I have a very simple question that baffles me for a long time. I am dealing with networks and databases so a lot of data I am dealing with are 32-bit and 64-bit counters (unsigned), 32-bit and 64-bit identification ids (also do not have meaningful mapping for sign). I am practically never deal with any real word matter that could be expressed as a negative number.

Me and my co-workers routinely use unsigned types like uint32_t and uint64_t for these matters and because it happens so often we also use them for array indexes and other common integer uses.

At the same time various coding guides I am reading (e.g. Google) discourage use of unsigned integer types, and as far as I know neither Java nor Scala have unsigned integer types.

So, I could not figure out what is the right thing to do: using signed values in our environment would be very inconvenient, at the same time coding guides to insist on doing exactly this.


7 Answers 7


There are two schools of thought on this, and neither will ever agree.

The first argues that there are some concepts that are inherently unsigned - such as array indexes. It makes no sense to use signed numbers for those as it may lead to errors. It also can impose un-necessary limits on things - an array that uses signed 32-bit indexes can only access 2 billion entries, while switching to unsigned 32-bit numbers allows 4 billion entries.

The second argues that in any program that uses unsigned numbers, sooner or later you will end up doing mixed signed-unsigned arithmetic. This can give strange and unexpected results: casting a large unsigned value to signed gives a negative number, and conversely casting a negative number to unsigned gives a large positive one. This can be a big source of errors.

  • 9
    Mixed signed-unsigned arithmetic issues are detected by the compiler; just keep your build warning-free (with a high enough warning level). Besides, int is shorter to type :)
    – rucamzu
    Jan 29, 2014 at 22:30
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    Confession: I'm with the second school of thought, and though I understand the considerations for unsigned types: int is more than enough for array indexes 99.99% of times. The signed - unsigned arithmetic issues are far more common, and thus take precedence in terms of what to avoid. Yes, compilers warn you about this, but how many warnings do you get when compiling any sizable project? Ignoring warnings is dangerous, and bad practice, but in the real world... Jan 30, 2014 at 8:30
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    +1 to the answer. Caution: Blunt Opinions Ahead: 1: My response to the second school of thought is: I'd bet money that anyone who gets unexpected results out of unsigned integral types in C will have undefined behavior (and not the purely-academic kind) in their non-trivial C programs that use signed integral types. If you don't know C well enough to think that unsigned types are the better ones to use, I advise avoiding C. 2: There's exactly one correct type for array indexes and sizes in C, and that's size_t, unless there's a special-case good reason otherwise.
    – mtraceur
    Apr 8, 2016 at 7:08
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    You run into trouble without mixed signedness. Just calculate unsigned int minus unsigned int.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 13, 2016 at 19:06
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    Not taking issue with you Simon, only with the first school of thought that argues that "there are some concepts that are inherently unsigned - such as array indexes." specifically: "There's exactly one correct type for array indexes ... in C, " Bullshit!. We DSPers use negative indices all of the time. particularly with even or odd-symmetry impulse responses that are non-causal. and for LUT math. i'm in the second school of thought, but i think that it is useful to have both signed and unsigned integers in C and C++. Feb 22, 2018 at 1:24

First of all, the Google C++ coding guideline is not a very good one to follow: it shuns things like exceptions, boost, etc which are staples of modern C++. Secondly, just because a certain guideline works for company X doesn't mean it will be the right fit for you. I would continue using unsigned types, as you have a good need for them.

A decent rule of thumb for C++ is: prefer int unless you have a good reason to use something else.

