A question about the FileTimeToLocalFileTime function turned out to be something else

A customer reported that their program was running into problems with the File­Time­To­Local­File­Time function. Specifically, they found that the values reported by the function varied wildly for different time zones. Even though the two time zones were only a few hours apart, the results were hundreds of centuries apart.

The customer did a very good job of reducing the problem, providing a very simple program that illustrated the problem. I cleaned it up a bit.

#include <windows.h>
#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char **argv)
 FILETIME ftUTC = { 0, 0 };
 FILETIME ftLocal;
 double vLocal = 0;
 BOOL result = 0;

 printf("ftUTC = {%d,%d}\n",
        ftUTC.dwHighDateTime, ftUTC.dwLowDateTime);

 result = FileTimeToLocalFileTime(&ftUTC, &ftLocal);
 printf("FT2LFT returns %d\n", result);

 printf("ftLocal = {%d,%d}\n",
        ftLocal.dwHighDateTime, ftLocal.dwLowDateTime);

 FileTimeToSystemTime(&ftLocal, &stLocal);

 printf("stLocal = %d.%d.%d %02d:%02d:%02d\n",
        stLocal.wYear, stLocal.wMonth, stLocal.wDay,
        stLocal.wHour, stLocal.wMinute, stLocal.wSecond);

 SystemTimeToVariantTime(&stLocal, &vLocal);
 printf("vLocal = %f\n", vLocal);

 return 0;

According to the customer, "When we run the program with the current time zone set to UTC-8, we get the correct values, but if we run it with the time zone set to UTC+8, we get the wrong values. We expect that a zero starting file time should result in a zero variant time." They also provided two screen shots, which I converted to a table.

ftUTC = {0,0}
FT2LFT returns 1
ftLocal = {67,237191168}
stLocal = 1601.1.1 08:00:00
vLocal = -109205.000000
ftUTC = {0,0}
FT2LFT returns 1
ftLocal = {-68,-237191168}
stLocal = 34453.15281.0 00:30:19624
vLocal = 0.000000
Incorrect Correct

Okay, first of all, let's see which is actually correct and which is incorrect.

The File­Time­To­Local­File­Time function subtracts or adds eight hours. Since the starting time was zero, the result in the case of UTC-8 is an integer underflow, which prints as negative numbers if you use the %d format. (Note to language lawyers: Don't get all worked up about stuff like "passing an unsigned integer to the %d format results in undefined behavior." I'm talking about Win32 here, and I'm trying to explain observed behavior, not justify theoretical behavior.)

The value {67,237191168} corresponds to 0x00000043`0e234000, which has the signed decimal value 288000000000 which is exactly equal to 8 * 10000 * 1000 * 3600, or eight hours after zero. On the other hand, the value {-68,-237191168} corresponds to 0xffffffbc`f1dcc000 which has the signed decimal value -288000000000 which is exactly equal to -8 * 10000 * 1000 * 3600, or eight hours before zero.

So far, the numbers match what we expect. Although we do have an issue that in the UTC-8 case, the value underflowed to a very large positive number.

Next, we convert ftLocal to stLocal. The easy case is UTC+8, where the timestamp of eight hours after zero is converted to January 1, 1601 at 8am, because the zero time for FILETIME is January 1, 1601 at midnight. This is spelled out in the very first sentence of the documentation for the FILETIME structure.

Okay, now the hard case of UTC-8. The timestamp 0xffffffbc`f1dcc000, if interpreted as an unsigned number, corresponds to May 27, 58456 (at around 9:30pm), but if interpreted as a signed number, corresponds to 4pm December 31, 1600. The File­Time­To­System­Time function rejects negative timestamps, return FALSE and ERROR_INVALID_PARAMETER. Since the call failed, the value in stLocal is undefined, and here, it just contains uninitialized garbage. (Because "uninitialized garbage" is a valid value for "undefined".)

