Pandas to_datetime() Usage Explained [Practical Examples]

Written by - Deepak Prasad

Getting started with pandas to_datetime() function

Pandas, the powerhouse of data manipulation in Python, provides an arsenal of tools to handle time-series data. Among these tools, the to_datetime() function is a keystone. As datasets can come from myriad sources, date and time representations are often found in different formats. Transforming these varied representations into a standardized datetime object is pivotal for subsequent time-based analyses, and that's precisely where to_datetime() comes into play.

The to_datetime() function in pandas offers a flexible way to convert strings, epochs, and other date representations into a unified pandas datetime format. Whether dealing with common date strings (like 'YYYY-MM-DD' or 'MM/DD/YYYY'), Unix timestamps, or even Excel-specific date numbers, this function ensures consistency in your date-time data.

It provides numerous parameters allowing users to indicate the date format, handle parsing errors, set time zones, and much more, ensuring a comprehensive approach to datetime conversion. By ensuring that date-time data is in a consistent format, the to_datetime() function lays the foundation for various time series analyses, ranging from time-based filtering and grouping to complex resampling or time shift operations.


pandas.to_datetime(arg, errors='raise', dayfirst=False, yearfirst=False, utc=None, format=None, exact=True, unit=None, infer_datetime_format=False, origin='unix', cache=True)


  • arg: This is the primary argument and can be an array-like object of dates in various formats (e.g., strings, epochs, a mixture of these), a Series, or even a single date as a string. Essentially, this is the data you want to convert to datetime.
  • errors: Specifies what to do when encountering an error in parsing.
    • 'raise': Default behavior, raises an exception.
    • 'coerce': Converts invalid parsing to NaT (Not a Timestamp).
    • 'ignore': Returns the original input for invalid parsing.
  • dayfirst: Boolean. If set to True, it indicates the day is presented before the month in date strings. Useful for strings in formats like 'DD/MM/YYYY'.
  • yearfirst: Boolean. Indicates if the year is presented as the first number in date strings. For date strings in formats like 'YYYY-MM-DD', setting this to True can be helpful.
  • utc: Boolean. If set to True, the returned datetime will be set to the UTC timezone. By default, it retains the timezone info of the original data (if any).
  • format: Allows the user to specify a date format to aid in parsing. This can be particularly handy when you know the format beforehand and want to ensure accurate conversion.
  • exact: Boolean. Ensures exact matching when using the format parameter. If False, allows format to match at any position in the string.
  • unit: The unit of the original data. For example, if the arg contains epoch data, you can specify the unit, like 's' for seconds or 'ms' for milliseconds.
  • infer_datetime_format: Boolean. If set to True, pandas will attempt to infer the format of the datetime strings in the arg. This can make the conversion faster.
  • origin: It's the epoch reference for when converting from epochs to datetimes. The default is 'unix' (meaning 1970-01-01), but other options like 'julian' are available.
  • cache: Boolean. Caches unique date strings to convert. Can be beneficial for performance when converting duplicate date strings.


Handling Different Date Formats with Pandas

Dates and times come in a multitude of formats, depending on the source, region, or system they originate from. In data science and analytics, it's not uncommon to encounter unconventional or varied date formats within a single dataset. This variance can pose challenges when analyzing and processing the data. Thankfully, with pandas' to_datetime() function, we have a powerful tool to parse a wide variety of date formats with ease.

The format parameter in to_datetime() provides explicit information about the expected format of the input dates. It ensures that even unconventional or ambiguous date strings are accurately parsed into the correct datetime format. By specifying the format, the conversion process can also become faster, as pandas doesn't have to guess the format.

The format uses specific codes for date-time components, like %Y for a 4-digit year, %m for month, and %d for day. For instance, to convert the date string '21-December-2022', you'd use the format '%d-%B-%Y'.