  • 8
    That's not what I mean at all. Constructors are for establishing invariants, and since they are not functions they cannot simply return false if that invariant is not established. So, you can either separate things and use init functions for your objects, or you can throw a std::runtime_error, let stack unwinding happen, and let all of your RAII objects auto-clean themselves and you the developer can handle the exception where it is convenient for you to do so.
    – bstamour
    Feb 2, 2014 at 15:51
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    I don't see how the type of application makes a difference. Any time you call a constructor on an object you are establishing an invariant with the parameters. If that invariant cannot be met, then you need to signal an error else your program is not in a good state. Since constructors cannot return a flag, throwing an exception is a natural option. Please give a solid argument as to why a business application would not benefit from such a coding style.
    – bstamour
    Feb 3, 2014 at 13:14
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    I highly doubt that half of all C++ programmers are incapable of using exceptions properly. But anyways if you think that your co-workers are incapable of writing modern C++ then by all means stay away from modern C++.
    – bstamour
    Feb 3, 2014 at 14:06
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    @zzz777 Don't use exceptions? Have private constructors that are wrapper by public factory functions which catch the exceptions and do what - return a nullptr? return a "default" object (whatever that may mean)? You didn't solve anything - you have just hidden the problem under a carpet, and hope nobody finds out.
    – Mael
    Feb 22, 2018 at 7:34
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    @zzz777 If you are going to crash the box anyway, why do you care if it happens from an exception or signal(6)? If you use an exception, the 50% of developers that know how to deal with them can write good code, and the rest can be carried by their peers. Feb 22, 2018 at 22:23

The other answers lack real world examples, so I will add one. One of the reasons why I (personally) try to avoid unsigned types.

Consider using standard size_t as an array index:

for (size_t i = 0; i < n; ++i)
    // do something here;

Ok, perfectly normal. Then, consider we decided to change the direction of the loop for some reason:

for (size_t i = n - 1; i >= 0; --i)
    // do something here;

And now it does not work. If we used int as an iterator, there would be no problem. I've seen such error twice in the past two years. Once it happened in production and was hard to debug.

Another reason for me are annoying warnings, which make you write something like this every time:

int n = 123;  // for some reason n is signed
for (size_t i = 0; i < size_t(n); ++i)

These are minor things, but they add up. I feel like the code is cleaner if only signed integers are used everywhere.

Edit: Sure, the examples look dumb, but I saw people making this mistake. If there's such an easy way to avoid it, why not use it?

When I compile the following piece of code with VS2015 or GCC I see no warnings with default warning settings (even with -Wall for GCC). You have to ask for -Wextra to get a warning about this in GCC. This is one of the reasons you should always compile with Wall and Wextra (and use static analyser), but in many real life projects people don't do that.

#include <vector>
#include <iostream>

void unsignedTest()
    std::vector<int> v{ 1, 2 };

    for (int i = v.size() - 1; i >= 0; --i)
        std::cout << v[i] << std::endl;

    for (size_t i = v.size() - 1; i >= 0; --i)
        std::cout << v[i] << std::endl;

int main()
    return 0;
  • You can get it even more wrong with signed types... And your example-code is so brain-dead and glaringly wrong any decent compiler will warn if you ask for warnings. Jun 13, 2016 at 15:15
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    I have in the past resorted to such horrors as for (size_t i = n - 1; i < n; --i) to make it work right.
    – Simon B
    Jun 13, 2016 at 15:55
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    Speaking of for-loops with size_t in reverse, there is a coding guideline in the style of for (size_t revind = 0u; revind < n; ++revind) { size_t ind = n - 1u - revind; func(ind); }
    – rwong
    Oct 15, 2016 at 19:27
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    @rwong Omg, this is ugly. Why not just use int? :) Feb 21, 2018 at 16:56
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    @AlexeyPetrenko - note that neither the current C nor C++ standards guarantee that int is large enough to hold all valid values of size_t. Particularly, int may allow numbers only up to 2^15-1, and commonly does so on systems that have memory allocation limits of 2^16 (or in certain cases even higher). long may be a safer bet, although still not guaranteed to work. Only size_t is guaranteed to work on all platforms and in all cases.
    – Jules
    Feb 22, 2018 at 9:48
for (size_t i = v.size() - 1; i >= 0; --i)
   std::cout << v[i] << std::endl;

The problem here is that you wrote the loop in an unclever manner leading to the erroneous behavior. The construction of the loop is like beginners get it taught for signed types (which is OK and correct) but it simply doesn't fit for unsigned values. But this cannot serve as a counter argument against using unsigned types, the task here is to simply get your loop right. And this can easily be fixed to reliably work for unsigned types like so:

for (size_t i = v.size(); i-- > 0; )
    std::cout << v[i] << std::endl;

This change simply reverts the sequence of the comparison and the decrement operation and is in my opinion the most effective, undisturbing, clean and shortes way to handle unsigned counters in backward loops. You would do the very same thing (intuitively) when using a while loop:

size_t i = v.size();
while (i > 0)
    std::cout << v[i] << std::endl;

No underflow can occur, the case of an empty container is covered implicitely, as in the well known variant for the signed counter loop, and the body of the loop may stay unaltered in comparision to a signed counter or a forward loop. You just have to get acustomed to the at first somewhat strange looking loop construct. But after you've seen that a dozen times there's nothing unintelligible anymore.

