main function and command-line arguments

All C++ programs must have a main function. If you try to compile a C++ program without a main function, the compiler raises an error. (Dynamic-link libraries and static libraries don't have a main function.) The main function is where your source code begins execution, but before a program enters the main function, all static class members without explicit initializers are set to zero. In Microsoft C++, global static objects are also initialized before entry to main. Several restrictions apply to the main function that don't apply to any other C++ functions. The main function:

  • Can't be overloaded (see Function overloading).
  • Can't be declared as inline.
  • Can't be declared as static.
  • Can't have its address taken.
  • Can't be called from your program.

The main function signature

The main function doesn't have a declaration, because it's built into the language. If it did, the declaration syntax for main would look like this:

int main();
int main(int argc, char *argv[]);

If no return value is specified in main, the compiler supplies a return value of zero.

Standard command-line arguments

The arguments for main allow convenient command-line parsing of arguments. The types for argc and argv are defined by the language. The names argc and argv are traditional, but you can name them whatever you like.

The argument definitions are as follows:

An integer that contains the count of arguments that follow in argv. The argc parameter is always greater than or equal to 1.

An array of null-terminated strings representing command-line arguments entered by the user of the program. By convention, argv[0] is the command with which the program is invoked. argv[1] is the first command-line argument. The last argument from the command line is argv[argc - 1], and argv[argc] is always NULL.

For information on how to suppress command-line processing, see Customize C++ command-line processing.


By convention, argv[0] is the filename of the program. However, on Windows it's possible to spawn a process by using CreateProcess. If you use both the first and second arguments (lpApplicationName and lpCommandLine), argv[0] may not be the executable name. You can use GetModuleFileName to retrieve the executable name, and its fully-qualified path.

Microsoft-specific extensions

The following sections describe Microsoft-specific behavior.

The wmain function and _tmain macro

If you design your source code to use Unicode wide characters, you can use the Microsoft-specific wmain entry point, which is the wide-character version of main. Here's the effective declaration syntax for wmain:

int wmain();
int wmain(int argc, wchar_t *argv[]);

You can also use the Microsoft-specific _tmain, which is a preprocessor macro defined in tchar.h. _tmain resolves to main unless _UNICODE is defined. In that case, _tmain resolves to wmain. The _tmain macro and other macros that begin with _t are useful for code that must build separate versions for both narrow and wide character sets. For more information, see Using generic-text mappings.

Returning void from main

As a Microsoft extension, the main and wmain functions can be declared as returning void (no return value). This extension is also available in some other compilers, but its use isn't recommended. It's available for symmetry when main doesn't return a value.

If you declare main or wmain as returning void, you can't return an exit code to the parent process or the operating system by using a return statement. To return an exit code when main or wmain is declared as void, you must use the exit function.

The envp command-line argument

The main or wmain signatures allow an optional Microsoft-specific extension for access to environment variables. This extension is also common in other compilers for Windows and UNIX systems. The name envp is traditional, but you can name the environment parameter whatever you like. Here are the effective declarations for the argument lists that include the environment parameter:

int main(int argc, char* argv[], char* envp[]);
int wmain(int argc, wchar_t* argv[], wchar_t* envp[]);

The optional envp parameter is an array of strings representing the variables set in the user's environment. This array is terminated by a NULL entry. It can be declared as an array of pointers to char (char *envp[]) or as a pointer to pointers to char (char **envp). If your program uses wmain instead of main, use the wchar_t data type instead of char.

The environment block passed to main and wmain is a "frozen" copy of the current environment. If you later change the environment by making a call to putenv or _wputenv, the current environment (as returned by getenv or _wgetenv and the _environ or _wenviron variable) will change, but the block pointed to by envp won't change. For more information on how to suppress environment processing, see Customize C++ command-line processing. The envp argument is compatible with the C89 standard, but not with C++ standards.

Example arguments to main

The following example shows how to use the argc, argv, and envp arguments to main:

// argument_definitions.cpp
// compile with: /EHsc
#include <iostream>
#include <string.h>

using namespace std;
int main( int argc, char *argv[], char *envp[] ) {
    int iNumberLines = 0;    // Default is no line numbers.

