Supporting Python 3: An in-depth guide

Migration strategies

Making a new release of software that is backwards incompatible is a high risk strategy. When people need to rewrite their software, or maintain separate versions of their source code to support both versions of a language or a framework, the risk is that they never make the transition and stay on the old version forever, or worse, that they switch to another framework.

For that reason Python versions 2.6 and 2.7 include both several forward compatibility features to enable you to write code for both Python 2 and Python 3, as well as support for migrating in the form of 2to3, a program and package that can convert code from Python 2 to Python 3. There are other techniques and strategies you can use and there are also different ways to use 2to3. Which strategy to use depends very much on what type of software you are converting.

Only supporting Python 3

The easiest case is when you only need to support one version of Python at a time. In these cases you can just convert your code to Python 3 and forget about Python 2. With this strategy you will first use the 2to3 tool to make an automatic conversion of most of the changes and then fix every problem that remains manually in the Python 3 code. You will probably also want to go through all of the converted code and clean it up, as the 2to3 conversions may not always be the most elegant solution for your case.

Separate branches for Python 2 and Python 3

If you need to continue to support Python 2, the simplest case is having a branch in your source tree with the code for Python 2 and another branch for Python 3. You will then have to make every change on the two different branches, which is a bit more work, but feasible if the code doesn’t change that often.

One problem with this strategy is that your distribution becomes complex, because you now have two distributions and you need to make sure that Python 3 users get the Python 3 version and Python 2 users get the Python 2 version of your package. Solutions for this are documented in Distributing packages.

Converting to Python 3 with 2to3

In complex cases you can support both Python 2 and Python 3 by maintaining the source code in a Python 2 version and converting it with 2to3 for Python 3 support. That means you will have to run 2to3 each time you have made a code change so you can test it under Python 3, but on the other hand 2to3 deals with many of the differences.

To do this you need a script that performs the 2to3 conversion, because doing all the steps manually quickly becomes really boring. Since you need to do the conversion every time you have changed something so you can run the tests under Python 3, you want to run the conversion only on the files that have been modified as the conversion can be rather slow. That means that the conversion script should compare time stamps on the files to see which ones have been modified and convert only them, which means the script can not be a trivial shell script.

You can of course write these conversion scripts yourself, but you might not need to. If you are using Distutils it has support for running 2to3 as a part of the build process. This also solves the distribution problems, as this way you can distribute only Python 2 code and 2to3 will be run on that code during install when installed on Python 3. That way you don’t have to have separate packages or even two copies of the code in your package. Distributing packages also has information on this.

However, the lazy coders approach here would be to use Distribute, as it includes some extensions to the 2to3-story.

Using Distribute to support the 2to3 conversion

Distribute[1] is a fork of Phillip J. Eby’s popular Setuptools package and provides Python 3 compatibility, as well as extensions simplifying the support of Python 2 and Python 3 from the same source. Basically what Distribute has done is to extend the principles of the Distutils build_py_2to3 command and integrated 2to3 into all parts of the packaging story.

These changes will be merged back into Setuptools during 2013, but at the time of writing Setuptools doesn’t support Python 3.

With Distribute you can add a few extra parameters in the file to have 2to3 run the conversion at build time. This means you only need to have one version of the source in your version control system and you therefore only need to fix bugs once. You also need only one source release, so you only have to release the software once and there is only one package to download and install for both Python 2 and Python 3.

You still need to run your tests under all versions of Python that you want to support, but Distribute includes a test command that will convert your code with 2to3 before running the tests. You can easily set up your package to use that. Then testing becomes just running python test once for every python version you want to support.

The main drawback with this solution is that you can’t use the earliest versions of 2to3, because they are too buggy. In practice it means you need to have Python 3.1 or later installed on the target machine. This is generally not a problem, as most platforms that support Python 3 already use Python 3.1 for that support.

You can find examples of how to set up your module or package to use Distribute for your Python 3 support under Supporting multiple versions of Python with Distribute as well as in the standard Distribute documentation[2].

Python 2 and Python 3 without conversion

In many cases it’s often perfectly feasible to modify the code so that it runs under both Python 2 and Python 3 without needing any conversion, although you have to apply several tricks to avoid the incompatibilities between Python 2 and Python 3.

Python 2.6 and 2.7 have a lot of forward compatibility, making supporting Python 2.6 and Python 3 much easier than supporting Python 2.5 and Python 3. Supporting 2.5 or even older versions means you have to employ more tricks. Python 3.3 also re-introduces the u'' literal for strings, which helps with one of the major difficulties in supporting Python 3.

Benjamin Peterson’s excellent six module[3] also helps by wrapping much of the incompatibilities, and since the need to support older Python versions is shrinking, supporting both Python 2 and Python 3 without conversion is becoming the preferred method.

There are also cases where you can’t use Distribute, or don’t want to. You may need to distribute your code in a format that is not installable with Distutils and therefore not Distribute. In those cases you can’t use Distribute’s 2to3 support and then using 2to3 is more work and not using 2to3 becomes a more attractive prospect.

Even if you do use 2to3 for your project as a whole, you still may end up with having to write some code so it runs on both Python 2 and Python 3 without conversion. This is useful for bootstrapping scripts and setup scripts or if your code generates code from strings, for example to create command line scripts. You can of course have two separate strings depending on the Python version, or even run 2to3 on the string using lib2to3. However, in these cases it’s generally easier to make the generated code snippets run on all Python versions without 2to3.

My recommendation for the development workflow if you want to support Python 3 without using 2to3 is to run 2to3 on the code once and then fix it up until it works on Python 3. Only then introduce Python 2 support into the Python 3 code, using six where needed. Add support for Python 2.7 first, and then Python 2.6. Doing it this way can sometimes result in a very quick and painless process.

There is also a tool called python-modernize which will do a 2to3-type conversion of your code, but it will keep Python 2 compatibility together with the six library. This can be a good start.

More information on the techniques necessary to do this is in the chapter Supporting Python 2 and 3 without 2to3 conversion.

Using 3to2

The 2to3 tool is flexible enough for you to define what changes should be done by writing “fixers”. Almost any kind of Python code conversion is imaginable here and 3to2[4] is a set of fixers written by Joe Amenta that does the conversion from Python 3 to Python 2. This enables you to write your code for Python 3 and then convert it to Python 2 before release.

However, there is no Distribute support for 3to2 and also Python 2.5 or earlier do not include the required lib2to3 package. Therefore 3to2 currently remains only an interesting experiment, although this may change in the future.

Which strategy is for you?


Unless your code is a reusable package or framework you probably do not need to support older versions of Python, unless some of your customers are stuck on Python 2 while others demand that you support Python 3. In most cases you can just drop Python 2 support completely.

Python modules and packages

If you are developing some sort of module or package that other Python developers use you would probably like to support both Python 2 and Python 3 at the same time. The majority of your users will run Python 2 for some time to come, so you want to give them access to new functionality, but if you don’t support Python 3, the users of Python 3 must find another package to fulfill their need.

Today you typically only need to support Python 2.7, Python 3.4 and Python 3.5. These versions have enough backwards and forwards compatibility to make it easy to make code that runs on both Python 2 and Python 3. So this is the recommended strategy for reusable packages.


In general, if you write end-user software, you can just switch to Python 3, starting with a one-time run of 2to3 on your code. If you write a Python package you want to support both Python 2 and Python 3 at the same time, and you can drop Python 2.5 support, try first to support Python 2 and 3 without 2to3 conversion.

If you need to support Python 2.5 or older, using 2to3 is often the best option.