CSV Auto Detection
Version dev

When using read_csv_auto, or reading a CSV file with the auto_detect flag set, the system tries to automatically infer how to read the CSV file. This step is necessary because CSV files are not self-describing and come in many different dialects. The auto-detection works roughly as follows:

  • Detect the dialect of the CSV file (delimiter, quoting rule, escape)
  • Detect the types of each of the columns
  • Detect whether or not the file has a header row

By default the system will try to auto-detect all options. However, options can be individually overriden by the user. This can be useful in case the system makes a mistake. For example, if the delimiter is chosen incorrectly, we can override it by calling the read_csv_auto with an explicit delimiter (e.g. read_csv_auto('file.csv', delimiter='|')).

The detection works by operating on a sample of the file. The size of the sample can be modified by setting the sample_size parameter. The default sample size is 20480 rows. Setting the sample_size parameter to -1 means the entire file is read for sampling. The way sampling is performed depends on the type of file. If we are reading from a regular file on disk, we will jump into the file and try to sample from different locations in the file. If we are reading from a file in which we cannot jump - such as a .gz compressed CSV file or stdin - samples are taken only from the beginning of the file.

Dialect Detection

Dialect detection works by attempting to parse the samples using the set of considered values. The detected dialect is the dialect that has (1) a consistent number of columns for each row, and (2) the highest number of columns for each row.

The following dialects are considered for automatic dialect detection.

Parameters Considered Values  
delimiter , ; \t
quote ” ‘ (empty)  
escape ” ‘ \ (empty)  

Consider the following example file.


1988-01-01|AA|New York, NY|Los Angeles, CA
1988-01-02|AA|New York, NY|Los Angeles, CA
1988-01-03|AA|New York, NY|Los Angeles, CA

In this file, the dialect detection works as follows:

  • If we split by a | every row is split into 4 columns
  • If we split by a , rows 2-4 are split into 3 columns, while the first row is split into 1 column
  • If we split by ;, every row is split into 1 column
  • If we split by \t, every row is split into 1 column

In this example - the system selects the | as the delimiter. All rows are split into the same amount of columns, and there is more than one column per row meaning the delimiter was actually found in the CSV file.

Type Detection

After detecting the dialect, the system will attempt to figure out the types of each of the columns. Note that this step is only performed if we are calling read_csv_auto. In case of the COPY statement the types of the table that we are copying into will be used instead.

The type detection works by attempting to convert the values in each column to the candidate types. If the conversion is unsuccessful, the candidate type is removed from the set of candidate types for that column. After all samples have been handled - the remaining candidate type with the highest priority is chosen. The set of considered candidate types in order of priority is given below:


Note everything can be cast to VARCHAR. This type has the lowest priority - i.e. columns are converted to VARCHAR if they cannot be cast to anything else. In flights.csv the FlightDate column will be cast to a DATE, while the other columns will be cast to VARCHAR.

The detected types can be individually overriden using the types option. This option takes either a list of types (e.g. types=[INT, VARCHAR, DATE]) which overrides the types of the columns in-order of occurrence in the CSV file. Alternatively, types takes a name -> type map which overrides options of individual columns (e.g. types={'quarter': INT}).

The type detection can be entirely disabled by using the all_varchar option. If this is set all columns will remain as VARCHAR (as they originally occur in the CSV file).

Header Detection

Header detection works by checking if the candidate header row deviates from the other rows in the file in terms of types. For example, in flights.csv, we can see that the header row consists of only VARCHAR columns - whereas the values contain a DATE value for the FlightDate column. As such - the system defines the first row as the header row and extracts the column names from the header row.

In files that do not have a header row, the column names are generated as column0, column1, etc.

Note that headers cannot be detected correctly if all columns are of type VARCHAR - as in this case the system cannot distinguish the header row from the other rows in the file. In this case the system assumes the file has no header. This can be overriden using the header option.

Dates and Timestamps

DuckDB supports the ISO 8601 format format by default for timestamps, dates and times. Unfortunately, not all dates and times are formatted using this standard. For that reason, the CSV reader also supports the dateformat and timestampformat options. Using this format the user can specify a format string that specifies how the date or timestamp should be read.

As part of the auto-detection, the system tries to figure out if dates and times are stored in a different representation. This is not always possible - as there are ambiguities in the representation. For example, the date 01-02-2000 can be parsed as either January 2nd or February 1st. Often these ambiguities can be resolved. For example, if we later encounter the date 21-02-2000 then we know that the format must have been DD-MM-YYYY. MM-DD-YYYY is no longer possible as there is no 21nd month.

If the ambiguities cannot be resolved by looking at the data the system has a list of preferences for which date format to use. If the system choses incorrectly, the user can specify the dateformat and timestampformat options manually.

The system considers the following formats for dates (dateformat). Higher entries are chosen over lower entries in case of ambiguities (i.e. ISO 8601 is preferred over MM-DD-YYYY).

ISO 8601

The system considers the following formats for timestamps (timestampformat). Higher entries are chosen over lower entries in case of ambiguities.

ISO 8601
%y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S
%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S
%d-%m-%y %H:%M:%S
%d-%m-%Y %H:%M:%S
%m-%d-%y %I:%M:%S %p
%m-%d-%Y %I:%M:%S %p
%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S.%f
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