Why Emoji and Symbols Show Square Box or Question Mark?

Unicode consortium is a non-profit organization that maintains a unique code point for each symbol and character. Operating systems and applications interpret these Unicode code point and allow you to type. There are 1,114,112 code points available in Unicode while only 143,859 are assigned to specific characters as of Unicode version 13.0. Even with this 143K codes, many symbols and characters will still show square box or question mark. Here are the reasons, why you square box or question mark instead of symbols.

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What is that Square Box or Question Mark?

When an application does not support the Unicode code point, you will see one of the below:

  • Square box
  • Question mark
  • Question mark inside a box
  • Incompatible junk characters

It happens due to various reasons and we will explain some of them here.

Understanding How a Characters is Displayed

Before proceeding further, it is necessary to understand how applications show characters when you type. Because, the same process works for all characters including symbols that has Unicode code point.

Digital applications work with 1 and 0. Therefore, the application converts Unicode point of a character into binary code and stores it. When you open a file that contains a character, your computer interprets the binary code into a visible symbol. For this, there are many mapping standards available called character encoding.

Process Steps in Character Display
Process Steps in Character Display

The common character encoding is UTF-8 (8-bit Unicode Transformation Format). If any step goes wrong then you will the character as a square box or question mark or junk.

Dollar Emoji Showing as Question Mark
Dollar Emoji Showing as Question Mark

1. Use UTF-8 Character Encoding

Most probable reason you see a square box is that the application is not supporting Unicode code point. When an application like Word or Excel cannot interpret the code point, it will show a square box indicating the incompatibility or you will see some junk characters. Below is an example, how bullet points will look when the document is not compatible:

Unsupported Characters
Unsupported Characters

The solution to fix this is to change the encoding on the document. However, it depends on the application and operating system you use. Follow the below instruction for Word in Windows:

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When a file is not compatible, Word will automatically show the file conversion dialog when you open. If you are not seeing the file conversion dialog, first you have to enable it.

  • Open a new Word document and go to “File > Options > Advanced” section. Scroll down to “General” section and enable “Confirm file format conversion on open”. This will show the file conversion dialog whenever you open a document not compatible with default Word’s file extensions.
Confirm File Format Conversion on Open
Confirm File Format Conversion on Open
  • Now, open the file that shows square box or junk characters. You should see a “convert File” dialog like below. Choose “Encoded Text” and click “OK” button.
Convert File
Convert File
  • You will see the “File Conversion” dialog like below. Choose “Other encoding” and select “Unicode (UTF-8)” option. Click “OK” to open the file.
Select UTF 8 Encoding
Select UTF 8 Encoding

Now, you should see all square boxes and junk characters should show properly as they are properly converted using Unicode encoding.

Proper Bullet Symbols
Proper Bullet Symbols

As mentioned, changing character encoding depends on the application you use. In summary, you should ensure to use UTF-8 character encoding for the symbols to show properly.

2. Operating System Language

In the above process, operating systems like Windows and Mac uses a code page for mapping Unicode code point to binary code. This means a same symbol can have a different mapping on different operating systems. If you are viewing cross-platform documents created on different operating system then the possible reason could be the different interpretation of the same symbol. This is also the reason that the same code’s display is different based on the operating system.

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Generally, you can change the code page by changing the language on your computer. However, this is not recommended or feasible in all cases to just view the symbol on your document.

3. Choose Different Fonts

Apple has its own Symbol font while Microsoft has fonts like Wingdings and Webdings. These fonts are compatible to show the symbols in appropriate style. When you see a square box, try to change the font to Webdings or Wingdings in Windows and Symbol in Mac.

Fonts in Windows
Fonts in Windows

4. Embed Font in Document

There could be situations like you have to create a document using special symbols and distribute to users viewing it in different operating system. In this case, make sure to embed the fonts used in the document so that it works properly when viewed in other operating system.

  • Open Word document and go to “File > Options > Save” section.
  • Scroll down to the last section that shows “Preserve fidelity when sharing this document”.
  • Enable the checkbox against “Enable fonts in the file”.
  • Also enable, “Embed only the characters used in the document (best for reducing size)” to reduce the size of your file.
Embed Fonts in File
Embed Fonts in File

5. New Symbols

Unicode releases new symbols, especially emoji, every year. Whenever there is a new emoji, it may take some time for the companies like Microsoft and Apple to adopt the code. You can check out the Unicode website for the newly released symbols to make sure you are not struggling with them.

6. Square Box on Browsers

Similar to other applications, web developers also use symbols in HTML, CSS and JavaScript. You have to convert the Unicode code point to a decimal or hexadecimal escape entity and pass on your web document for using the symbols on web documents. Modern browser have the option to use custom font that may block the symbols font used on the website. Therefore, make sure to check your browser’s font settings and allow the fonts to load from the website.

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Below is an example on Firefox where you can go to “about:preferences” page and allow webpages to use their own font.

Font Settings in Firefox
Font Settings in Firefox

Final Words

Though Unicode put efforts in making all the symbols and characters available, it is up to the large corporate companies like IBM, Microsoft and Apple to adopt them uniformly in applications. In most cases, you can solve the problem of symbols showing as square box by changing the font or using character encoding. However, you may not be able to solve the issue if your computer does not support due to code page or incompatibility.

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