language-agnostic and java - What's the difference between passing by reference vs. passing by value?

8 Answers

It's a way how to pass arguments to functions. Passing by reference means the called functions' parameter will be the same as the callers' passed argument (not the value, but the identity - the variable itself). Pass by value means the called functions' parameter will be a copy of the callers' passed argument. The value will be the same, but the identity - the variable - is different. Thus changes to a parameter done by the called function in one case changes the argument passed and in the other case just changes the value of the parameter in the called function (which is only a copy). In a quick hurry:

  • Java only supports pass by value. Always copies arguments, even though when copying a reference to an object, the parameter in the called function will point to the same object and changes to that object will be see in the caller. Since this can be confusing, here is what Jon Skeet has to say about this.
  • C# supports pass by value and pass by reference (keyword ref used at caller and called function). Jon Skeet also has a nice explanation of this here.
  • C++ supports pass by value and pass by reference (reference parameter type used at called function). You will find an explanation of this below.


Since my language is C++, i will use that here

// passes a pointer (called reference in java) to an integer
void call_by_value(int *p) { // :1
    p = NULL;

// passes an integer
void call_by_value(int p) { // :2
    p = 42;

// passes an integer by reference
void call_by_reference(int & p) { // :3
    p = 42;

// this is the java style of passing references. NULL is called "null" there.
void call_by_value_special(int *p) { // :4
    *p = 10; // changes what p points to ("what p references" in java)
    // only changes the value of the parameter, but *not* of 
    // the argument passed by the caller. thus it's pass-by-value:
    p = NULL;

int main() {
    int value = 10;
    int * pointer = &value;

    call_by_value(pointer); // :1
    assert(pointer == &value); // pointer was copied

    call_by_value(value); // :2
    assert(value == 10); // value was copied

    call_by_reference(value); // :3
    assert(value == 42); // value was passed by reference

    call_by_value_special(pointer); // :4
    // pointer was copied but what pointer references was changed.
    assert(value == 10 && pointer == &value);

And an example in Java won't hurt:

class Example {
    int value = 0;

    // similar to :4 case in the c++ example
    static void accept_reference(Example e) { // :1
        e.value++; // will change the referenced object
        e = null; // will only change the parameter

    // similar to the :2 case in the c++ example
    static void accept_primitive(int v) { // :2
        v++; // will only change the parameter

    public static void main(String... args) {
        int value = 0;
        Example ref = new Example(); // reference

        // note what we pass is the reference, not the object. we can't 
        // pass objects. The reference is copied (pass-by-value).
        accept_reference(ref); // :1
        assert ref != null && ref.value == 1;

        // the primitive int variable is copied
        accept_primitive(value); // :2
        assert value == 0;


This guy pretty much nails it:

c++ pdf with

What is the difference between

  1. a parameter passed by reference
  2. a parameter passed by value?

Could you give me some examples, please?

Here is an example:

#include <iostream>

void by_val(int arg) { arg += 2; }
void by_ref(int&arg) { arg += 2; }

int main()
    int x = 0;
    by_val(x); std::cout << x << std::endl;  // prints 0
    by_ref(x); std::cout << x << std::endl;  // prints 2

    int y = 0;
    by_ref(y); std::cout << y << std::endl;  // prints 2
    by_val(y); std::cout << y << std::endl;  // prints 2

The simplest way to get this is on an Excel file. Let’s say for example that you have two numbers, 5 and 2 in cells A1 and B1 accordingly, and you want to find their sum in a third cell, let's say A2. You can do this in two ways.

  • Either by passing their values to cell A2 by typing = 5 + 2 into this cell. In this case, if the values of the cells A1 or B1 change, the sum in A2 remains the same.

  • Or by passing the “references” of the cells A1 and B1 to cell A2 by typing = A1 + B1. In this case, if the values of the cells A1 or B1 change, the sum in A2 changes too.

Comparing: Value vs. Reference

Pass By Value The local parameters are copies of the original arguments passed in Changes made in the function to these variables do not affect originals

Pass By Reference The local parameters are references to the storage locations of the original arguments passed in. Changes to these variables in the function will affect the originals No copy is made, so overhead of copying (time, storage) is saved

A major difference between them is that value-type variables store values, so specifying a value-type variable in a method call passes a copy of that variable's value to the method. Reference-type variables store references to objects, so specifying a reference-type variable as an argument passes the method a copy of the actual reference that refers to the object. Even though the reference itself is passed by value, the method can still use the reference it receives to interact with—and possibly modify—the original object. Similarly, when returning information from a method via a return statement, the method returns a copy of the value stored in a value-type variable or a copy of the reference stored in a reference-type variable. When a reference is returned, the calling method can use that reference to interact with the referenced object. So, in effect, objects are always passed by reference.

In c#, to pass a variable by reference so the called method can modify the variable's, C# provides keywords ref and out. Applying the ref keyword to a parameter declaration allows you to pass a variable to a method by reference—the called method will be able to modify the original variable in the caller. The ref keyword is used for variables that already have been initialized in the calling method. Normally, when a method call contains an uninitialized variable as an argument, the compiler generates an error. Preceding a parameter with keyword out creates an output parameter. This indicates to the compiler that the argument will be passed into the called method by reference and that the called method will assign a value to the original variable in the caller. If the method does not assign a value to the output parameter in every possible path of execution, the compiler generates an error. This also prevents the compiler from generating an error message for an uninitialized variable that is passed as an argument to a method. A method can return only one value to its caller via a return statement, but can return many values by specifying multiple output (ref and/or out) parameters.

see c# discussion and examples here link text


class Dog 
    barkAt( const std::string& pOtherDog ); // const reference
    barkAt( std::string pOtherDog ); // value

const & is generally best. You don't incur the construction and destruction penalty. If the reference isn't const your interface is suggesting that it will change the passed in data.

By definition, pass by value means you are making a copy in memory of the actual parameter's value that is passed in, a copy of the contents of the actual parameter. Use pass by value when when you are only "using" the parameter for some computation, not changing it for the client program.

In pass by reference (also called pass by address), a copy of the address of the actual parameter is stored. Use pass by reference when you are changing the parameter passed in by the client program.

If you don't want to change the value of the original variable after passing it into a function, the function should be constructed with a "pass by value" parameter.

Then the function will have ONLY the value but not the address of the passed in variable. Without the variable's address, the code inside the function cannot change the variable value as seen from the outside of the function.

But if you want to give the function the *ability to change the value of the variabl*e as seen from the outside, you need to use pass by reference. As both the value and the address (reference) are passed in and available inside the function.