Tutorial: Learn to debug C++ code using Visual Studio

This article introduces the features of the Visual Studio debugger in a step-by-step walkthrough. If you want a higher-level view of the debugger features, see First look at the debugger. When you debug your app, it usually means that you are running your application with the debugger attached. When you do this, the debugger provides many ways to see what your code is doing while it runs. You can step through your code and look at the values stored in variables, you can set watches on variables to see when values change, you can examine the execution path of your code, see whether a branch of code is running, and so on. If this is the first time that you've tried to debug code, you may want to read Debugging for absolute beginners before going through this article.

In this tutorial, you will:

  • Start the debugger and hit breakpoints.
  • Learn commands to step through code in the debugger
  • Inspect variables in data tips and debugger windows
  • Examine the call stack


You must have Visual Studio 2019 installed and the Desktop development with C++ workload.

You must have Visual Studio 2017 installed and the Desktop development with C++ workload.

If you haven't already installed Visual Studio, go to the Visual Studio downloads page to install it for free.

If you need to install the workload but already have Visual Studio, go to Tools > Get Tools and Features..., which opens the Visual Studio Installer. The Visual Studio Installer launches. Choose the Desktop development with C++ workload, then choose Modify.

Create a project

  1. Open Visual Studio.

    Press Esc to close the start window. Type Ctrl + Q to open the search box, type c++, choose Templates, then choose Create new Console App project. In the dialog box that appears, type a name like get-started-debugging, and then choose Create.

    From the top menu bar, choose File > New > Project. In the left pane of the New project dialog box, under Visual C++, choose Windows Desktop, and then in the middle pane choose Windows Console Application. Then, type a name like MyDbgApp and click OK.

    If you don't see the Windows Console Application project template, go to Tools > Get Tools and Features, which opens the Visual Studio Installer. The Visual Studio Installer launches. Choose the Desktop development with C++ workload, then choose Modify.

    Visual Studio creates the project.

  2. In get-started-debugging.cpp, replace the following code

    int main()
        return 0;

    with this code:

    #include "pch.h"
    #include <string>
    #include <vector>
    #include <iostream>
    class Shape
        int privateX = 0;
        int privateY = 0;
        int privateHeight = 0;
        int privateWidth = 0;
        int getX() const { return privateX; }
        void setX(int value) { privateX = value; }
        int getY() const { return privateY; }
        void setY(int value) { privateY = value; }
        int getHeight() const { return privateHeight; }
        void setHeight(int value) { privateHeight = value; }
        int getWidth() const { return privateWidth; }
        void setWidth(int value) { privateWidth = value; }
        // Virtual method
        virtual void Draw()
            std::wcout << L"Performing base class drawing tasks" << std::endl;
    class Circle : public Shape
        void Draw() override
        // Code to draw a circle...
        std::wcout << L"Drawing a circle" << std::endl;
    class Rectangle : public Shape
        void Draw() override
        // Code to draw a rectangle...
        std::wcout << L"Drawing a rectangle" << std::endl;
    class Triangle : public Shape
        void Draw() override
        // Code to draw a triangle...
        std::wcout << L"Drawing a trangle" << std::endl;
    int main(std::vector<std::wstring> &args)
        auto shapes = std::vector<Shape*>
            new Rectangle(),
            new Triangle(),
            new Circle()
        for (auto shape : shapes)
    /* Output:
    Drawing a rectangle
    Performing base class drawing tasks
    Drawing a triangle
    Performing base class drawing tasks
    Drawing a circle
    Performing base class drawing tasks

Start the debugger!

  1. Press F5 (Debug > Start Debugging) or the Start Debugging button Start Debugging in the Debug Toolbar.

    F5 starts the app with the debugger attached to the app process, but right now we haven't done anything special to examine the code. So the app just loads and you see the console output.

    Drawing a rectangle
    Performing base class drawing tasks
    Drawing a triangle
    Performing base class drawing tasks
    Drawing a circle
    Performing base class drawing tasks

    In this tutorial, we'll take a closer look at this app using the debugger and get a look at the debugger features.

  2. Stop the debugger by pressing the red stop Stop Debugging button.

Set a breakpoint and start the debugger

  1. In the for loop of the main function, set a breakpoint by clicking the left margin of the following line of code:


    A red circle appears where you set the breakpoint.

    Breakpoints are the most basic and essential feature of reliable debugging. A breakpoint indicates where Visual Studio should suspend your running code so you can take a look at the values of variables, or the behavior of memory, or whether or not a branch of code is getting run.

  2. Press F5 or the Start Debugging button ![Start Debugging](../debugger/media/dbg-tour-start-debugging.png "Start Debugging", the app starts, and the debugger runs to the line of code where you set the breakpoint.

    Set and hit a breakpoint

    The yellow arrow represents the statement on which the debugger paused, which also suspends app execution at the same point (this statement has not yet executed).

    If the app is not yet running, F5 starts the debugger and stops at the first breakpoint. Otherwise, F5 continues running the app to the next breakpoint.

    Breakpoints are a useful feature when you know the line of code or the section of code that you want to examine in detail.

Mostly, we use the keyboard shortcuts here, because it's a good way to get fast at executing your app in the debugger (equivalent commands such as menu commands are shown in parentheses).

  1. While paused in the shape->Draw method call in the main function, press F11 (or choose Debug > Step Into) to advance into code for the Rectangle class.