1. Explicit Format Specification:

When you know the unconventional format of your date strings, you can provide it directly using the format parameter.

import pandas as pd

date_string = "21-DEC-22"
date_object = pd.to_datetime(date_string, format='%d-%b-%y')
print(date_object)  # Output: 2022-12-21

2. Infer Format:

If you're not certain about the format of your date string, you can let pandas try to infer it.

import pandas as pd

date_string = "21-12-2022"
date_object = pd.to_datetime(date_string, infer_datetime_format=True)
print(date_object)  # Output: 2022-12-21

3. Day-First Format:

For dates written in a day-first style.

import pandas as pd

date_string = "21/12/2022"
date_object = pd.to_datetime(date_string, dayfirst=True)
print(date_object)  # Output: 2022-12-21

4. Year-First Format:

For dates starting with the year.

import pandas as pd

date_string = "2022/12/21"
date_object = pd.to_datetime(date_string, yearfirst=True)
print(date_object)  # Output: 2022-12-21

5. Handling Errors:

Choose how to manage unparseable date strings.

import pandas as pd

date_strings = ["2022/12/21", "invalid-date"]
date_objects = pd.to_datetime(date_strings, errors='coerce')
# Output: DatetimeIndex(['2022-12-21', 'NaT'], dtype='datetime64[ns]', freq=None)

6. Batch Processing:

For multiple date formats in a dataset.

import pandas as pd

# Sample DataFrame with varied date formats
df = pd.DataFrame({
    'dates': ["21/12/2022", "2022.12.21", "DEC 21, 2022"]

# List of potential date formats
formats = ["%d/%m/%Y", "%Y.%m.%d", "%b %d, %Y"]

for fmt in formats:
        mask = pd.to_datetime(df['dates'], format=fmt, errors='coerce').notna()
        df.loc[mask, 'dates'] = pd.to_datetime(df.loc[mask, 'dates'], format=fmt)



Handling Errors with the errors parameter in pd.to_datetime()

The errors parameter in the pd.to_datetime() function is a powerful tool to dictate how the function should behave when encountering invalid parsing. This flexibility ensures that one can handle erroneous or non-standard date entries gracefully.

In the realm of data, it's not uncommon to bump into inconsistencies, especially when dealing with dates. Maybe the date is written in a way that's uninterpretable, or perhaps there's a typo. Rather than letting these missteps thwart our data processing, Pandas provides us with the errors parameter.


1. 'raise' (default)

This is the default behavior. When set to 'raise', if an error is encountered, an exception is raised, stopping the code execution. This is useful when you want to ensure that all dates are valid and consistent.

import pandas as pd

    date_strings = ["2022-12-21", "invalid-date"]
    date_objects = pd.to_datetime(date_strings, errors='raise')
except Exception as e:
    print(f"Error encountered: {e}")


Error encountered: Unknown string format: invalid-date

In this example, since "invalid-date" cannot be parsed into a datetime, an error is raised.


2. 'coerce':

With 'coerce', any error encountered during parsing will be replaced with NaT (Not a Time), which is Pandas' representation for missing or null datetime values. This option is particularly helpful when you expect some errors in your date data but don't want them to stop the processing. Instead, you can handle these NaT values later, perhaps by filtering them out or filling them with some other value.

import pandas as pd

date_strings = ["2022-12-21", "invalid-date"]
date_objects = pd.to_datetime(date_strings, errors='coerce')


DatetimeIndex(['2022-12-21', 'NaT'], dtype='datetime64[ns]', freq=None)

Here, "invalid-date" results in a NaT value.


3. 'ignore':

If set to 'ignore', the function will simply return the original input if it encounters any error. Essentially, it's like saying, "If you can't understand this date, just leave it as it is."

import pandas as pd

date_strings = ["2022-12-21", "invalid-date"]
date_objects = pd.to_datetime(date_strings, errors='ignore')


Index(['2022-12-21', 'invalid-date'], dtype='object')

As observed, "invalid-date" is left untouched, and the entire series retains its original object datatype.


