The C# type system

C# is a strongly typed language. Every variable and constant has a type, as does every expression that evaluates to a value. Every method declaration specifies a name, the type and kind (value, reference, or output) for each input parameter and for the return value. The .NET class library defines built-in numeric types and complex types that represent a wide variety of constructs. These include the file system, network connections, collections and arrays of objects, and dates. A typical C# program uses types from the class library and user-defined types that model the concepts that are specific to the program's problem domain.

The information stored in a type can include the following items:

  • The storage space that a variable of the type requires.
  • The maximum and minimum values that it can represent.
  • The members (methods, fields, events, and so on) that it contains.
  • The base type it inherits from.
  • The interface(s) it implements.
  • The kinds of operations that are permitted.

The compiler uses type information to make sure all operations that are performed in your code are type safe. For example, if you declare a variable of type int, the compiler allows you to use the variable in addition and subtraction operations. If you try to perform those same operations on a variable of type bool, the compiler generates an error, as shown in the following example:

int a = 5;
int b = a + 2; //OK

bool test = true;

// Error. Operator '+' cannot be applied to operands of type 'int' and 'bool'.
int c = a + test;


C and C++ developers, notice that in C#, bool is not convertible to int.

The compiler embeds the type information into the executable file as metadata. The common language runtime (CLR) uses that metadata at run time to further guarantee type safety when it allocates and reclaims memory.

Specifying types in variable declarations

When you declare a variable or constant in a program, you must either specify its type or use the var keyword to let the compiler infer the type. The following example shows some variable declarations that use both built-in numeric types and complex user-defined types:

// Declaration only:
float temperature;
string name;
MyClass myClass;

// Declaration with initializers (four examples):
char firstLetter = 'C';
var limit = 3;
int[] source = [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5];
var query = from item in source
            where item <= limit
            select item;

The types of method parameters and return values are specified in the method declaration. The following signature shows a method that requires an int as an input argument and returns a string:

public string GetName(int ID)
    if (ID < names.Length)
        return names[ID];
        return String.Empty;
private string[] names = ["Spencer", "Sally", "Doug"];

After you declare a variable, you can't redeclare it with a new type, and you can't assign a value not compatible with its declared type. For example, you can't declare an int and then assign it a Boolean value of true. However, values can be converted to other types, for example when they're assigned to new variables or passed as method arguments. A type conversion that doesn't cause data loss is performed automatically by the compiler. A conversion that might cause data loss requires a cast in the source code.

For more information, see Casting and Type Conversions.

Built-in types

C# provides a standard set of built-in types. These represent integers, floating point values, Boolean expressions, text characters, decimal values, and other types of data. There are also built-in string and object types. These types are available for you to use in any C# program. For the complete list of the built-in types, see Built-in types.

Custom types

You use the struct, class, interface, enum, and record constructs to create your own custom types. The .NET class library itself is a collection of custom types that you can use in your own applications. By default, the most frequently used types in the class library are available in any C# program. Others become available only when you explicitly add a project reference to the assembly that defines them. After the compiler has a reference to the assembly, you can declare variables (and constants) of the types declared in that assembly in source code. For more information, see .NET Class Library.

The common type system

It's important to understand two fundamental points about the type system in .NET:

  • It supports the principle of inheritance. Types can derive from other types, called base types. The derived type inherits (with some restrictions) the methods, properties, and other members of the base type. The base type can in turn derive from some other type, in which case the derived type inherits the members of both base types in its inheritance hierarchy. All types, including built-in numeric types such as System.Int32 (C# keyword: int), derive ultimately from a single base type, which is System.Object (C# keyword: object). This unified type hierarchy is called the Common Type System (CTS). For more information about inheritance in C#, see Inheritance.
  • Each type in the CTS is defined as either a value type or a reference type. These types include all custom types in the .NET class library and also your own user-defined types. Types that you define by using the struct keyword are value types; all the built-in numeric types are structs. Types that you define by using the class or record keyword are reference types. Reference types and value types have different compile-time rules, and different run-time behavior.

The following illustration shows the relationship between value types and reference types in the CTS.

Screenshot that shows CTS value types and reference types.


