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Java is Pass-By-Value, Always

29 Dec 2016 . category: . Comments

Any programming language with functions has the notion of passing by value or passing by reference. Consider the following Java function:

public int add(int one, int other) {
    return one + other;

In this function, we pass in two arguments, one and other, and we return one value, and integer that is the sum of our two arguments.

Passing by value implies that the input parameters are distinct from any variables we used to pass in. Switching to C++ for a second:

int alpha = 2;
int beta = 3;

int result = add(alpha, beta);
int otherResult = add(2, 3); //this is equivalent

In the above example, we passed in the values of alpha and beta. This means we can’t do anything to modify alpha and beta inside the function add(). For this specific example, that’s not a huge deal. However, consider the following function, written in C++:

public void Test::add(int &one, int other) {
    one = one + other;

This one is a little odd. There’s no return value, so where’s the output? It’s actually in one of the input parameters. What I’m doing here is passing in one as a reference, and incrementing it by other. This has the following impact:

int alpha = 2;
int beta = 3;

std::cout << alpha << "\n"; // 2
add(alpha, beta);
std::cout << alpha << "\n"; // 5

Interesting. What I’ve done here is modify the value of alpha, since I passed a reference to it. Passing by reference can be useful, especially when you want to return multiple values.

Java Doesn’t do Pass-By-Reference

If you’re used to pass-by-reference, you’ll be surprised to find out it’s not supported in Java. At all. Period.

You may even fool yourself into thinking it does work, using the following example

public void addToArray(ArrayList<String> list, String item) {

Go ahead. Try it, it will work. You will indeed find that the list you passed in now contains the item. However, this only works because in Java, everything (with the exception of primitive types) is an object reference. So, really, what’s happening above is that we’re passing a reference by value (whoof). This means that list is a reference that happens to point to the same object as the reference we passed in. However, it’s really easy to break this. Consider the following example:

public void increment(Integer counter) {

This code will not work. Ever.

Integer foo = 0;
System.out.println(foo); // 0

Oi! What happened there? Increment didn’t do a damn thing! To understand why, let’s revisit increment(), with a little rewriting here.

public void increment(Integer counter) {
    counter = counter + 1;

Here, I’ve replaced the ++ operator with its equivalent. Now we can understand what happened. When I first entered the function, my parameter counter was a reference that pointed to the same object as foo. However, when I incremented counter, what actually happened was that I made counter point to a new object. This object had nothing to do with foo, and so foo went along unchanged. The only way to get this to work is like so:

public Integer increment(Integer counter) {
    return counter++;

Here, I’m still making the input reference point to a new object, but by returning that reference, you’re allowing the caller to get the new object.

Integer foo = 0;
foo = increment(foo);
System.out.println(foo); // 1

Messy, but workable.


Java does not do pass-by-reference. It passes everything by value, including object references. This means that you should take great care to avoid assigment operations on input parameters. Because assignment changes the object that a reference points to, you will almost certainly create unintended behavior.


Vishal Kotcherlakota is a reformed sysadmin, who writes code and will talk incessantly about DevOps to anyone who will listen. All views expressed here are his and not those of his employers.