    // If /n is passed to the .exe, display numbered listing
    // of environment variables.

    if ( (argc == 2) && _stricmp( argv[1], "/n" ) == 0 )
         iNumberLines = 1;

    // Walk through list of strings until a NULL is encountered.
    for( int i = 0; envp[i] != NULL; ++i ) {
        if( iNumberLines )
            cout << i << ": " << envp[i] << "\n";

Parsing C++ command-line arguments

The command line parsing rules used by Microsoft C/C++ code are Microsoft-specific. The runtime startup code uses these rules when interpreting arguments given on the operating system command line:

  • Arguments are delimited by white space, which is either a space or a tab.

  • The first argument (argv[0]) is treated specially. It represents the program name. Because it must be a valid pathname, parts surrounded by double quote marks (") are allowed. The double quote marks aren't included in the argv[0] output. The parts surrounded by double quote marks prevent interpretation of a space or tab character as the end of the argument. The later rules in this list don't apply.

  • A string surrounded by double quote marks is interpreted as a single argument, which may contain white-space characters. A quoted string can be embedded in an argument. The caret (^) isn't recognized as an escape character or delimiter. Within a quoted string, a pair of double quote marks is interpreted as a single escaped double quote mark. If the command line ends before a closing double quote mark is found, then all the characters read so far are output as the last argument.

  • A double quote mark preceded by a backslash (\") is interpreted as a literal double quote mark (").

  • Backslashes are interpreted literally, unless they immediately precede a double quote mark.

  • If an even number of backslashes is followed by a double quote mark, then one backslash (\) is placed in the argv array for every pair of backslashes (\\), and the double quote mark (") is interpreted as a string delimiter.

  • If an odd number of backslashes is followed by a double quote mark, then one backslash (\) is placed in the argv array for every pair of backslashes (\\). The double quote mark is interpreted as an escape sequence by the remaining backslash, causing a literal double quote mark (") to be placed in argv.

Example of command-line argument parsing

The following program demonstrates how command-line arguments are passed:

// command_line_arguments.cpp
// compile with: /EHsc
#include <iostream>

using namespace std;
int main( int argc,      // Number of strings in array argv
          char *argv[],   // Array of command-line argument strings
          char *envp[] )  // Array of environment variable strings
    int count;

    // Display each command-line argument.
    cout << "\nCommand-line arguments:\n";
    for( count = 0; count < argc; count++ )
         cout << "  argv[" << count << "]   "
                << argv[count] << "\n";

Results of parsing command lines

The following table shows example input and expected output, demonstrating the rules in the preceding list.

Command-line input argv[1] argv[2] argv[3]
"abc" d e abc d e
a\\b d"e f"g h a\\b de fg h
a\\\"b c d a\"b c d
a\\\\"b c" d e a\\b c d e
a"b"" c d ab" c d

Wildcard expansion

The Microsoft compiler optionally allows you to use wildcard characters, the question mark (?) and asterisk (*), to specify filename and path arguments on the command line.

Command-line arguments are handled by an internal routine in the runtime startup code, which by default doesn't expand wildcards into separate strings in the argv string array. You can enable wildcard expansion by including the setargv.obj file (wsetargv.obj file for wmain) in your /link compiler options or your LINK command line.

For more information on runtime startup linker options, see Link options.

Customize C++ command-line processing

If your program doesn't take command-line arguments, you can suppress the command-line processing routine to save a small amount of space. To suppress its use, include the noarg.obj file (for both main and wmain) in your /link compiler options or your LINK command line.

Similarly, if you never access the environment table through the envp argument, you can suppress the internal environment-processing routine. To suppress its use, include the noenv.obj file (for both main and wmain) in your /link compiler options or your LINK command line.

Your program might make calls to the spawn or exec family of routines in the C runtime library. If it does, you shouldn't suppress the environment-processing routine, since it's used to pass an environment from the parent process to the child process.

See also

Basic concepts