extern (C++)

The extern keyword is applied to a global variable, function or template declaration to specify that the name of that thing has external linkage. For background information on linkage and why the use of global variables is discouraged, see Program and linkage.

The extern keyword has four meanings depending on the context:

  1. in a non-const global variable declaration, extern specifies that the variable or function is defined in another translation unit. The extern must be applied in all files except the one where the variable is defined.
  2. in a const variable declaration, it specifies that the variable has external linkage. The extern must be applied to all declarations in all files. (Global const variables have internal linkage by default.)
  3. extern "C" specifies that the function is defined elsewhere and uses the C-language calling convention. The extern "C" modifier may also be applied to multiple function declarations in a block.
  4. in a template declaration, it specifies that the template has already been instantiated elsewhere. This is an optimization that tells the compiler that it can re-use the other instantiation rather than creating a new one at the current location. For more information about this use of extern, see Templates.

extern linkage for non-const globals

When the linker sees extern before a global variable declaration, it looks for the definition in another translation unit. Declarations of non-const variables at global scope are external by default; only apply extern to the declarations that don't provide the definition.

int i = 42; // declaration and definition

extern int i;  // declaration only. same as i in FileA

extern int i;  // declaration only. same as i in FileA

int i = 43; // LNK2005! 'i' already has a definition.
extern int i = 43; // same error (extern is ignored on definitions)

extern linkage for const globals

A const global variable has internal linkage by default. If you want the variable to have external linkage, apply the extern keyword to definition as well as to all other declarations in other files:

extern const int i = 42; // extern const definition

extern const int i;  // declaration only. same as i in FileA

extern constexpr linkage

In Visual Studio 2017 version 15.3 and earlier, the compiler always gave a constexpr variable internal linkage even when the variable was marked extern. In Visual Studio 2017 version 15.5, a new compiler switch (/Zc:externConstexpr) enables correct standards-conforming behavior. Eventually this will become the default.

extern constexpr int x = 10; //error LNK2005: "int const x" already defined

If a header file contains a variable declared extern constexpr, it needs to be marked __declspec(selectany) in order to correctly have its duplicate declarations combined:

extern constexpr __declspec(selectany) int x = 10;

extern "C" and extern "C++" function declarations

In C++, when used with a string, extern specifies that the linkage conventions of another language are being used for the declarator(s). C functions and data can be accessed only if they are previously declared as having C linkage. However, they must be defined in a separately compiled translation unit.

Microsoft C++ supports the strings "C" and "C++" in the string-literal field. All of the standard include files use the extern "C" syntax to allow the run-time library functions to be used in C++ programs.


The following example shows how to declare names that have C linkage:

// Declare printf with C linkage.
extern "C" int printf(const char *fmt, ...);

//  Cause everything in the specified
//  header files to have C linkage.
extern "C" {
    // add your #include statements here
#include <stdio.h>

//  Declare the two functions ShowChar
//  and GetChar with C linkage.
extern "C" {
    char ShowChar(char ch);
    char GetChar(void);

//  Define the two functions 
//  ShowChar and GetChar with C linkage.
extern "C" char ShowChar(char ch) {
    return ch;

extern "C" char GetChar(void) {
    char ch;
    ch = getchar();
    return ch;

// Declare a global variable, errno, with C linkage.
extern "C" int errno;

If a function has more than one linkage specification, they must agree; it is an error to declare functions as having both C and C++ linkage. Furthermore, if two declarations for a function occur in a program — one with a linkage specification and one without — the declaration with the linkage specification must be first. Any redundant declarations of functions that already have linkage specification are given the linkage specified in the first declaration. For example:

extern "C" int CFunc1();
int CFunc1();            // Redeclaration is benign; C linkage is
                         //  retained.

int CFunc2();
extern "C" int CFunc2(); // Error: not the first declaration of
                         //  CFunc2;  cannot contain linkage
                         //  specifier.

See Also