Union declaration

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A union is a type consisting of a sequence of members whose storage overlaps (as opposed to struct, which is a type consisting of a sequence of members whose storage is allocated in an ordered sequence). The value of at most one of the members can be stored in a union at any one time.

The type specifier for a union is identical to the struct type specifier except for the keyword used:


union name(optional) { struct-declaration-list } (1)
union name (2)
name - the name of the union that's being defined
struct-declaration-list - any number of variable declarations, bit field declarations, and static assert declarations. Members of incomplete type and members of function type are not allowed.


The union is only as big as necessary to hold its largest member (additional unnamed trailing padding may also be added). The other members are allocated in the same bytes as part of that largest member.

A pointer to a union can be cast to a pointer to each of its members (if a union has bit field members, the pointer to a union can be cast to the pointer to the bit field's underlying type). Likewise, a pointer to any member of a union can be cast to a pointer to the enclosing union.

If the member used to access the contents of a union is not the same as the member last used to store a value, the object representation of the value that was stored is reinterpreted as an object representation of the new type (this is known as type punning). If the size of the new type is larger than the size of the last-written type, the contents of the excess bytes are unspecified (and may be a trap representation)

Similar to struct, an unnamed member of a union whose type is a union without name is known as anonymous union. Every member of an anonymous union is considered to be a member of the enclosing struct or union. This applies recursively if the enclosing struct or union is also anonymous.

struct v {
   union { // anonymous union
      struct { int i, j; }; // anonymous structure
      struct { long k, l; } w;
   int m;
} v1;
v1.i = 2;   // valid
v1.k = 3;   // invalid: inner structure is not anonymous
v1.w.k = 5; // valid

Similar to struct, the behavior of the program is undefined if union is defined without any named members (including those obtained via anonymous nested structs or unions).

(since C11)




See struct initialization for the rules about initialization of structs and unions.


#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdint.h>
#include <assert.h>
int main(void)
    union S {
        uint32_t u32;
        uint16_t u16[2];
        uint8_t  u8;
    } s = {0x12345678}; // s.u32 is now the active member
    printf("Union S has size %zu and holds %x\n", sizeof s, s.u32);
    s.u16[0] = 0x0011;  // s.u16 is now the active member
    // reading from s.u32 or from s.u8 reinterprets the object representation
//  printf("s.u8 is now %x\n", s.u8); // unspecified, typically 11 or 00
//  printf("s.u32 is now %x\n", s.u32); // unspecified, typically 12340011 or 00115678
    // pointers to all members of a union compare equal to themselves and the union
    assert((uint8_t*)&s == &s.u8);
    // this union has 3 bytes of trailing padding
    union pad {
       char  c[5];   // occupies 5 bytes
       float f;      // occupies 4 bytes, imposes alignment 4
    } p = {.f = 1.23}; // the size is 8 to satisfy float's alignment
    printf("size of union of char[5] and float is %zu\n", sizeof p);


Union S has size 4 and holds 12345678
size of union of char[5] and float is 8

Each member is allocated as if it were the only member of the union, which is why s.c in the example above aliases the first byte of s.s[0].


  • C11 standard (ISO/IEC 9899:2011):
  • Structure and union specifiers (p: 112-117)
  • C99 standard (ISO/IEC 9899:1999):
  • Structure and union specifiers (p: 101-104)
  • C89/C90 standard (ISO/IEC 9899:1990):
  • Structure and union specifiers

See also

C++ documentation for Union declaration