I often use bc utility for converting hex to decimal and vice versa. However, it is always bit trial and error how ibase and obase should be configured. For example here I want to convert hex value C0 to decimal:

$ echo "ibase=F;obase=A;C0" | bc
$ echo "ibase=F;obase=10;C0" | bc
$ echo "ibase=16;obase=A;C0" | bc

What is the logic here? obase(A in my third example) needs to be in the same base as the value which is converted(C0 in my examples) and ibase(16 in my third example) has to be in the base where I am converting to?

  • 2
    for hex calculations (input and output in hex) I have to set obase before ibase!
    – Paschalis
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 2:59

6 Answers 6


What you actually want to say is:

$ echo "ibase=16; C0" | bc

for hex-to-decimal, and:

$ echo "obase=16; 192" | bc

for decimal-to-hex.

You don't need to give both ibase and obase for any conversion involving decimal numbers, since these settings default to 10.

You do need to give both for conversions such as binary-to-hex. In that case, I find it easiest to make sense of things if you give obase first:

$ echo "obase=16; ibase=2; 11000000" | bc

If you give ibase first instead, it changes the interpretation of the following obase setting, so that the command has to be:

$ echo "ibase=2; obase=10000; 11000000" | bc

This is because in this order, the obase value is interpreted as a binary number, so you need to give 10000₂=16 to get output in hex. That's clumsy.

Now let’s work out why your three examples behave as they do.

  1. echo "ibase=F;obase=A;C0" | bc


    That sets the input base to 15 and the output base to 10, since a single-digit value is interpreted in hex, according to POSIX. This asks bc to tell you what C0₁₅ is in base A₁₅=10, and it is correctly answering 180₁₀, though this is certainly not the question you meant to ask.

  2. echo "ibase=F;obase=10;C0" | bc


    This is a null conversion in base 15.

    Why? First, because the single F digit is interpreted in hex, as I pointed out in the previous example. But now that you've set it to base 15, the following output base setting is interpreted that way, and 10₁₅=15, so you have a null conversion from C0₁₅ to C0₁₅.

    That's right, the output isn't in hex as you were assuming, it's in base 15!

    You can prove this to yourself by trying to convert F0 instead of C0. Since there is no F digit in base 15, bc clamps it to E0, and gives E0 as the output.

  3. echo "ibase=16; obase=A; C0"


    This is the only one of your three examples that likely has any practical use.

    It is changing the input base to hex first, so that you no longer need to dig into the POSIX spec to understand why A is interpreted as hex, 10 in this case. The only problem with it is that it is redundant to set the output base to A₁₆=10, since that's its default value.

  • 2
    Thanks. The bc also must use upper case letters for hex
    – daparic
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 6:27

Setting ibase means you need to set obase in that same base. Explaining your examples will show this:

echo "ibase=F;obase=A;C0" | bc

You set bc to consider input numbers as represented in base 15 with the "ibase=F". "obase=A" sets output numbers to base 10, which is the default.

bc reads C0 as a base 15 number: C = 12. 12*15 = 180.

echo "ibase=F;obase=10;C0" | bc

In this one, you set input to base 15, and output to 10 - in base 15, so output base is 15. C0 input in base 15 is C0 output in base 15.

echo "ibase=16;obase=A;C0" | bc

Set input to base 16, output to base 10 (A in base 16 is 10 in base 10).

C0 converted to base 10 is: 12*16 = 192

My personal rule is to set obase first, so that I can use base 10. Then set ibase, also using base 10.

Note that bc does have an ironic exception: ibase=A and obase=A always sets input and output to base 10. From the bc man page:

Single digit numbers always have the value of the digit 
regardless of the value of ibase.

This behavior is enshrined in the specification of bc: From the 2004 OpenGroup bc specification:

When either ibase or obase is assigned a single digit value from 
the list in 'Lexical Conventions in bc', the value shall be assumed
in hexadecimal. (For example, ibase=A sets to base ten, regardless 
of the current ibase value.) Otherwise, the behavior is undefined 
when digits greater than or equal to the value of ibase appear in
the input.

That's why the ibase=F setting changed your input base to base 15, and why I recommended to always set the base using base 10. Avoid confusing yourself.

