Modern C++ Features – std::variant and std::visit

std::variant is a library addition in C++17 for sum types, and std::visit is one of the ways to process the values in a std::variant.

Sum types

What is a sum type? Sum types are compound types that have a range of values that is the sum of the ranges of their parts. Typically, e.g. when we have a struct or std::tuple, we deal with product types, where the range of values is the product of the ranges of its parts. Let’s look at a simple example:

struct P {
  unsigned char uc;
  bool b;

unsigned char has the range from 0 through 255, and bool can have the values true and false. Those are 256 and 2 values, respectively. The struct P is the cartesian product of the two and can have 256×2 = 512 values.

A sum type of unsigned char and bool would not have a range of 512 values but 258: It can have either one of the 256 values of unsigned char or one of the two values of bool. If you have worked with C or low-level C++ you probably already know a way to build sum types: Unions are sum types.

std::variant as a “safer union”

There are several problems with unions: The biggest one is that they don’t respect object lifetimes in the sense that constructors or destructors are not called when you change the contained type. The other one is that accessing the wrong element is undefined behavior. Imagine a union that contains a nontrivial type:

union JustDont {
  JustDont() : d{0.0} {}
  ~JustDont() {}
  std::vector<int> v;
  double d;

int main() {
  JustDont j;
  j.v = std::vector{22, 44, 66}; //assigns to v which has not been properly constructed
  j.d = 13.7; // writes over the representation of v, memory is leaked
  int i = j.v[2]; // BOOM. There's no proper vector in that union

The access in the last line is undefined behavior, which means anything can happen – but mostly bad things will happen. The best we can hope for is an immediate crash which is likely in this scenario. Worse are more subtle errors where we don’t see any obvious problem but get wrong results.

With std::variant, we have a safe alternative. The above code would look similar to this:

using ItsOk = std::variant<std::vector<int>, double>;

int main() {
  ItsOk io = std::vector{22, 44, 66}; //set the variant to vector, this constructs the internal vector
  io = 13.7; // reset to double - the internal vector is properly destroyed
  int i = std::get<std::vector<int>>(io)[2]; // There's no vector in the variant - throws an exception

How it works

std::variant stores some information about the currently “active” type. While that means it needs some extra memory (a byte or so), this extra memory is well spent. In the interface of std::variant, the index is the number that defines which of the alternative types are stored in the variant. So, in the little example above, the index of io is 0 after the construction, because std::vector<int> is the first type in the list. After the assignment with the double, the index is 1.

Access std::variant by index

The currently active index can be obtained by the member function variant::index(). If we know the index at compile time, we can get the value stored in the variant using std::get<I>. std::get will throw an exception of type std::bad_variant_access if I is not the active index.

std::variant also provides means to construct the element with a given index in place. For that, we have constructors that take a std::in_place_index_t<I> as first parameter, and an emplace member function taking I as the first template parameter:

int main() {
  using MyVariant = std::variant<std::vector<int>, std::vector<double>>;

  //construct the vector<int> in place with an initializer list
  MyVariant v{std::in_place_index_t<0>{}, {1, 2, 5, 13}};
  auto numbers = std::get<0>(v);

  //replace with a vector<double> with the same values
  v.emplace<1>(std::begin(numbers), std::end(numbers));

Access std::variant by type

The accesses described above can in general also be done by type. You have seen std::get<T> in action above, there is an emplace<T>, and an std::in_place_type_t<T> for the constructor. Instead of the index() member function, there is a free function std::holds_alternative<T> that takes a std::variant and returns a bool, stating whether the currently held value is of type T.

Variants can have the same type more than once in their type list, e.g. std::variant<int, double, int>. In that case, the access by type is ambiguous and not allowed. “Not allowed” here means that the emplacement functionality does not take part in overload resolution and std::get<T> and std::holds_alternative<T> are ill-formed.


Doing something with a variant where we do not know the active index at compile time can be tedious, if done manually. Imagine having to write an output operator:

using MyVariant = std::variant<A, B, /*and more...*/>;
std::ostream& operator<< (std::ostream& os, MyVariant const& v) {
  switch(v.index()) {
    case 0:
      os << std::get<0>(v);
    case 1:
      os << std::get<1>(v);
    // and so on...
  return os;

The problem here is that we query the index at run time, but we need to know the template argument for std::get at compile time. Type based access won’t help us here, either.

The solution to the problem is std::visit: It is a free function that takes a visitor as first parameter, and one or more variants. The visitor has to be a callable that accepts any type that may be stored by the passed variants. The above operator can, for example, then be implemented like this:

std::ostream& operator<< (std::ostream& os, MyVariant const& v) {
  std::visit([&os](auto const& e){ os << e; }, v);
  return os;

In this example, the visitor is a generic lambda. If we want to be less generic, we’ll have to create a function object with different overloads of the function call operator:

struct MyVisitor {
  std::ostream& os_;

  MyVisitor(std::ostream& os) : os_{os} {}
  void operator()(A const& a) {
    os_ << "It's an A!";
  void operator()(B const& b) {
    os_ << "It's a B!";

std::ostream& operator<< (std::ostream& os, MyVariant const& v) {
  std::visit(MyVisitor{os}, v);
  return os;


With std::variant we have type safe sum types in C++17, and with std::visit we have an elegant way to deal with whatever we have stored in there.

If you’d like to see a nice way to compose visitors on the fly, using a nice mix of modern features, stay tuned for the next blog post!

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  1. What will happen if we have a variant with two int types and want to use std::visit?


    1. If you have the same type twice in a variant, the same overload will be selected for both.


  2. According to cppreference: “Variant is not allowed to allocate additional (dynamic) memory.” Does that not preclude holding a vector-type?


    1. No, it doesn’t. The emphasis is on additional, i.e. beyond what the elements allocate.
      You can also say that the variant does not allocate memory here, it’s the vector held by it.


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