When to Use Extern in C++

When to use extern in C++

This comes in useful when you have global variables. You declare the existence of global variables in a header, so that each source file that includes the header knows about it, but you only need to “define” it once in one of your source files.

To clarify, using extern int x; tells the compiler that an object of type int called x exists somewhere. It's not the compilers job to know where it exists, it just needs to know the type and name so it knows how to use it. Once all of the source files have been compiled, the linker will resolve all of the references of x to the one definition that it finds in one of the compiled source files. For it to work, the definition of the x variable needs to have what's called “external linkage”, which basically means that it needs to be declared outside of a function (at what's usually called “the file scope”) and without the static keyword.


#ifndef HEADER_H
#define HEADER_H

// any source file that includes this will be able to use "global_x"
extern int global_x;

void print_global_x();


source 1:

#include "header.h"

// since global_x still needs to be defined somewhere,
// we define it (for example) in this source file
int global_x;

int main()
//set global_x here:
global_x = 5;


source 2:

#include <iostream>
#include "header.h"

void print_global_x()
//print global_x here:
std::cout << global_x << std::endl;

What is the effect of extern C in C++?

extern "C" makes a function-name in C++ have C linkage (compiler does not mangle the name) so that client C code can link to (use) your function using a C compatible header file that contains just the declaration of your function. Your function definition is contained in a binary format (that was compiled by your C++ compiler) that the client C linker will then link to using the C name.

Since C++ has overloading of function names and C does not, the C++ compiler cannot just use the function name as a unique id to link to, so it mangles the name by adding information about the arguments. A C compiler does not need to mangle the name since you can not overload function names in C. When you state that a function has extern "C" linkage in C++, the C++ compiler does not add argument/parameter type information to the name used for linkage.

Just so you know, you can specify extern "C" linkage to each individual declaration/definition explicitly or use a block to group a sequence of declarations/definitions to have a certain linkage:

extern "C" void foo(int);
extern "C"
void g(char);
int i;

If you care about the technicalities, they are listed in section 7.5 of the C++03 standard, here is a brief summary (with emphasis on extern "C"):

  • extern "C" is a linkage-specification
  • Every compiler is required to provide "C" linkage
  • A linkage specification shall occur only in namespace scope
  • All function types, function names and variable names have a language linkage See Richard's Comment: Only function names and variable names with external linkage have a language linkage
  • Two function types with distinct language linkages are distinct types even if otherwise identical
  • Linkage specs nest, inner one determines the final linkage
  • extern "C" is ignored for class members
  • At most one function with a particular name can have "C" linkage (regardless of namespace)
  • extern "C" forces a function to have external linkage (cannot make it static) See Richard's comment: static inside extern "C" is valid; an entity so declared has internal linkage, and so does not have a language linkage
  • Linkage from C++ to objects defined in other languages and to objects defined in C++ from other languages is implementation-defined and language-dependent. Only where the object layout strategies of two language implementations are similar enough can such linkage be achieved

When to use extern C in C++? [duplicate]

extern "C" makes names not mangled.

It used when:

  1. We need to use some C library in C++

    extern "C" int foo(int);
  2. We need export some C++ code to C

    extern "C" int foo(int) { something; }
  3. We need an ability to resolve symbol in shared library -- so we need to get rid mangling

    extern "C" int foo(int) { something; }
    typedef int (*foo_type)(int);
    foo_type f = (foo_type)dlsym(handle,"foo")

Why use the extern keyword in header in C? [duplicate]

extern float kFloat;

declares kFloat without defining it.


float kFloat;

also declares kFloat but is a tentative definition of kFloat.

Adding extern just suppresses the tentative definition. In a header file you only want declarations, not definitions.

If the tentative definition is included in several source files, you will end up having multiple definitions of the same object which is undefined behavior in C.

How to correctly use the extern keyword in C

extern changes the linkage. With the keyword, the function / variable is assumed to be available somewhere else and the resolving is deferred to the linker.

There's a difference between extern on functions and on variables.

For variables it doesn't instantiate the variable itself, i.e. doesn't allocate any memory. This needs to be done somewhere else. Thus it's important if you want to import the variable from somewhere else.

For functions, this only tells the compiler that linkage is extern. As this is the default (you use the keyword static to indicate that a function is not bound using extern linkage) you don't need to use it explicitly.

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