11.4.1 The CHAR and VARCHAR Types

The CHAR and VARCHAR types are similar, but differ in the way they are stored and retrieved. They also differ in maximum length and in whether trailing spaces are retained.

The CHAR and VARCHAR types are declared with a length that indicates the maximum number of characters you want to store. For example, CHAR(30) can hold up to 30 characters.

The length of a CHAR column is fixed to the length that you declare when you create the table. The length can be any value from 0 to 255. When CHAR values are stored, they are right-padded with spaces to the specified length. When CHAR values are retrieved, trailing spaces are removed unless the PAD_CHAR_TO_FULL_LENGTH SQL mode is enabled.

Values in VARCHAR columns are variable-length strings. The length can be specified as a value from 0 to 65,535. The effective maximum length of a VARCHAR is subject to the maximum row size (65,535 bytes, which is shared among all columns) and the character set used. See Section E.10.4, “Limits on Table Column Count and Row Size”.

In contrast to CHAR, VARCHAR values are stored as a 1-byte or 2-byte length prefix plus data. The length prefix indicates the number of bytes in the value. A column uses one length byte if values require no more than 255 bytes, two length bytes if values may require more than 255 bytes.

If strict SQL mode is not enabled and you assign a value to a CHAR or VARCHAR column that exceeds the column's maximum length, the value is truncated to fit and a warning is generated. For truncation of nonspace characters, you can cause an error to occur (rather than a warning) and suppress insertion of the value by using strict SQL mode. See Section 5.1.7, “Server SQL Modes”.

For VARCHAR columns, trailing spaces in excess of the column length are truncated prior to insertion and a warning is generated, regardless of the SQL mode in use. For CHAR columns, truncation of excess trailing spaces from inserted values is performed silently regardless of the SQL mode.

VARCHAR values are not padded when they are stored. Trailing spaces are retained when values are stored and retrieved, in conformance with standard SQL.

The following table illustrates the differences between CHAR and VARCHAR by showing the result of storing various string values into CHAR(4) and VARCHAR(4) columns (assuming that the column uses a single-byte character set such as latin1).

ValueCHAR(4)Storage RequiredVARCHAR(4)Storage Required
'''    '4 bytes''1 byte
'ab''ab  '4 bytes'ab'3 bytes
'abcd''abcd'4 bytes'abcd'5 bytes
'abcdefgh''abcd'4 bytes'abcd'5 bytes

The values shown as stored in the last row of the table apply only when not using strict mode; if MySQL is running in strict mode, values that exceed the column length are not stored, and an error results.

If a given value is stored into the CHAR(4) and VARCHAR(4) columns, the values retrieved from the columns are not always the same because trailing spaces are removed from CHAR columns upon retrieval. The following example illustrates this difference:

mysql> CREATE TABLE vc (v VARCHAR(4), c CHAR(4));
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.01 sec)

mysql> INSERT INTO vc VALUES ('ab  ', 'ab  ');
Query OK, 1 row affected (0.00 sec)

mysql> SELECT CONCAT('(', v, ')'), CONCAT('(', c, ')') FROM vc;
+---------------------+---------------------+
| CONCAT('(', v, ')') | CONCAT('(', c, ')') |
+---------------------+---------------------+
| (ab  )              | (ab)                |
+---------------------+---------------------+
1 row in set (0.06 sec)

Values in CHAR and VARCHAR columns are sorted and compared according to the character set collation assigned to the column.

All MySQL collations are of type PADSPACE. This means that all CHAR, VARCHAR, and TEXT values in MySQL are compared without regard to any trailing spaces. Comparison in this context does not include the LIKE pattern-matching operator, for which trailing spaces are significant. For example:

mysql> CREATE TABLE names (myname CHAR(10));
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.03 sec)

mysql> INSERT INTO names VALUES ('Monty');
Query OK, 1 row affected (0.00 sec)

mysql> SELECT myname = 'Monty', myname = 'Monty  ' FROM names;
+------------------+--------------------+
| myname = 'Monty' | myname = 'Monty  ' |
+------------------+--------------------+
|                1 |                  1 |
+------------------+--------------------+
1 row in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> SELECT myname LIKE 'Monty', myname LIKE 'Monty  ' FROM names;
+---------------------+-----------------------+
| myname LIKE 'Monty' | myname LIKE 'Monty  ' |
+---------------------+-----------------------+
|                   1 |                     0 |
+---------------------+-----------------------+
1 row in set (0.00 sec)

This is true for all MySQL versions, and is not affected by the server SQL mode.

Note

For more information about MySQL character sets and collations, see Section 10.1, “Character Set Support”. For additional information about storage requirements, see Section 11.6, “Data Type Storage Requirements”.

For those cases where trailing pad characters are stripped or comparisons ignore them, if a column has an index that requires unique values, inserting into the column values that differ only in number of trailing pad characters will result in a duplicate-key error. For example, if a table contains 'a', an attempt to store 'a ' causes a duplicate-key error.