The next thing we do is convert the stLocal to a variant time. As noted in the documentation, the zero time for variant time is December 30, 1899. (Required reading: Eric's Complete Guide to VT_DATE, wherein the insanities of variant time are investigated.) Again, the case of UTC+8 is easy: January 1, 1601 is many many days before December 30, 1899, apparently −109205 days. I'm going to take this for granted and not check the math, because the goal is not to double-check the results but rather to explain why the results are what they are. On the other hand, the (garbage) date of the zeroth day of the 15281th month of the year 34453 is not valid, and the System­Time­To­Variant­Time fails because the parameter is invalid. In this case, the output variable vLocal is left unchanged, and it continues to have the value zero, the value it was initialized with.

Therefore, the fact that in the so-called "correct" case the value of vLocal is zero has nothing to do with the functioning of the API, but rather has everything to do with the line

 double vLocal = 0;

at the start of the program. Change the line to

 double vLocal = 3.14159;

and the result in the "correct" case will be 3.14159.

The conclusion here is that the so-called "incorrect" result is actually correct, and the so-called "correct" result is just an accident. The customer is under the mistaken impression that a zero FILETIME matches a zero variant time, but they do not. The zero points for the two time formats are quite different. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the test program didn't check the return values of File­Time­To­System­Time or System­Time­To­Variant­Time, so what it thought were the values set by those two functions were actually just the uninitialized values passed into the respective functions.

Comments (16)
  1. Yuri Khan says:

    As Eric’s Complete Guide eloquently explains, variant time is so broken by design as to be unusable for almost any purposes.

  2. Joe says:

    programming is hard.

  3. mikeb says:

    It's amazing how something that everyone normally deals with easily since childhood is so complex on computing systems.

  4. ch says:

    Presumably this problem would have been much more easily solved if the return value from SystemTimeToVariantTime() had been checked.

  5. @ch says:

    That's literally the last line of the post.

    "The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the test program didn't check the return values of File­Time­To­System­Time or System­Time­To­Variant­Time, so what it thought were the values set by those two functions were actually just the uninitialized values passed into the respective functions."

  6. Mordachai says:

    Dates are very complex.  We deal with them because we've been taught the rules.  And generally speaking, we only know a very small subset of the rules as applies to our very short, very limited, very contextual lives in a single culture over the span of no-changes-to-dates-of-any-real-significance.

    The math on dates is anything but simple.  Leap-years, Leap-decades, time-zones, multiple formats, etc.  I think a lot of people don't realized how complex a thing is because they've never tired to code for it.

  7. Wutz Rong Izright says:

     "the so-called "incorrect" result is actually correct, and the so-called "correct" result is just an accident."

    The best part of your blog is how you sum it all up!

  8. Danny says:

    @Ray- should be 3.1415926536..that's my location where I go to round-up error when it comes to monsieur "Pie".

  9. Gabe says:

    I just realized this time-oriented post was probably a reminder that DST starts in the US this weekend.

    Don't forget to adjust your clocks, everybody!

  10. cheong00 says:

    Related to DST and UTC, if you're using .NET framework, make sure you use UTC time instead of Local time, or turn of DST, to evade this bug.


  11. Anon says:


    What's the actual reproduction for that bug? I don't see any code.

    We have hundreds of DateTime.Nows in our code, it would be nice if we could demonstrate an issue before all of our users see it, but

  12. Anon says:

    That was supposed to read "…but I'm not sure how to reproduce it, since just adding/subtracting time across the boundary doesn't cause any exceptions here."

    I blame DST for the typo.

  13. Michael Bisbjerg says:

    Brilliant 10 minute video on why Timezones are hard, by Computerphile: http://www.youtube.com/watch

  14. cheong00 says:

    @Anon: There is a bug in logic that, when DST is in effect, on some arbitrary UTC time, when converted to local time (by calling Datetime.Now), will case the millisecond field to overflow / underflow when scaling.

  15. Anon says:


    Bah, can't get a code change approved without a reproduction.

  16. cheong00 says:

    Well, since the original poster of problem didn't specify the Culture his code runs at, I don't know how to reproduce it either.

    However from the nature of problem, you might try those time zone with non-whole-hour DST like New Zealand Chatham Islands (1h45m).

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