I would be lucky if beginners courses would not only show the correct loop for signed but also for unsigned types. This would avoid a couple of errors that should IMHO be blamed to the unwitting developers instead of blaming the unsigned type.



Unsigned integers are there for a reason.

Consider, for example, handing data as individual bytes, e.g. in a network packet or a file buffer. You may occasionally encounter such beasts as 24-bit integers. Easily bit-shifted from three 8-bit unsigned integers, not so easy with 8-bit signed integers.

Or think about algorithms using character lookup tables. If a character is an 8-bit unsigned integer, you can index a lookup table by a character value. However, what do you do if the programming language doesn't support unsigned integers? You would have negative indexes to an array. Well, I guess you could use something like charval + 128 but that's just ugly.

Many file formats, in fact, use unsigned integers and if the application programming language doesn't support unsigned integers, that could be a problem.

Then consider TCP sequence numbers. If you write any TCP processing code, you will definitely want to use unsigned integers.

Sometimes, efficiency matters so much that you really need that extra bit of unsigned integers. Consider for example IoT devices that are shipped in millions. Lots of programming resources can then be justified to be spent on micro-optimizations.

I would argue that the justification to avoid using unsigned integer types (mixed sign arithmetic, mixed sign comparisons) can be overcome by a compiler with proper warnings. Such warnings are usually not enabled by default, but see e.g. -Wextra or separately -Wsign-compare (auto-enabled in C by -Wextra, although I don't think it's auto-enabled in C++) and -Wsign-conversion.

Nevertheless, if in doubt, use a signed type. Many times, it is a choice that works well. And do enable those compiler warnings!


There are many cases where integers don't actually represent numbers, but for example a bit mask, an id, etc. Basically cases where adding 1 to an integer doesn't have any meaningful result. In those cases, use unsigned.

There are many cases where you do arithmetic with integers. In these cases, use signed integers, to avoid misbehaviour around zero. See plenty of examples with loops, where running a loop down to zero either uses very unintuitive code or is broken because of the use of unsigned numbers. There is the argument "but indices are never negative" - sure, but differences of indices for example are negative.

In the very rare case where indices exceed 2^31 but not 2^32, you don't use unsigned integers, you use 64 bit integers.

Finally, a nice trap: In a loop "for (i = 0; i < n; ++i) a [i] ... " if i is unsigned 32 bit, and memory exceeds 32 bit addresses, the compiler cannot optimise the access to a [i] by incrementing a pointer, because at i = 2^32 - 1 i wraps around. Even when n never gets that large. Using signed integers avoids this.


Finally, I found a really good answer here: "Secure Programming Cookbook" by J.Viega and M.Messier (http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9780596003944.do)

Security issues with signed integers:

  1. If function requires a positive parameter, it is easy to forget checking the lower range.
  2. Unintuitive bit pattern from negative integer size conversions.
  3. Unintuitive bit pattern produced by the right shift operation of a negative integer.

There are problems with signed<->unsigned conversions so it is not advisable to use mix.

  • 1
    Why is it a good answer? What is recipe 3.5? What does it say about integer overflow etc?
    – Baldrickk
    Sep 5, 2018 at 12:51
  • In my practical experience It is very good book with valuable advice all other in aspects that I tried and it is pretty firm in this recommendation. Comparing to that dangers of integer overflows on arrays longer than 4G seem pretty weak. If I have to deal with arrays that big, my program will have a lot of fine tuning to avoid performance penalties.
    – zzz777
    Sep 5, 2018 at 12:59
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    it's not about whether the book is good. Your answer doesn't provide any justification for the use of the recipie, and not everyone will have a copy of the book to look it up. Look at the examples of how to write a good answer
    – Baldrickk
    Sep 5, 2018 at 13:01
  • FYI just learned about another reason of using unsigned integers: one can easily detect overlow: youtube.com/…
    – zzz777
    Sep 26, 2019 at 23:02

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