Working with Epochs in Pandas

Working with epochs in Pandas is straightforward, thanks to its robust datetime capabilities. An epoch (often referred to as the UNIX epoch time) is the number of seconds that have elapsed since January 1, 1970 (UTC). This is a common timestamp format used in many systems. Let's delve into this:


1. Converting UNIX epoch timestamps to DateTime

The pd.to_datetime() function can convert integer or float epoch timestamps directly to pandas datetime objects.

import pandas as pd

# Sample epoch timestamp (equivalent to 2022-01-01 00:00:00 UTC)
epoch_timestamp = 1640995200

# Convert to datetime
datetime_obj = pd.to_datetime(epoch_timestamp, unit='s')


2022-01-01 00:00:00

Here, the unit='s' argument specifies that the input epoch is represented in seconds. If it were in milliseconds, you would use unit='ms'.


2. Getting epoch representation of DateTime objects

To convert a datetime object back to its epoch timestamp representation, you can use the timestamp() method of a pandas datetime object.

import pandas as pd

# Sample datetime string
datetime_str = "2022-01-01 00:00:00"

# Convert string to datetime object
datetime_obj = pd.to_datetime(datetime_str)

# Convert datetime object to epoch timestamp
epoch_time = datetime_obj.timestamp()



This will give the epoch timestamp in seconds. Note that the output might be in float format, but you can easily convert it to integer if necessary using int(epoch_time).


Time Zones in Pandas

Time zone handling with Pandas is of paramount importance when working with datetime data that originates from different regions or systems. A time zone-aware datetime helps ensure that the time represents the same point in time everywhere, irrespective of local time zone conventions.


1. Awareness of Time Zone Issues in Date-Time Data:

By default, Pandas' datetime objects are time zone-unaware, meaning they don't possess any information about which time zone the date and time belong to. However, in a globalized world with systems communicating across time zones, this unawareness can lead to discrepancies or data misinterpretations.


2. Using the utc Parameter:

When converting a timestamp to datetime, you can use the utc parameter to specify that the conversion should yield a UTC time zone-aware datetime.

import pandas as pd

# Convert epoch timestamp to datetime with UTC timezone
datetime_utc = pd.to_datetime(1640995200, unit='s', utc=True)

This will return a datetime that is time zone-aware and is set to UTC time.


3. Localizing and Converting Time Zones:

Once you have a time zone-aware datetime, you can easily switch its time zone using the tz_localize and tz_convert methods.

tz_localize: Use this to set a time zone for an unaware datetime object.

import pandas as pd

# Create a timezone unaware datetime
datetime_obj = pd.to_datetime("2022-01-01 12:00:00")

# Localize to UTC
datetime_utc = datetime_obj.tz_localize('UTC')

tz_convert: Once localized, you can convert to another time zone using this method.

import pandas as pd

# Convert epoch timestamp to datetime with UTC timezone
datetime_utc = pd.to_datetime(1640995200, unit='s', utc=True)
print("UTC Time:", datetime_utc)

# Convert from UTC to US/Eastern
datetime_us_eastern = datetime_utc.tz_convert('US/Eastern')
print("US/Eastern Time:", datetime_us_eastern)


Working with Arrays of Dates

When dealing with date and time data in Pandas, it's not uncommon to encounter situations where you need to convert a collection of date strings, like lists or arrays, into a DatetimeIndex. A DatetimeIndex is a specialized index type in Pandas designed to handle datetime objects, and it comes with many built-in functionalities tailored for datetime operations.


1. Converting Arrays or Lists of Strings to a DatetimeIndex:

Pandas’ to_datetime() function can take an array or list of strings and convert it into a DatetimeIndex.

import pandas as pd

# List of date strings
date_strings = ["2022-01-01", "2022-01-02", "2022-01-03"]

# Convert list to DatetimeIndex
datetime_index = pd.to_datetime(date_strings)



DatetimeIndex(['2022-01-01', '2022-01-02', '2022-01-03'], dtype='datetime64[ns]', freq=None)


2. Benefits of DatetimeIndex:

Once you have a DatetimeIndex, you can leverage its capabilities for various tasks:

  • Time-based Indexing: Fetch specific time frames from a DataFrame or Series.
  • Time Resampling: Change the frequency of time series data (e.g., from daily to monthly).
  • Shifting and Lagging: Shift the dates forward or backward.
  • Rolling Windows: Apply operations over a specified window of time.

