my new profile idea in the From/To/Subject paragraph above. But it is your outgoing attachments that will more often be a problem — not for you, but for Windows XP users you correspond with unless they have followed my instructions below. My best advice is that you should not use Chinese filenames in e-mail attachments unless you are certain all of your correspondents can handle it.

In Windows XP with Outlook 2007 or later, except for the first two items below (both relating to the e-mail message body) I have not experimented with these problems, so please contact me if you need some help or if you have some advice you think I should post here.

In Windows XP with Outlook 2003 or earlier, Chinese should display in an Outlook e-mail message body with no problem if the rest of your system is set up for Chinese display. However the "From", "To" and "Subject" lines, and attachments with Chinese filenames, are a problem. I'll address all three XP/2003 issues here.

If no message body will display Chinese, enable East Asian languages in Windows XP. This usually solves the problem, end of discussion.

If only some messages will display Chinese in the message body, that may be because your correspondents are mixing too many types of Chinese encodings for your version of Outlook to handle. In that case there is often no fix for this except to ask them to send you an attached document instead. But in other cases you can change the encoding settings in your Outlook and that may solve the problem. You do not need to change your entire system locale just for this, since you can make this message locale change within Outlook itself. (I will post instructions on that Outlook encoding settings here soon.)

"From", "To" and "Subject" Lines are a bigger problem in XP and Outlook 2003. If you're lucky, they display correctly when you open the message even if they are not correct in the inbox. But you can change the locale for Outlook or for the entire system to force all fields to display Chinese. You will then see Chinese characters in any new messages. Unfortunately this will not fix old messages already in your Outlook folders, only new messages, sorry. But before you go to my instructions on changing the locale, please see my adventures with English message formatting below!

E-mail Attachments with Chinese Filenames are possible in XP/2003 by changing your locale for Outlook or for the entire system, but I do not recommend this for most people. First of all, unless you and all your correspondents are sending messages under the same locale those filenames will still generate error messages, go blank or turn into garbage characters on your system or others'. Even if you compress (zip) the file, which Windows will only let you do when the system is running under a Chinese locale (or with a third-party tool like WinZip), the filename will get ruined inside the compressed folder anyway.

Secondly, after you change your locale you will find yourself struggling with the problems I am about to describe here unless you work only in Chinese and will compose no messages in English or other Western languages.

My instructions for changing the locale are not in my opinion the best solution to any of these Outlook problems, unless you are going to write all your messages in Chinese and never use English or other Western languages. Please read about the following problems I've encountered while using Outlook this way.

Problems replying to Western messages while in a Chinese locale:

Following are some of the problems you may encounter when using a Western-language version of Outlook under a Chinese locale.

MS Word is the default e-mail editor for Outlook. You can remove Word as the editor for Outlook 2003 and earlier, but you cannot remove it from Outlook 2007 or later versions!

If you use Word as your Outlook e-mail editor, when replying to messages from people who use Western encoding the special characters Word uses for English punctuation (like "curly quotes") turn into random Chinese characters or question marks!

You will not see this happen until after the message is sent, which is really frustrating. Here's a message I actually e-mailed to someone after forgetting about this problem on a new system:

Outlook message body with random Chinese

You won't see these problems while editing, or after the message is saved to your Outlook Outbox folder. They only show up after you check on the message in your Sent folder. And of course, they show up in the recipient's Inbox!

If don't want to turn off Word as your editor in Outlook 2002/2003, or if you have Outlook 2007 and can't remove Word but need to work in a Chinese locale, what can you do?

First I tried turning off the AutoCorrect and AutoFormat settings, and this did indeed prevent most of the problems caused by Word's fancy quote marks, apostrophes and other special characters. Changing these settings from within Outlook doesn't affect Word when you run it alone, just when it is working as Outlook's editor. In Outlook 2007 go to Tools > Options > Mail Format > Editor Options. Then click the Proofing section and the AutoCorrect Options button. In the AutoCorrect tab turn off "Replace text as you type", and in the AutoFormat tab turn off all "Replace as you type" options except maybe the automatic hyperlink feature.

I also set Outlook to compose only in Plain Text (Options > Mail Format > Message format drop-down menu). Outlook still picks up the sender's formatting when replying, so I also carefully changed all my replies to Plain Text (Options > Format / Plain Text)....but sometimes I forgot to do that, as in the next example.

I thought I had turned all the special characters off, but it's hard to guess when you will still have a problem! In my case it's my old-school typing, which includes two spaces after every sentence. They turned into question marks after I sent this message:

Outlook message body problems 2

So is there are way to fix this without changing AutoCorrect/AutoFormat, and without remembering to change all replies to Plain Text?

Solution: manually change your encoding

I still recommend turning off AutoCorrect and AutoFormat as described above, but when running Outlook under a Chinese locale the only safe way I've found to reply to a message from someone using Western encoding is to either:

  • close and reopen Outlook in your Western locale (or switch the Windows system to your Western locale if you changed that),
    or
  • manually change the message from Western to Chinese encoding, which you can do in all versions up to Outlook 2007 but I haven't found a way to do this in individual messages in Outlook 2010.

If you want to stay in your Chinese locale in Outlook 2007, then do this:

After you hit reply, go to the Options tab and expand "More options. In the Encoding drop-down menu, select the Chinese encoding you're working in (not the encoding used by the person who will receive the message):

Outlook message encoding options

Is this a pain or what? And if you're human you will reply the wrong way to a Western message at least once, and the recipient will see all those strange random characters or question marks.

Also just for completeness I should show you where to find the permanent settings for all messages (even though Outlook will still reply in the encoding of the original message). Outlook tries to set itself to whatever the system locale is, but you can still change this manually.

In all versions up to 2007 the controls are under Tools > Options, shown below. In Outlook 2010 it's under File tab > Options > Advanced > International options. "Unicode (UTF-8)" is a good setting for multilingual users. Check the "Auto select" (2007) / "Automatically select" (2010) encoding box. If this has the opposite effect with some correspondants and you start generating strange characters in your messages to them, come back here and un-check that box.

Outlook encoding settings

If I haven't scared you off at this point, and if you really really want to use Word as your e-mail editor and still want to change your locale, please see my instructions for changing the locale for websites, applications or the entire Windows system.

What About Office Language Packs?

Office Multi-Language Pack 2007People often ask me if purchasing an Office Language Pack or upgrading to Ultimate to get a Windows Language Pack is a better way to solve this problem.

No. The main feature of Language Packs is to turn all the menus and dialogs into Chinese. When you run them, both types of language packs do indeed change the locale, but as I've shown you can do this without buying anything.

The same issues with Word described above will also be a problem when you reply to messages from people using Western encodings. The main reason I recommend Language Packs at all for non-native speakers of Chinese are for the Proofing Tools, including a pop-up Chinese-English dictionary, simplified/traditional character conversion and other features.

I plan to review the Office Language Packs in their own section of this site soon, but in the meantime all I've got for you is an FAQ for people who find icons in MS Word for some of the Chinese proofing tools in a standard Office installation and don't know that they still need to buy an Office Language Pack to activate them. But as I said, you do not need a Language Pack just to get Chinese characters to display in Outlook.

Questions? Contact me anytime.


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