Converting variable types from character to numeric (and vice versa)

Should data be stored in a variable of type character or numeric?
Obviously, if a variable contains non-numeric information (e.g. names) then it should be saved as a SAS character variable. If the variable contains real numeric data which will be used in numeric calculations, such as weight or height, then it should be stored in a numeric variable.

If a variable contains integer data which will not necessarily be used in any calculations, such as ID number, it is preferable to save it as a variable of type numeric rather than a variable of type character, even if you have no intention of performing algebraic calculations using the variable. For a nominal variable, such as gender, it is preferable to store this as a numeric variable with an appropriate format rather than a character variable with, for example, values 'M' and 'F'.

It is preferable to use numeric variables whenever possible since this eliminates the need to consider leading and trailing blanks when making comparisons. For example, if numeric data are stored in a character variable of length 4, then the value '2bbb' (where b represents a space (blank)) is considered to be greater than '1865'.

Similarly, the character constant 'bbb2' is not the same as '2bbb'. As such, the following expression

if lopnr='   2' then delete;

may not have the desired result (lopnr is a character variable of length 4). It is, of course, possible to use the following code

if lopnr=2 then delete;

where we are instructing SAS to compare the value of a character variable to a numeric constant. When presented with this code, SAS first converts the value of lopnr from character to numeric and then compares the resulting value to the numeric constant 2. This is known as an implicit type conversion, and causes the following note in the log:

NOTE: Character values have been converted to numeric
values at the places given by: (Line):(Column).

Using implicit type conversions is poor programming practice and should be avoided (some would say at all costs).

Which type uses the least storage space?
If the data are integer and contain more than three digits, they can be stored using less space (length) in a numeric variable than a character variable. The minimum length for numeric variables (where length refers to the number of bytes allocated by SAS for storing the variable) under SAS/Windows is 3, so variables containing less than 3 digits can be stored using less space as character variables (where the minimum length is 1).

Swedish civil registration numbers, for example, which contain 10 digits, can be stored in a numeric variable of length 6, whereas 10 bytes would be required if it was stored as a character variable (see my notes on the LENGTH statement).

Converting variable types from character to numeric
Numeric data are sometimes imported into variables of type character and it may be desirable to convert these to variables of type numeric. Note that it is not possible to directly change the type of a variable. It is only possible to write the variable to a new variable containing the same data, although with a different type. By renaming and dropping variables, it is possible to produce a new variable with the same name as the original, although with a different type.

A naive approach is to multiply the character variable by 1, causing SAS to perform an implicit type conversion. For example, if charvar is a character variable then the code


will result in the creation of a new variable, numvar, which will be of type numeric. SAS performs an implicit character to numeric conversion and gives a note to this effect in the log. This method is considered poor programming practice and should be avoided. A preferable method is to use the INPUT function. For example:


The following SAS code demonstrates character to numeric and numeric to character conversion.

data temp;
length char4 $ 4;
input numeric char4;

/* convert character to numeric */

/* convert numeric to character */

789 1234
009 0009
1 9999

proc print;

If the character variable char4 in the above example contains missing values of non-numeric data then the value of new_num will be missing. When char4 contains non-numeric data, an 'invalid argument' note will be written to the log. This note can be suppressed using the ?? format modifier as in the code below

new_num=input(char4, ?? best4.);

Click here to download some sample code illustrating this.

The INPUT statement is also the best method for converting a character string representing a date (e.g. '990719') to a SAS date variable (see the example here).

The INPUT statement is also more efficient than the implicit conversion method with respect to CPU time.

Creating a variable with the same name as the original but with a different type
Note that it is not possible to directly change the type of a variable. You must create a new variable of the desired type. However, a technique is shown below whereby drop and rename statements are used so that the new dataset contains a variable of the same name but with a different type.

data temp;
length lopnr $ 4;
input lopnr;

data new(drop=x);
set temp(rename=(lopnr=x));

proc print data=new;

Click here to download some SAS code for efficiently converting the type of a large number of variables from character to numeric.

Be careful with data containing decimals points!
Care needs to be taken when specifying the informat used with the input function, especially when your data contain decimal points. Consider the following example (which can be downloaded here):

data test;
length x $ 6;
input x;

This produces the following data:

OBS     X          Y61    BEST61      Y60   BEST60
 1    .001       0.001     0.001     0.00     0.00
 2    0.01       0.010     0.010     0.01     0.01
 3    10         1.000     1.000    10.00    10.00
 4    100       10.000    10.000   100.00   100.00
 5    10.0      10.000    10.000    10.00    10.00
 6    1E3      100.000   100.000  1000.00  1000.00
 7    1.52E3  1520.000  1520.000  1520.00  1520.00

When reading data using the w.d informat where a value for d is specified, SAS will divide the input by 10^d if the input does not contain a decimal point. If the input does contain a decimal point then it is left unchanged.

[As an aside, I cannot locate any reference to a BESTw.d informat in the SAS documentation (version 6 language reference 1st ed. or online documentation for 6.12/windows), yet SAS processes the above code without errors. Can anyone explain this?]

For further information:
SAS Language, Reference, v6 ed. 1, pp. 556-7 (INPUT function)
SAS Language, Reference, v6 ed. 1, pp. 584-5 (PUT function)
Combining and Modifying SAS data sets, pp. 148-154

SAS code for converting the type of many variables. 

A macro from SAS Institute for converting all variables in a SAS data set from type character to numeric [click here to download].