  • @StéphaneChazelas - I have a recollection of "ibase=A" working on a SysVr3 machine in 1989 or so. I bet it goes back farther that Single Unix Spec. I couldn't quickly google up an earlier ref.
    – user732
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 14:28
  • I think that's because there are more links around to the older specs since they have been around for longer. The same kind of things happen for apache/mysql/bugzilla... documentation where google gives you the doc for the older versions first instead of the latest. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 16:21

All numbers are interpreted by GNU bc as the current input base that is in effect for the statement the number appears in. When you use a digit outside the current input interpret them as the highest digit available in the base (9 in decimal) when part of a multiple digit number, or as their normal values when used as a single digit number (A == 10 in decimal).

From the GNU bc manual:

Single digit numbers always have the value of the digit regardless of the value of ibase. (i.e. A = 10.) For multi-digit numbers, bc changes all input digits greater or equal to ibase to the value of ibase-1. This makes the number FFF always be the largest 3 digit number of the input base.

However, you should be aware that the POSIX standard only defines this behavior for assignments to ibase and obase, and not in any other context.

From the SUS specification on bc:

When either ibase or obase is assigned a single digit value from the list in Lexical Conventions in bc , the value shall be assumed in hexadecimal. (For example, ibase=A sets to base ten, regardless of the current ibase value.) Otherwise, the behavior is undefined when digits greater than or equal to the value of ibase appear in the input. Both ibase and obase shall have initial values of 10.

The key factor you are missing is that F is not in fact sixteen, but is actually fifteen, so when you are setting ibase=F you are setting the input base to fifteen.

Therefore, to portably set the ibase to hexadecimal from an unknown state, you therefore need to use two statements: ibase=A; ibase=16. However, in the beginning of the program you can rely on it being decimal and simply use ibase=16.

  • +1: Cute trick with ibase=A; ibase=16. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 16:23
  • That's SUSv3, not SUSv6. SUSv4 is at pubs.opengroup.org/onlinepubs/9699919799/utilities/bc.html Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 16:25
  • I'd always thought the 6 and 7 in the headers were the version. I've never seen anything different - what are issue #1-5?
    – Random832
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 16:29
  • @Random832: SUS and POSIX aren't the same thing. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 16:42
  • @WarrenYoung Doesn't SUS incorporate POSIX? This paragraph has no extension tag, and the document says things like "part of this volume of POSIX.1-2008 " throughout.
    – Random832
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 16:43

It is always recommended to set ibase and obase using a single-digit number, instead of a number such as 16, since according to bc man page,

Single digit numbers always have the value of the digit regardless of the value of ibase.

This means that A,B,...,F always have the values 10,11,...,15 respectively, regardless of what the value of ibase is. You can also use F+1 to specify number 16. For example, you'd better write

echo "ibase=F+1; obase=A; C0" | bc

instead of writing echo "ibase=16; obase=A; C0" | bc to specify that input base is 16 and output base is 10. Or for example, if you want both ibase and obase to be 16, you'd better use

ibase=F+1; obase=F+1

instead of using ibase=16; obase=10. Similarly, if you're going to input your numbers in base 14 and output them in base 16, use

ibase=E; obase=F+1

Although bath forms have the same results, the former is less error prone, whereas the latter may lead to more confusion and error.

The difference between the two forms especially becomes more apparent, when you are in the execution environment of bc, or you are going to write your calculations in a file, and then pass that file to bc as an argument. In such situations, you may have to change the values of ibase and obase several times, and using the latter form, can lead to serious confusion and errors. (experience it)


Heading ##In short, once you set ibase, all numbers that are entered are in that base. So, if you do:


Then any numbers you enter after that are considered hex digits. The possibly unintended consequence of this is that if you then try to set obase (or reset ibase) to say, base 10, you will need to use A, not 10 as the number:


in bc, you can check the values of ibase and obase, by typing them without setting them:


in oneliner parlance (convert hex 13 to decimal:

echo "ibase=16;13;ibase;obase" | bc -l
  1. always use obase at first position and ibase at the second position. that is:

    correct usage:
    echo "obase=...; ibase=...; ..." | bc

    wrong usage:
    echo "ibase=...; obase=...; ..." | bc

  2. use obase as output notation system, use ibase as input notation system

  3. for dec use 10
    for oct use 8
    for hex use 16
  4. examples

hex to dec

$ echo "obase=10; ibase=16; FF" | bc

dec to hex

$ echo "obase=16; ibase=10; 255" | bc

dec to oct

$ echo "obase=8; ibase=10; 63" | bc

oct to bin

$ echo "obase=2; ibase=8; 77" | bc

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