converting timestamps to utc in python



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Recently, I was working on a project where the API I was using would sometimes decide to include an offset for the timestamp and other times not. To make this example more concrete - most of the time the result would look like this: 2020-06-16T00:00:00. Sometimes, however, it came back with additional information, like this 2020-06-18T14:55:28-05:00.

Since my database doesn’t handle timezones, I wanted to convert the timestamp to UTC to make sure I retained the actual information being communicated. The result of this led me to learn quite a few interesting ways to use Python’s datetime and re modules.

Let’s dive in.

Breaking Up The Timestamp

In order to create a timestamp in Python from a string, it needs to be in ISO format. This actually is the format that my timestamps were coming in.

>>> from datetime import datetime
>>> dt_str = "2020-06-18T14:55:28-05:00"
>>> datetime.fromisoformat(dt_str)
>>> dt_str
datetime.datetime(2020, 6, 18, 14, 55, 28, tzinfo=datetime.timezone(datetime.timedelta(days=-1, seconds=68400)))

If I could simply convert this to UTC and print that, the whole problem would be simple. Unfortunately, there is no built-in way to change the timezone within Python.1 This Stack Overflow conversation provides several options for representing a timestamp in local time, but I’m actually trying to go the other way and the process seems to require that you know the name of the local timezone.

So, while I could create a timestamp, in order to convert it to a string in UTC, I concluded I needed to construct it manually.

The first step of that process was to break up the string into the component pieces - which I accomplished using a regular expression. The insight here was that the regular expression object that’s returned on a match can be broken down into groups.

import re

dt_str = "2020-06-18T14:55:28-05:00"
pattern_with_offset = r"(\d{4})(-)(\d{2})(-)(\d{2})(T)(\d{2})(:)(\d{2})(:)(\d{2})(-|\+)(\d{2})(:)(\d{2})"

tz = re.compile(pattern_with_offset)
if tz.match(timestamp):
    return _convert_to_no_offset(tz.match(timestamp))

def _convert_to_no_offset(regex_timestamp):
    Takes a regex match with groups and returns a new string based timestamp
    year = int(
    div1 =
    month = int(
    div2 =
    day = int(
    T =
    hour = int(
    div3 =
    minute = int(
    div4 =
    second = int(
    sign =
    hour_offset = int(
    div5 =
    minute_offset = int(

With these building blocks, I now had what I needed to construct my new datetime.

Calculating The offset

Before I could create the timestamp though, I needed to find the offset which would be my timedelta. To do that, I created a small helper function:

from datetime import timedelta

def _calc_time_delta(sign = "+", hour_offset = 0, minute_offset = 0):
    """Returns the time delta in seconds based on the offset"""
    sign = -1 if sign == "-" else 1
    return sign * timedelta(hours=hour_offset, minutes=minute_offset)

This returns a timedelta from UTC:

>>> delta = _calc_time_delta("-",5)
>>> delta
datetime.timedelta(days=-1, seconds=68400)

With the timedelta, we now have everything we need to create datetime in UTC time.

Creating A UTC Date

My initial idea was to set the timezone using the named parameter tzinfo based on the offset:

from datetime import datetime, timezone
tzinfo = timezone(offset=_calc_time_delta(
    sign, hour_offset, minute_offset))

dt = datetime(year=year, month=month, day=day, hour=hour,
                minute=minute, second=second, tzinfo=tzinfo)

This approach, however, is what led me to the discover that there’s no way to convert the timezone natively within Python (pre 3.9) as mentioned previously. Trying a different approach, I realized I could just assume that the time was in UTC and then “add” the offset to the UTC time to get it to reflect the actual UTC time.

In code this looked like:

from datetime import datetime, timezone
dt = datetime(year=year, month=month, day=day, hour=hour,
                    minute=minute, second=second, tzinfo=timezone.utc) - offset

A few things to note:

  1. I no longer needed to use the timezone and could simply set the tzinfo to timezone.utc (though leaving it off would default to None which is effectively the same in this case).
  2. While I’m setting it to UTC, all of the values are in my offset time (in this case -5:00), so I would need to reverse the offset. Fortunately, among the supported operations between a date and timedelta is date2 = date1 + timedelta - which is what I took advantage of above.

Converting The Datetime To A String

The final piece is that I needed to convert this back to a string so that when I turned the result into a JSON, I didn’t break things.2

Since I was taking a string in initially, I wanted to return a string in all cases. Fortunately, datetime comes with an instance method, strftime for this purpose.

Converting the datetime object to a string in the ISO format can be done like so:

from datetime import datetime
dt =
return dt.strftime("%Y-%m-%dT%H:%M:%S")

Polish and Wrap Up

At this point we’ve taken a string representing a datetime, converted it into a datetime object in Python, made it timezone aware as its correct UTC time, and then converted it back to a string.

