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Specify Data Formats for Compatibility when Using bcp (SQL Server)

This topic describes the data-format attributes, field-specific prompts, and storing field-by-field data in a non-xml format file of the SQL Server bcp command. Understanding these can be helpful when you bulk export SQL Server data for bulk import into another program, such as another database program. The default data formats (native, character, or Unicode) in the source table might be incompatible with the data layout expected by the other program If an incompatibility exists, when you export the data, you must describe the data layout.

Note Note

If you are unfamiliar with data formats for importing or exporting data, see Data Formats for Bulk Import or Bulk Export (SQL Server).

In This Topic:

The bcp command allows you to specify the structure of each field in a data file in terms of the following data-format attributes:

  • File storage type

    The file storage type describes how data is stored in the data file. Data can be exported to a data file as its database table type (native format), in its character representation (character format), or as any data type where implicit conversion is supported; for example, copying a smallint as an int. User-defined data types are exported as their base types. For more information, see Specify File Storage Type by Using bcp (SQL Server).

  • Prefix length

    To provide the most compact file storage for the bulk export of data in native format to a data file, the bcp command precedes each field with one or more characters that indicates the length of the field. These characters are called length prefix characters. For more information, see Specify Prefix Length in Data Files by Using bcp (SQL Server).

  • Field length

    The field length indicates the maximum number of characters that are required to represent data in character format. The field length is already known if the data is stored in the native format. For more information, see Specify Field Length by Using bcp (SQL Server).

  • Field terminator

    For character data fields, optional terminating characters allow you to mark the end of each field in a data file (using a field terminator) and the end of each row (using a row terminator). Terminating characters are one way to indicate to programs reading the data file where one field or row ends and another begins. For more information, see Specify Field and Row Terminators (SQL Server).


If an interactive bcp command contains the in or out option but does not also contain either the format file switch (-f) or a data-format switch (-n, -c, -w, or -N), each column in the source or target table, the command prompts for each of the preceding attributes, in turn. In each prompt, the bcp command provides a default value based on the SQL Server data type of the table column. Accepting the default value for all of the prompts produces the same result as specifying native format (-n) on the command line. Each prompt displays a default value in brackets: [default]. Pressing ENTER accepts the displayed default. To specify a value other than the default, enter the new value at the prompt.


The following example uses the bcp command to bulk export data from the HumanResources.myTeam table interactively to the myTeam.txt file. Before you can run the example, you must create this table. For information about the table and how to create it, see HumanResources.myTeam Sample Table (SQL Server).

The command specifies neither a format file nor a data type, causing bcp to prompt for data-format information. At the Microsoft Windows command prompt, enter:

bcp AdventureWorks.HumanResources.myTeam out myTeam.txt -T

For each column, bcp prompts for field-specific values. The following example shows the field-specific prompts for the EmployeeID and Name columns of the table, and suggests the default file storage type (the native format) for each column. The prefix lengths of the EmployeeID and Name column are 0 and 2, respectively. The user specifies a comma (,) as the terminator of each field.

Enter the file storage type of field EmployeeID [smallint]:

Enter prefix-length of field EmployeeID [0]:

Enter field terminator [none]:,

Enter the file storage type of field Name [nvarchar]:

Enter prefix length of field Name [2]:

Enter field terminator [none]:,




Equivalent prompts (as needed) are displayed for each of the table columns in order.


After all of the table columns are specified, the bcp command prompts you to optionally generate a non-XML format file that stores the field-by-field information just supplied (see the preceding example). If you choose to generate a format file, you can whenever you export data out of that table or import like-structured data into SQL Server.

Note Note

You can use the format file to bulk import data from the data file into an instance of SQL Server or to bulk export data from the table, without needing to respecify the format. For more information, see Format Files for Importing or Exporting Data (SQL Server).

The following example creates a non-XML format file named myFormatFile.fmt:

Do you want to save this format information in a file? [Y/n] y

Host filename: [bcp.fmt]myFormatFile.fmt

The default name for the format file is bcp.fmt, but you can specify a different file name if you choose.

Note Note

For a data file that uses a single data format for its file-storage type, such as character or native format, you can quickly create a format file without exporting or importing data by using the format option. This approach has the advantages of being easy and of allowing you to create either an XML format file or a non-XML format file. For more information, see Create a Format File (SQL Server).


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