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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 Outlook. Unlike my usual clear-cut step-by-step instructions, this article is more a history of (or rant about) what I've survived and what I've learned so far, in four short summaries that offer suggestions on what you should — and should not — try:

• Problems in each version of Outlook,
International Options in each version of Outlook,
Why changing the Windows locale is won't help and may make things worse, and
why language packs are not the solution.

(I have another page for those trying to import contacts from Gmail to Outlook.)

 

In Outlook 2013 and 2016 Chinese should display with no need for additional setup...but of course sometimes it doesn't. I have only used these versions of Outlook in Windows 8 and 10, but they should behave the same in Windows Vista and 7 as well.

Message body text should display in Chinese and "Latin" languages like English correctly in every message with no problem and no additional setup, as long as UTF-8 support is enabled. When exchanging messages only in one type of Chinese characters (GB or Big5), there may be times when you need to change the encoding for your outgoing messages to ensure they look OK on the receiving end as well. If you are seeing strange or incorrect characters where Chinese should be, see the section on Outlook International Options below.

The "From", "To" and "Subject" lines generally work fine for me in the latest versions of Outlook and Windows, as long as I have UTF-8 enabled and occassionally tweak the outgoing message encoding, as explained in the previous paragraph. But even when all of your settings are correct, they can still look like the old mess you see in the image above. Usually the cause is at the sender's end, or in the email systems the messages has traveled through. But if this starts happening to you all the time in messages from many different sources, and if you've adjusted your Outlook international options to no avail, you may need to create a new profile in Outlook. Creating a new profile is very close to reinstalling the whole application, so often not worth the trouble, but see my discussion under Outlook 2007/2010 below for more information on that.

E-mail attachment filenames in Chinese work for me most of the time, but in general it is not a good idea to use Chinese in filenames when you are sharing them via email. Many e-mail servers and clients out there still unable to handle them correctly. Eventually something goes wrong, and I'd rather use a file sharing service like Dropbox or Baidu Pan instead. As long as the default UTF-8 support is enabled in Outlook international options, your outgoing messages should be OK from your end. But if Chinese filenames do not display on incoming attachments, every time and from multiple senders, see my suggestion on creating a new Outlook profile in the Outlook 2007/2010 section below.

 

In Outlook 2007 or 2010 Chinese should display with no need for additional setup, and problems with language are not necessarily a reason to upgrade. When all else fails, you may first want to try creating a new Outlook "profile".

Message body text, as I said above, Chinese should display in 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. Often the problem is on the other person's computer, and the two of you 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 it's worth trying to adjust your regional encoding and Unicode (UTF-8) settings, as explained in the Outlook International Options section below.

The "From", "To" and "Subject" lines also should be no problem as long as UTF-8 support is enabled (see below), unless those lines 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 your outgoing attachments may also be a problem — not for you, but for some of the users you correspond with (especially Windows XP users, 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. Use file sharing services like Box, DropBox, Google Drive, or Baidu Pan instead.

 

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.

 

Outlook International Options: Changing the Locale and More

Since the release of Outlook 2010, you can change the text encoding for all outgoing messages, but not for just one message, so you may have to remember to change the global settings again when you're done. In Outlook 2007, as I recall you could change your language encoding for each message individually, or for all messages, and I don't know why we lost that feature in later releases.

In Outlook 2013 and 2016, in a message or in the main application window go to the File tab. Select Options, then Advanced. Scroll down to "International Options":

In the image above, notice that the last item in the list is selected: "Allow UTF-8 support for the mailto: protocol". This is essential when you are communicating in mixed languages with most users of the latest globally-compatible operating systems.

But sometimes you'll be communicating with people who are using specific regional settings, and you will have to custom-tailor your outgoing messages and vCards to the encoding used on that end. To do this, select a "preferred encoding for outgoing messages" from the lists here.

Although Unicode UTF-8 and UTF-7 are in that list, if a Chinese language user is having trouble reading your Chinese messages then the solution is usually to select the Chinese encoding they are using on their system. Often their entire system will be set to that locale.

If that still doesn't solve the problem in your replies to those recipients, you may want to turn off "Automatically select encoding for outgoing messages" (and vCards) in case your system is wrongly identifying how to reply.

These settings affect all your outgoing messages. UTF-8 should be no problem and is your default setting in most situations, but you may have to return the other settings to their defaults when communicating with people in languages other than Chinese.

 

In Outlook 2010, your International Options are in File tab > Options > Advanced > International options. See my recommendations for Outlook 2013/2016 above. I plan to add some screen shots of 2010 here, but the situation is essentially the same as more recent versions.

 

In Outlook 2007, as I recall we had the option of changing these settings for a single outgoing message or for all outgoing messages. I don't now why we lost the option to change only one message beginning with Outlook 2010; that was very convenient.

While composing a message, go to that message's Options tab and expand "More options". In the Encoding drop-down menu, select the Chinese encoding being used by the person who will receive the message:

Outlook message encoding options

To change this setting for all messages, in the main Outlook window go to Tools > Options > Mail Format tab > International Options as shown below. See the section on Outlook 2013/2016 above for a discussion of UTF-8, auto selecing encoding, and specifying a preferred encoding here.

Outlook encoding settings

 

Outlook 2003 and earlier versions had fewer options. I can't remember much about them other than what I've mentioned in the previous section, but feel free to ask me about those and maybe I can help by looking at screen shots of your settings.

 

What about setting Windows to a Chinese locale?

Changing the Windows system locale is, in my opinion, not 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. Following are some of the problems I've encountered while trying to send English messages while in 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! Because Word is 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?

Solutions to using Outlook in a Chinese locale:

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 Outlook from Western to Chinese encoding, as I discussed above.

Not the best solution, because eventually you will forget to do this or something else will go wrong. But it works.

 

And what About Office Language Packs?

Office Multi-Language Pack 2007People often ask me if an Office Language Pack or Proofing Tools, or installing a system Language Pack for Win 7/Vista/XP or Windows 8/10 would be 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. And Proofing Tools add interesting features, mostly to Word, but also do nothing to help with this.

The same locale issues I described in the previous section 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, but more and more of those have been given away separately in recent years.

You do not need a Language Pack or Proofing Tools just to get Chinese characters to display in Outlook.

 

Questions? Contact me anytime.


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