You can see that the most commonly used types are all organized in the System namespace. However, the namespace in which a type is contained has no relation to whether it is a value type or reference type.

Classes and structs are two of the basic constructs of the common type system in .NET. Each is essentially a data structure that encapsulates a set of data and behaviors that belong together as a logical unit. The data and behaviors are the members of the class, struct, or record. The members include its methods, properties, events, and so on, as listed later in this article.

A class, struct, or record declaration is like a blueprint that is used to create instances or objects at run time. If you define a class, struct, or record named Person, Person is the name of the type. If you declare and initialize a variable p of type Person, p is said to be an object or instance of Person. Multiple instances of the same Person type can be created, and each instance can have different values in its properties and fields.

A class is a reference type. When an object of the type is created, the variable to which the object is assigned holds only a reference to that memory. When the object reference is assigned to a new variable, the new variable refers to the original object. Changes made through one variable are reflected in the other variable because they both refer to the same data.

A struct is a value type. When a struct is created, the variable to which the struct is assigned holds the struct's actual data. When the struct is assigned to a new variable, it's copied. The new variable and the original variable therefore contain two separate copies of the same data. Changes made to one copy don't affect the other copy.

Record types may be either reference types (record class) or value types (record struct). Record types contain methods that support value-equality.

In general, classes are used to model more complex behavior. Classes typically store data that is intended to be modified after a class object is created. Structs are best suited for small data structures. Structs typically store data that isn't intended to be modified after the struct is created. Record types are data structures with additional compiler synthesized members. Records typically store data that isn't intended to be modified after the object is created.

Value types

Value types derive from System.ValueType, which derives from System.Object. Types that derive from System.ValueType have special behavior in the CLR. Value type variables directly contain their values. The memory for a struct is allocated inline in whatever context the variable is declared. There's no separate heap allocation or garbage collection overhead for value-type variables. You can declare record struct types that are value types and include the synthesized members for records.

There are two categories of value types: struct and enum.

The built-in numeric types are structs, and they have fields and methods that you can access:

// constant field on type byte.
byte b = byte.MaxValue;

But you declare and assign values to them as if they're simple non-aggregate types:

byte num = 0xA;
int i = 5;
char c = 'Z';

Value types are sealed. You can't derive a type from any value type, for example System.Int32. You can't define a struct to inherit from any user-defined class or struct because a struct can only inherit from System.ValueType. However, a struct can implement one or more interfaces. You can cast a struct type to any interface type that it implements. This cast causes a boxing operation to wrap the struct inside a reference type object on the managed heap. Boxing operations occur when you pass a value type to a method that takes a System.Object or any interface type as an input parameter. For more information, see Boxing and Unboxing.

You use the struct keyword to create your own custom value types. Typically, a struct is used as a container for a small set of related variables, as shown in the following example:

public struct Coords
    public int x, y;

    public Coords(int p1, int p2)
        x = p1;
        y = p2;

For more information about structs, see Structure types. For more information about value types, see Value types.

The other category of value types is enum. An enum defines a set of named integral constants. For example, the System.IO.FileMode enumeration in the .NET class library contains a set of named constant integers that specify how a file should be opened. It's defined as shown in the following example:

public enum FileMode
    CreateNew = 1,
    Create = 2,
    Open = 3,
    OpenOrCreate = 4,
    Truncate = 5,
    Append = 6,

The System.IO.FileMode.Create constant has a value of 2. However, the name is much more meaningful for humans reading the source code, and for that reason it's better to use enumerations instead of constant literal numbers. For more information, see System.IO.FileMode.

All enums inherit from System.Enum, which inherits from System.ValueType. All the rules that apply to structs also apply to enums. For more information about enums, see Enumeration types.

Reference types

A type that is defined as a class, record, delegate, array, or interface is a reference type.

When declaring a variable of a reference type, it contains the value null until you assign it with an instance of that type or create one using the new operator. Creation and assignment of a class are demonstrated in the following example:

MyClass myClass = new MyClass();
MyClass myClass2 = myClass;

An interface cannot be directly instantiated using the new operator. Instead, create and assign an instance of a class that implements the interface. Consider the following example:

MyClass myClass = new MyClass();

// Declare and assign using an existing value.
IMyInterface myInterface = myClass;

// Or create and assign a value in a single statement.
IMyInterface myInterface2 = new MyClass();

When the object is created, the memory is allocated on the managed heap. The variable holds only a reference to the location of the object. Types on the managed heap require overhead both when they're allocated and when they're reclaimed. Garbage collection is the automatic memory management functionality of the CLR, which performs the reclamation. However, garbage collection is also highly optimized, and in most scenarios it doesn't create a performance issue. For more information about garbage collection, see Automatic Memory Management.

