Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Does Java pass by value or pass by reference - Interview Question

Does Java is pass by value or pass by reference is one of the tricky Java question mostly asked on fresher level interviews. Before debating whether Java is pass by value or pass by reference lets first clear what is pass by value and what is pass by reference. This question has its origin on C and C++ where you can pass function parameter either value or memory address, where value is stored (pointer). As per Java specification everything in Java is pass by value whether its primitive value or objects and it does make sense because Java doesn't support pointers or pointer arithmetic, Similarly multiple inheritance and operator overloading is also not supported in Java. This question becomes confusing when interviewer ask about how object is passed in Java ? Answer to this question is simple whenever a method parameter expect object, reference of that object is passed. Many programmer confuses reference with pointers here which is not correct, reference is a kind of handle which is used to locate object or change object, but it doesn’t allows any pointer arithmetic i.e. you can not increase or decrease memory address and locate a different object using reference in Java.

Pass by Value and Pass by Reference Example in Java

Does Java passes parameter by value or pass by referenceLet’s see two example of calling method and passing parameter this will clear any doubt whether Java is pass by value or pass by reference. consider following example:

public class PassByValueExample {
    public static void main(String args[]) {
       int number = 3;
       System.out.println("number Inside main(): "+number);
    public static void printNext(int number){
        System.out.println("number Inside printNext(): "+number);

number Inside printNext(): 4
number Inside main(): 3

Above example clearly shows that primitives are passed as pass by value to method parameters, had Java pass by reference both main method and printNext() would have printed same value. Now look at another example of passing object as method parameter which will confuse you that Java is pass by reference, which Java is not.

public class PassByReferenceConfusion {
    public static void main(String args[]) {
       Car car = new Car("BMW");
       System.out.println("Brand of Car Inside main() before: "+ car.brand);
       System.out.println("Brand of Car Inside main()after: "+ car.brand);
    public static void printBrand(Car car){
        car.brand = "Maruti";
        System.out.println("Brand of Car Inside printBrand(): "+car.brand);
    private static class Car{
        private String brand;
        public Car(String brand){
            this.brand = brand;


Brand of Car Inside main() before: BMW
Brand of Car Inside printBrand(): Maruti
Brand of Car Inside main()after: Maruti

If you see change made in method parameter is reflected globally i.e. brand of car is changed in all places it means one object is used in both method. Well in reality if you pass object as method parameter in Java  it passes "value of reference" or in simple term object reference or handle to Object in Java. Here reference term is entirely different than reference term used in C and C+ which directly points to memory address of variable and subject to pointer arithmetic. in Java object can only be accessed by its reference as you can not get memory address where object is stored or more precisely there is no method to get value of object by passing memory address.

To conclude everything in Java including primitive and objects are pass by value. In case of object value of reference is passed.

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Tarun Kumar said...

A slightly modified version (picked up from stack over flow). Assigning a new object in called method may make it clear how it would not affect object in calling method.

public static void main(String args[]) {
Car car1 = new Car("BMW");
System.out.println("Brand of Car Inside main() before: " + car1.brand);
System.out.println("Brand of Car Inside main() after printBrand: " + car1.brand);
System.out.println("Brand of Car Inside main() after printBrandAgain: " + car1.brand);

public static void printBrand(Car car2) {
car2.brand = "Maruti";
System.out.println("Brand of Car Inside printBrand(): " + car2.brand);

public static void printBrandAgaian(Car car3) {
car3 = new Car("Mercdes");
System.out.println("Brand of Car Inside printBrandAgain(): " + car3.brand);

Anonymous said...

I knew that Java does not support pass by reference simply because lack of pointers in Java but object reference always seems confusing to me because it looks exactly similar to pass by reference. Thanks for clear wording which helps to isolate this single case in Java. By the this is also referred as call by value and call by reference :)

qyz like Java said...

Whether or not there is "value copy" depends on the compiler. And yes, Java holds all "copies" of a reference as actual parameters when it is passed to methods.

The real "pass-by-reference" then should replace formal parameters by what is passed in to let everything in the "passing chain" share the same reference.

Anonymous said...

If Java is Passing reference of the value, how do things happen across JVMs. or say objects passed in EJBs

Anonymous said...

I hate this "debate". It's simple. The bit pattern of the value is copied into the parameter. It doesn't matter if it's a primitive or a reference type. There's no need to cloud the issue with pseudo-terms like pass-by-value. If the bit pattern is a primitive, or if the bit pattern is a reference to an object, its bits are simply copied. It's easy to understand, and no special terms are needed to explain it.

(Pass-by-value, -reference, are anachronisms for most programmers. Fortran, C, Pascal and other old-school languages had syntax for that supported different ways of passing parameters, but in almost all modern languages it's just pass-by-value.)

Anonymous said...

Oops! I meant "pseudo-terms like pass-by-reference". It's ALL pass-by-value.

And in response to Anonymous June 7 regarding JVMs and EJBs -- that's why objects need to be serialized in some environments. Across VMs, the object is serialized and re-created on the other machine. There's no call stack, and it's really a whole other topic.

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