main function and command-line arguments

All C++ programs must have a main function. If you try to compile a C++ .exe project without a main function, the compiler will raise 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 do not apply to any other C++ functions. The main function:

  • Cannot be overloaded (see Function Overloading).
  • Cannot be declared as inline.
  • Cannot be declared as static.
  • Cannot have its address taken.
  • Cannot be called.

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[], char *envp[]);

Microsoft Specific

If your source files use Unicode wide characters, you can use wmain, which is the wide-character version of main. The declaration syntax for wmain is as follows:

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

You can also use _tmain, which is defined in tchar.h. _tmain resolves to main unless _UNICODE is defined. In that case, _tmain resolves to wmain.

If no return value is specified, the compiler supplies a return value of zero. Alternatively, the main and wmain functions can be declared as returning void (no return value). If you declare main or wmain as returning void, you cannot return an exit code to the parent process or 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.

END Microsoft Specific

Command line arguments

The arguments for main or wmain allow convenient command-line parsing of arguments and, optionally, access to environment variables. The types for argc and argv are defined by the language. The names argc, argv, and envp are traditional, but you can name them whatever you like.

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

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, and so on, until argv[argc], which is always NULL. See Customizing Command Line Processing for information on suppressing command-line processing.

The first command-line argument is always argv[1] and the last one is argv[argc - 1].


By convention, argv[0] is the command with which the program is invoked. However, it is possible to spawn a process using CreateProcess and if you use both the first and second arguments (lpApplicationName and lpCommandLine), argv[0] may not be the executable name; use GetModuleFileName to retrieve the executable name, and its fully-qualified path.

Microsoft Specific

The envp array, which is a common extension in many UNIX systems, is used in Microsoft C++. It 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 subsequently change the environment via 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 will not change. See Customizing Command Line Processing for information on suppressing environment processing. This argument is ANSI compatible in C, but not in C++.

END Microsoft Specific


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

Microsoft Specific

Microsoft C/C++ startup code uses the following 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 caret character (^) is not recognized as an escape character or delimiter. The character is handled completely by the command-line parser in the operating system before being passed to the argv array in the program.

  • A string surrounded by double quotation marks ("string") is interpreted as a single argument, regardless of white space contained within. A quoted string can be embedded in an argument.

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

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

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

  • If an odd number of backslashes is followed by a double quotation mark, one backslash is placed in the argv array for every pair of backslashes, and the double quotation mark is "escaped" by the remaining backslash, causing a literal double quotation mark (") to be placed in argv.


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";

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

Results of parsing command lines

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

END Microsoft Specific

Wildcard expansion

Microsoft Specific

You can use wildcards — the question mark (?) and asterisk (*) — to specify filename and path arguments on the command-line.

Command-line arguments are handled by a routine called _setargv (or _wsetargv in the wide-character environment), which by default does not expand wildcards into separate strings in the argv string array. For more information on enabling wildcard expansion, refer to Expanding Wildcard Arguments.

END Microsoft Specific

Customizing C++ command-line processing

Microsoft Specific

If your program does not take command-line arguments, you can save a small amount of space by suppressing use of the library routine that performs command-line processing. This routine is called _setargv and is described in Wildcard Expansion. To suppress its use, define a routine that does nothing in the file containing the main function, and name it _setargv. The call to _setargv is then satisfied by your definition of _setargv, and the library version is not loaded.

Similarly, if you never access the environment table through the envp argument, you can provide your own empty routine to be used in place of _setenvp, the environment-processing routine. Just as with the _setargv function, _setenvp must be declared as extern "C".

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

END Microsoft Specific

See also

Basic Concepts