Understanding Static Variables In C, With Examples

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When we declare variables in C, they typically reside within a specific code block or function definition. Once the function has been called and the code executed, the program usually frees up the memory that was allocated for the variable. However, sometimes we want to share these variables among multiple functions within the same program. This is where static variables can be useful. By using static variables, we can preserve values after a function has been called. In this article, we re going to explore how static variables in C work, how to declare and define them and their benefits and drawbacks, with examples.

What Is a Static Variable?

Static variables work by preserving their value even once they re out of scope. By scope, we mean the area of a program where the variable is accessible. Generally, there are three kinds of scope function, file, and block. Variables usually have block or function scope, meaning they re no longer available once that particular function has been called, or that block executed. If we need to use them again, we must initialize them with new values. It s also difficult to use multiple functions with the same variable. Therefore, when we want to reuse a variable and not have to initialize it several times, static variables are a good option to use.

What Other Types of Variables Are There?

Static variables are in contrast to automatic variables, which are the default type of variable in C. The program automatically creates automatic variables when a function is called, and memory is deallocated once the function call is over. In addition to automatic, we can also have register, external, volatile, and constant variables. A brief description of these follows.

  • Register variables These are usually limited to function scope and are used to suggest how to store a variable to the compiler. However, they re not mandatory and are sometimes ignored by the compiler.
  • External variables We also know these as global variables, meaning they re declared outside of functions and have file scope properties. They re similar to static variables in that they have file scope, but global variables can t have function scope.
  • Volatile variables This kind of variable is used to indicate to the compiler that its value may unexpectedly change, such as due to interrupts from the hardware. The compiler doesn t optimize these variables, but reads their values from memory instead.
  • Constant variables Using the const keyword, we can declare constant variables, which can t be modified after we have initialized them. Subsequently, they re mainly used to define constants that we don t want to change during runtime.

What s the Difference Between Local and Global Static Variables?

We briefly discussed global variables and their differences to static variables. However, you can actually have global static variables and local static variables. If we declare a static variable outside of a function, then it becomes a static global variable. We can access this throughout the entire program.On the other hand, if we declare it inside a function, it s known as a static local variable. This will behave similarly to an automatic local variable, but will have its memory available throughout execution and between function calls.

How Are Static Variables Declared and Defined?

To declare a static variable, we simply use the static keyword. We can use this with both functions and variables. The general syntax for declaring a static variable is as follows:

static type_of_data name_of_variable = variable_value

Where static is the keyword, type_of_data is the data type (e.g. float, int, char), name_of_variable is the name we give to the variable, and variable_value is the value we ve initialized the variable with. Note that if we don t provide a value, the program will initialize the variable with 0 by default.

Examples of Static Variables

Now it s time to illustrate how we can use the various types of static variables in C. First, let s look at static local variables.

Local Variable Example

To understand how to implement a static local variable, take a look at this code:

#include <stdio.h>

void increment() {
    static int counter = 0;
    printf("Counter: %d\n", counter);

int main() {
    return 0;

To start, we ve defined the increment() function and indicated the return type is void , meaning it doesn t return any value.

Next, we declare the static local variable counter , of the int type, and initialized it to 0.

The line following this indicates that the program increments the counter variable by 1. Every time we call the increment function, the program retains the variable.

It prints the values as per the printf() function. We use %d to specify the integer format, and \n to print a newline between each result.

We then call the main() function, which returns a value of the int type. The program increments the variable three times and then prints the results to the console. You can see the output in the image below.

Using a local static variable in C
The value of the local static variable, counter, increases by one and gets printed out every time its function gets called.


Global Variable Example

As mentioned, we can access global variables outside of a function. But we can only access static global variables from within the file in which we ve declared them. This helps to enforceencapsulation, as the data is hidden from external files. To illustrate, consider this code block:

#include <stdio.h>

static int globalVariable = 10;

void incrementGlobal() {

int main() {
    printf("Initial value: %d\n", globalVariable);
    printf("After increment: %d\n", globalVariable);
    printf("After increment again: %d\n", globalVariable);
    return 0;

This is similar to the previous example, but because we re using a static global variable, we have declared the vaiable at the top, outside of the function. We have initialized it to 10.

After this, we define the incrementGlobal() function, which increments our global variable by 1 each time the program calls it.

Finally, we define the main() function, incrementing the variable twice and printing each result. As before, you can see the output in the image below.

A global static variable in C
The value of the global static variable, globalVariable, increases by one each time the program calls the incrementGlobal function.


Pros, Cons, and Applications of Static Variables in C

While static variables can help make code more reusable, they also have their potential drawbacks. We have summarized the pros and cons of static variables in the table below.

Pros Cons
Useful for implementing accumulators and counters, as they can be accessed by multiple functions Thread safety concerns. Multiple threads can potentially access the same variable, and may not be properly synchronized in their operations.
Preserve data values between function calls, which helps make memory usage efficient Global variables can complicate code, as multiple functions can access them.
Useful for encapsulation, as static variables with file scope can hide data from other files. If static variables aren t being used, they still occupy memory during program execution.
We can initialize variables with a specific value irrespective of how many times functions are called on them. Testing functionality can become difficult, as static variables may introduce hidden dependencies.

Best Practices

We ve covered the pros and cons of static variables, so it makes sense to describe how to best use them. To help reduce thread safety issues, we can use synchronization techniques to limit the concurrent access of variables. Two of the most common tools are mutex and atomic operations.

Mutex, or mutual exclusion, permits only one thread to access the variable. They use a mutex lock, which the thread tries to acquire. But if another thread is already accessing this lock, the program will suspend the request.

Atomic operations, on the other hand, don t require the use of a lock. They guarantee that the program can complete an operation without any interruption by other threads, i.e., atomically. Common atomic operations include read-modify-write, where the program updates the variable and overwrites its value, and load-and-store, where the program loads a value from memory and stores it in a register while it is updating it. Note that load-and-store isn t atomic by itself, so we must use it together with other synchronization methods, such as mutexes.

Applications of Static Variables in C

We know so far that static variables are useful for implementing functions like counters and accumulators, and for preserving values between function calls. However, they have some other uses as well. We can also use them to cache data that are memory-intensive or frequently used, which helps to eliminate the need for unnecessary computations. Further, we can use static variables to control certain behaviors, since they preserve variable values between function calls. This can allow us to check whether the program has performed a certain action yet.

Wrapping Up

In summary, static variables in C have many perks that automatic variables don t. They can preserve values between function calls, which helps to makememory managementmore efficient and which we can use to let the program remember the state of a variable. We also use static variables to implement tracking functions and counters, as well as caching expensive data. They differ from automatic variables because they can have function or file scope, and also from global variables since they re only accessible within the same file. This helps to enforce encapsulation through data hiding. As long as you plan to address thread safety concerns and don t leave unused static variables in your code, you can gain many advantages from static variables that other variable types can t offer.

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