The byte order mark (BOM) is a Unicode character used to signal the endianness (byte order) of a text file or stream. Its code point is U+FEFF. BOM use is optional, and, if used, should appear at the start of the text stream. Beyond its specific use as a byte-order indicator, the BOM character may also indicate which of the several Unicode representations the text is encoded in.
Because Unicode can be encoded as 16-bit or 32-bit integers, a computer receiving Unicode text from arbitrary sources needs to know which byte order the integers are encoded in. The BOM gives the producer of the text a way to describe the text stream’s endianness to the consumer of the text without requiring some contract or metadata outside of the text stream itself. Once the receiving computer has consumed the text stream, it presumably processes the characters in its own native byte order and no longer needs the BOM. Hence the need for a BOM arises in the context of text interchange, rather than in normal text processing within a closed environment.
The UTF-8 representation of the BOM is the byte sequence 0xEF,0xBB,0xBF. A text editor or web browser interpreting the text as ISO-8859-1 or CP1252 will display the characters ï»¿ for this.
A leading BOM can also defeat software that uses pattern matching on the start of a text file, since it inserts 3 bytes before the pattern. For instance in PHP, the existence of a BOM will cause the page to begin output before the initial code is interpreted, causing problems if the page is trying to send custom HTTP headers (which must be set before output begins).
Many Windows programs (including Windows Notepad) add BOMs to UTF-8 files by default.