The conversion of arrays or lists to DatetimeIndex not only simplifies date-related operations but also ensures consistent and efficient handling of date-time data across the Pandas library.


Performance Considerations

When working with large datasets, even seemingly minute optimizations can lead to substantial time savings. One such optimization in Pandas' to_datetime() function is the cache parameter.

The cache parameter in the to_datetime() function allows for the caching of unique date strings. When set to True, this caching can significantly speed up the conversion of repeated date strings, especially in large datasets.

If your data has many repeated date strings, the cache can come in handy. Think about datasets like transaction records where multiple transactions might happen on the same day. In such cases, once a specific date string has been converted, the cached result can be used, avoiding the overhead of re-converting the same string.

import pandas as pd
import time

# Creating a list with repeated date strings
date_strings = ["2022-01-01"] * 500000 + ["2022-01-02"] * 500000

# Timing conversion WITHOUT cache
start_time = time.time()
pd.to_datetime(date_strings, cache=False)
without_cache_time = time.time() - start_time

# Timing conversion WITH cache
start_time = time.time()
pd.to_datetime(date_strings, cache=True)
with_cache_time = time.time() - start_time

print(f"Time without cache: {without_cache_time:.4f} seconds")
print(f"Time with cache: {with_cache_time:.4f} seconds")


Time without cache: 0.1712 seconds
Time with cache: 0.1227 seconds

In the above code, we first generate a list of 1,000,000 date strings, with two unique values. We then measure the time it takes to convert these strings to datetime objects without caching and with caching. The times seen above indicate that caching the date string conversions resulted in a speedup of approximately ~28% for this particular dataset.


Integration with Other Pandas Functions

The to_datetime() function doesn't operate in isolation. Its integration with other Pandas functions and methods ensures seamless handling of date-time data throughout the Pandas ecosystem.


1. Integration with read_csv():

When reading datasets with Pandas, especially CSV files, columns that represent dates might not be automatically recognized as date-time objects. The parse_dates argument in read_csv() can be used to specify columns that should be parsed as dates. Under the hood, read_csv() uses to_datetime() to make this conversion.

# Assume 'date_column' is a column in your CSV that you want to parse as dates
df = pd.read_csv('file_path.csv', parse_dates=['date_column'])


2. Integration with DataFrame and Series methods:

Once your dates are in the datetime format, a plethora of methods and attributes become available, enhancing data manipulation and analysis.

Attributes like dt: Once you have a Series containing datetime objects, the dt accessor can be used to extract properties like year, month, day, and many others.

# Assuming df['date_column'] is of datetime type
df['year'] = df['date_column'].dt.year

Time-based Indexing: If your DataFrame has a DatetimeIndex, you can use time-based indexing to filter rows based on specific time criteria.

# Filter rows for the year 2022
df_2022 = df['2022']

Resampling: Datetime data can be resampled to different frequencies using the resample() method, which is especially useful for time series data.

# Resampling to get monthly averages
monthly_avg = df.resample('M').mean()


Limitations and Caveats

The to_datetime() function is powerful and versatile, but, like any tool, it has its limitations and potential pitfalls. Understanding these can help you use the function more effectively and avoid unexpected results.

  • Ambiguous Date Formats: Dates represented as strings can sometimes have ambiguous formats. For example, "01/02/2020" could mean January 2nd or February 1st, depending on regional date formatting standards. It is always recommended to specify the format parameter when you know the date format in advance to ensure accurate conversion.
  • Out-of-Bounds Dates: pandas.Timestamp has certain date boundaries (1677-09-21 to 2262-04-11), and converting a date outside this range will raise an error. Be cautious with historical data or dates too far in the future. You can use the errors parameter to handle out-of-bounds dates gracefully.
  • Time Zones and Daylight Saving Time: When working with time zones, especially when converting between them, be aware of potential issues related to Daylight Saving Time (DST) transitions. Use the tz_localize and tz_convert functions to handle time zone conversions explicitly. Always double-check results for dates close to DST transitions.
  • Default Behavior with Invalid Dates: By default, to_datetime() raises an error when encountering an invalid date. If your data might contain invalid dates, use the errors parameter to determine the desired behavior, such as 'coerce' to turn invalid dates into NaT (Not-a-Timestamp).
  • Performance Overhead: While to_datetime() is optimized for performance, converting a large number of date strings can be computationally intensive, especially if the format is not specified. When working with large datasets, consider using the format parameter (if you know the date format) and the cache parameter to speed up repeated conversions.
  • Limitation with Multiple Date Formats in a Series: to_datetime() expects consistent date formats within a Series. If a Series contains mixed date formats, it can cause issues. You may need to preprocess your data or use custom parsing functions to handle Series with mixed date formats.