Fortunately, when you spend long enough with a problem (and walk away a time or two), it starts to reveal itself. That’s exactly what happened here. It’s very possible this is just a few lines if I used pytz, or waited for Python 3.9. None the less, I was able to find a few areas where I could simplify my approach. Below is the final function in all its glory (and opportunity for improvement).

A few bigger changes to call out:

  1. The biggest change was realizing that even if .fromisoformat didn’t solve all of my problems, it could be used to great effect to simplify the regular expression by reducing the number of groups.
  2. Once I realized that I needed fewer groups, I also realized that I could use the .groups() method instead of the numbered group to define my variables.

In practice, this meant changing my pattern from:

pattern_with_offset = r"(\d{4})(-)(\d{2})(-)(\d{2})(T)(\d{2})(:)(\d{2})(:)(\d{2})(-|\+)(\d{2})(:)(\d{2})"


  pattern_with_offset = r"(\d{4}-\d{2}-\d{2}T\d{2}:\d{2}:\d{2})(-|\+)(\d{2}):(\d{2})"

Reducing the number of groups from 15 to 4 (it helps to realize that not everything needs to be a group!).

It also meant that, assuming I had a match, I could declare the variables in one line:

import re
iso, sign, hour_offset, minute_offset = re.compile(pattern_without_offset).match("2020-06-18T14:55:28-05:00").groups()

The full code:
import re
from datetime import datetime, timezone, tzinfo, timedelta

def process_datetime(datetime):
    Inputs are strings representing datetimes in one of two forms:
        1. YYYY-MM-DDTHH:MM:SS
        2. YYYY-MM-DDTHH:MM:SS(+/-)HH:MM
    The second option includes a timezone offset.
    Returns a datetime that has been adjusted and in the form of YYYY-MM-DDTHH:MM:SS
    pattern_with_offset = r"(\d{4}-\d{2}-\d{2}T\d{2}:\d{2}:\d{2})(-|\+)(\d{2}):(\d{2})"
    pattern_without_offset = r"\d{4}-\d{2}-\d{2}T\d{2}:\d{2}:\d{2}"
    tz = re.compile(pattern_with_offset)
    without_tz = re.compile(pattern_without_offset)
    if tz.match(datetime):
        return _convert_to_utc(tz.match(datetime))
    elif without_tz.match(datetime):
        return datetime
        raise UnexpectedDatetimeFormat(datetime)

def _convert_to_utc(regex_timestamp):
    Takes a regex match with groups and returns a new string based timestamp
    iso, sign, hour_offset, minute_offset = regex_timestamp.groups()
    offset = _calc_time_delta(sign, hour_offset, minute_offset)
    dt_utc = _construct_utc_dt(iso, offset)

    return dt_utc.strftime("%Y-%m-%dT%H:%M:%S")

def _construct_utc_dt(iso, offset):
    return datetime.fromisoformat(iso) - offset

def _calc_time_delta(sign="+", hour_offset="0", minute_offset="0"):
    """Returns the time delta in seconds based on the offset"""
    sign = -1 if sign == "-" else 1
    return sign * timedelta(hours=int(hour_offset), minutes=int(minute_offset))

class UnexpectedDatetimeFormat(Exception):
    def __init__(self, details):
        self.details = details

Testing this in the Python REPL looks like:

>>> s1 = "2020-06-18T14:55:28-05:00"
>>> s2 = "2020-06-18T14:55:28+05:00"
>>> s3 = "2020-06-16T00:00:00"
>>> process1 = processDatetime(s1)
>>> process2 = processDatetime(s2)
>>> process3 = processDatetime(s3)
>>> print(f"RESULTS ->\n\t1: {process1}\n\t2: {process2}\n\t3: {process3}")
        1: 2020-06-18T19:55:28
        2: 2020-06-18T09:55:28
        3: 2020-06-16T00:00:00


  • 1 With the introduction of ZoneInfo in Python 3.9 this appears to be changing. At time of writing, however the highest runtime available at time of writing within AWS’s Lambda is 3.8.3 - which is where my application is running. Moreover, because I was working with a Lambda, I wanted to keep my project as small as possible and so I explored alternatives to using pytz, which seems like it may be useful in this context.

  • 2 This is a problem that’s bitten me more than once. jjmontes provides a nifty solution in this Stack Overflow conversation answer the question How to overcome “datetime.datetime is not JSON serializable”?:

    json.dumps(my_dictionary, indent=4, sort_keys=True, default=str)

    The key part being the default=str. This function is applied to any values in the dictionary that aren’t serializable — in this case treating them as strings.

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