All arrays are reference types, even if their elements are value types. Arrays implicitly derive from the System.Array class. You declare and use them with the simplified syntax that is provided by C#, as shown in the following example:

// Declare and initialize an array of integers.
int[] nums = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];

// Access an instance property of System.Array.
int len = nums.Length;

Reference types fully support inheritance. When you create a class, you can inherit from any other interface or class that isn't defined as sealed. Other classes can inherit from your class and override your virtual methods. For more information about how to create your own classes, see Classes, structs, and records. For more information about inheritance and virtual methods, see Inheritance.

Types of literal values

In C#, literal values receive a type from the compiler. You can specify how a numeric literal should be typed by appending a letter to the end of the number. For example, to specify that the value 4.56 should be treated as a float, append an "f" or "F" after the number: 4.56f. If no letter is appended, the compiler will infer a type for the literal. For more information about which types can be specified with letter suffixes, see Integral numeric types and Floating-point numeric types.

Because literals are typed, and all types derive ultimately from System.Object, you can write and compile code such as the following code:

string s = "The answer is " + 5.ToString();
// Outputs: "The answer is 5"

Type type = 12345.GetType();
// Outputs: "System.Int32"

Generic types

A type can be declared with one or more type parameters that serve as a placeholder for the actual type (the concrete type). Client code provides the concrete type when it creates an instance of the type. Such types are called generic types. For example, the .NET type System.Collections.Generic.List<T> has one type parameter that by convention is given the name T. When you create an instance of the type, you specify the type of the objects that the list will contain, for example, string:

List<string> stringList = new List<string>();
stringList.Add("String example");
// compile time error adding a type other than a string:

The use of the type parameter makes it possible to reuse the same class to hold any type of element, without having to convert each element to object. Generic collection classes are called strongly typed collections because the compiler knows the specific type of the collection's elements and can raise an error at compile time if, for example, you try to add an integer to the stringList object in the previous example. For more information, see Generics.

Implicit types, anonymous types, and nullable value types

You can implicitly type a local variable (but not class members) by using the var keyword. The variable still receives a type at compile time, but the type is provided by the compiler. For more information, see Implicitly Typed Local Variables.

It can be inconvenient to create a named type for simple sets of related values that you don't intend to store or pass outside method boundaries. You can create anonymous types for this purpose. For more information, see Anonymous Types.

Ordinary value types can't have a value of null. However, you can create nullable value types by appending a ? after the type. For example, int? is an int type that can also have the value null. Nullable value types are instances of the generic struct type System.Nullable<T>. Nullable value types are especially useful when you're passing data to and from databases in which numeric values might be null. For more information, see Nullable value types.

Compile-time type and run-time type

A variable can have different compile-time and run-time types. The compile-time type is the declared or inferred type of the variable in the source code. The run-time type is the type of the instance referred to by that variable. Often those two types are the same, as in the following example:

string message = "This is a string of characters";

In other cases, the compile-time type is different, as shown in the following two examples:

object anotherMessage = "This is another string of characters";
IEnumerable<char> someCharacters = "abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz";

In both of the preceding examples, the run-time type is a string. The compile-time type is object in the first line, and IEnumerable<char> in the second.

If the two types are different for a variable, it's important to understand when the compile-time type and the run-time type apply. The compile-time type determines all the actions taken by the compiler. These compiler actions include method call resolution, overload resolution, and available implicit and explicit casts. The run-time type determines all actions that are resolved at run time. These run-time actions include dispatching virtual method calls, evaluating is and switch expressions, and other type testing APIs. To better understand how your code interacts with types, recognize which action applies to which type.

For more information, see the following articles:

C# language specification

For more information, see the C# Language Specification. The language specification is the definitive source for C# syntax and usage.