Some Examples covering Pandas to_datetime()

1. Convert range of date to DateTime:

To generate a range of dates and convert it to a DateTime object, we can use pandas.date_range().

import pandas as pd

date_range = pd.date_range(start='1/1/2022', end='1/10/2022')


DatetimeIndex(['2022-01-01', '2022-01-02', '2022-01-03', '2022-01-04',
               '2022-01-05', '2022-01-06', '2022-01-07', '2022-01-08',
               '2022-01-09', '2022-01-10'],
              dtype='datetime64[ns]', freq='D')


2. Change the format of to_datetime() output:

Although pd.to_datetime() will always return a Datetime object, you can change the format when converting it back to a string using strftime().

import pandas as pd

date_string = "2022-01-01"
date_obj = pd.to_datetime(date_string)
formatted_date = date_obj.strftime('%d/%m/%Y')
print(formatted_date)  # Outputs: 01/01/2022




3. Remove time from to_datetime() output (Print only date):

The time component can be removed by accessing the date attribute.

datetime_string = "2022-01-01 12:34:56"
datetime_obj = pd.to_datetime(datetime_string)
date_only =
print(date_only)  # Outputs: 2022-01-01




4. Parse month name with to_datetime():

to_datetime() can parse full month names by default.

import pandas as pd

date_with_month_name = "01 January 2022"
date_obj = pd.to_datetime(date_with_month_name)
print(date_obj)  # Outputs: 2022-01-01 00:00:00


2022-01-01 00:00:00


5. Add timezone to to_datetime() output:

You can specify time zones using the tz parameter.

import pandas as pd

datetime_string = "2022-01-01 12:34:56"
datetime_obj_utc = pd.to_datetime(datetime_string, utc=True)
print(datetime_obj_utc)  # Outputs: 2022-01-01 12:34:56+00:00

# Convert to a different timezone:
datetime_obj_ny = datetime_obj_utc.tz_convert('America/New_York')
print(datetime_obj_ny)  # Adjusts time based on the New York timezone


2022-01-01 12:34:56+00:00
2022-01-01 07:34:56-05:00



The pandas library in Python, renowned for its capabilities in data manipulation, offers the versatile to_datetime() function, designed to convert arguments to datetime. From interpreting a wide array of date string formats to managing time zones, the function is a staple for date-time operations. By taking advantage of its flexibility, users can transform a date range into datetime objects or even parse month names seamlessly.

Moreover, the function integrates well with other pandas functions. When reading data via read_csv(), date columns can be automatically parsed. Its integration also extends to series and DataFrame methods, streamlining operations involving date columns.

In addition to its strengths, it's crucial to be aware of potential pitfalls. The correct format, especially for unconventional date patterns, should be specified to avoid conversion issues. Performance considerations, like the caching mechanism, can speed up repetitive conversions, making operations more efficient.

From handling different date formats and errors to working with arrays and optimizing performance, to_datetime() stands out as an essential tool in the pandas toolbox for anyone working with date-time data in Python.



to_datetime() in Pandas


Deepak Prasad

He is the founder of GoLinuxCloud and brings over a decade of expertise in Linux, Python, Go, Laravel, DevOps, Kubernetes, Git, Shell scripting, OpenShift, AWS, Networking, and Security. With extensive experience, he excels in various domains, from development to DevOps, Networking, and Security, ensuring robust and efficient solutions for diverse projects. You can reach out to him on his LinkedIn profile or join on Facebook page.

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