    Use F11 to Step Into code

    F11 is the Step Into command and advances the app execution one statement at a time. F11 is a good way to examine the execution flow in the most detail. (To move faster through code, we show you some other options also.) By default, the debugger skips over non-user code (if you want more details, see Just My Code).

  2. Press F10 (or choose Debug > Step Over) a few times until the debugger stops on the Shape::Draw method call, and then press F10 one more time.

    Use F10 to Step Over code

    Notice this time that the debugger does not step into the Draw method of the base class (Shape). F10 advances the debugger without stepping into functions or methods in your app code (the code still executes). By pressing F10 on the Shape::Draw method call (instead of F11), we skipped over the implementation code for Draw in the base class (which maybe we're not interested in right now).

  1. In the code editor, scroll down and hover over the std::cout in the Triangle class until the green Run to Click button Run to Click appears on the left.

    Use the Run to Click feature


    The Run to Click button is available starting in Visual Studio 2017. If you don't see the green arrow button, use F11 in this example instead to advance the debugger to the right place.

  2. Click the Run to Click button Run to Click.

    Using this button is similar to setting a temporary breakpoint. Run to Click is handy for getting around quickly within a visible region of app code (you can click in any open file).

    The debugger advances to the std::cout method implementation for the Triangle class.

    While paused, you notice a typo! The output "Drawing a trangle" is misspelled. We can fix it right here while running the app in the debugger.

Edit code and continue debugging

  1. Click into "Drawing a trangle" and type a correction, changing "trangle" to "triangle".

  2. Press F11 once, you see a message that code is recompiling, and then the debugger advances again.


    Depending on what type of code you edit in the debugger, you may see a warning message. In some scenarios, the code will need to recompile before you can continue.

Step out

Let's say that you are done examining the Draw method in the Triangle class, and you want to get out of the function but stay in the debugger. You can do this using the Step Out command.

  1. Press Shift + F11 (or Debug > Step Out).

    This command resumes app execution (and advances the debugger) until the current function returns.

    You should be back in the for loop in the main method.

Restart your app quickly

Click the Restart Restart App button in the Debug Toolbar (Ctrl + Shift + F5).

When you press Restart, it saves time versus stopping the app and restarting the debugger. The debugger pauses at the first breakpoint that is hit by executing code.

The debugger stops again at the breakpoint you set, on the shape->Draw() method.

Inspect variables with data tips

Features that allow you to inspect variables are one of the most useful features of the debugger, and there are different ways to do it. Often, when you try to debug an issue, you are attempting to find out whether variables are storing the values that you expect them to have at a particular time.

  1. While paused on the shape->Draw() method, hover over the shapes container (vector object) and you see its default property value, the size property, showing size=3.

  2. Expand the shapes object to see all its properties, such as the first index of the array [0], which has a memory address.

    You can further expand objects to view their properties.

  3. Expand the first index [0] to see the privateHeight property of the rectangle.

    View a data tip

    Often, when debugging, you want a quick way to check property values on objects, and the data tips are a good way to do it.

Inspect variables with the Autos and Locals windows

  1. Look at the Autos window at the bottom of the code editor.

    Inspect variables in the Autos Window

    In the Autos window, you see variables and their current value. For C++, the Autos window shows variables in the preceding three lines of code.

  2. Next, look at the Locals window, in a tab next to the Autos window.

    The Locals window shows you the variables that are in the current scope, that is, the current code execution context.

Set a watch

  1. In the main code editor window, right-click the shapes object and choose Add Watch.

    The Watch window opens at the bottom of the code editor. You can use a Watch window to specify a variable (or an expression) that you want to keep an eye on.

    Now, you have a watch set on the shapes object, and you can see its value change as you move through the debugger. Unlike the other variable windows, the Watch window always shows the variables that you are watching (they're grayed out when out of scope).

Examine the call stack

  1. While paused in the for loop, click the Call Stack window, which is by default open in the lower right pane.

  2. Click F11 a few times until you see the debugger pause in the Shape::Draw method of the Rectangle class in the code editor. Look at the Call Stack window.

    Examine the call stack

    The Call Stack window shows the order in which methods and functions are getting called. The top line shows the current function (the Rectangle::Draw method in this example). The second line shows that Rectangle::Draw was called from the main function, and so on.


    The Call Stack window is similar to the Debug perspective in some IDEs like Eclipse.

    The call stack is a good way to examine and understand the execution flow of an app.

    You can double-click a line of code to go look at that source code and that also changes the current scope being inspected by the debugger. This action does not advance the debugger.

    You can also use right-click menus from the Call Stack window to do other things. For example, you can insert breakpoints into specified functions, advance the debugger using Run to Cursor, and go examine source code. For more information, see How to: Examine the Call Stack.

Change the execution flow

  1. With the debugger paused in the Shape::Draw method call, use the mouse to grab the yellow arrow (the execution pointer) on the left and move the yellow arrow up one line to the std::cout method call.

  2. Press F11.

    The debugger reruns the std::cout method (you see this in the console window output).

    By changing the execution flow, you can do things like test different code execution paths or rerun code without restarting the debugger.


    Often you need to be careful with this feature, and you see a warning in the tooltip. You may see other warnings, too. Moving the pointer cannot revert your application to an earlier app state.

  3. Press F5 to continue running the app.

    Congratulations on completing this tutorial!

Next steps

In this tutorial, you've learned how to start the debugger, step through code, and inspect variables. You may want to get a high-level look at debugger features along with links to more information.