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About c++ : What-does-int-argc-char-argv-mean

Question Detail

In many C++ IDE’s and compilers, when it generates the main function for you, it looks like this:

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

When I code C++ without an IDE, just with a command line compiler, I type:

int main()

without any parameters. What does this mean, and is it vital to my program?

Question Answer

argv and argc are how command line arguments are passed to main() in C and C++.

argc will be the number of strings pointed to by argv. This will (in practice) be 1 plus the number of arguments, as virtually all implementations will prepend the name of the program to the array.

The variables are named argc (argument count) and argv (argument vector) by convention, but they can be given any valid identifier: int main(int num_args, char** arg_strings) is equally valid.

They can also be omitted entirely, yielding int main(), if you do not intend to process command line arguments.

Try the following program:

#include <iostream>

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
    std::cout << "Have " << argc << " arguments:" << std::endl;
    for (int i = 0; i < argc; ++i) {
        std::cout << argv[i] << std::endl;

Running it with ./test a1 b2 c3 will output

Have 4 arguments:

argc is the number of arguments being passed into your program from the command line and argv is the array of arguments.

You can loop through the arguments knowing the number of them like:

for(int i = 0; i < argc; i++)
    // argv[i] is the argument at index i

Suppose you run your program thus (using sh syntax):

myprog arg1 arg2 'arg 3'

If you declared your main as int main(int argc, char *argv[]), then (in most environments), your main() will be called as if like:

p = { "myprog", "arg1", "arg2", "arg 3", NULL };
exit(main(4, p));

However, if you declared your main as int main(), it will be called something like


and you don’t get the arguments passed.

Two additional things to note:

  1. These are the only two standard-mandated signatures for main. If a particular platform accepts extra arguments or a different return type, then that’s an extension and should not be relied upon in a portable program.
  2. *argv[] and **argv are exactly equivalent, so you can write int main(int argc, char *argv[]) as int main(int argc, char **argv).
int main();

This is a simple declaration. It cannot take any command line arguments.

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

This declaration is used when your program must take command-line arguments. When run like such:

myprogram arg1 arg2 arg3

argc, or Argument Count, will be set to 4 (four arguments), and argv, or Argument Vectors, will be populated with string pointers to “myprogram”, “arg1”, “arg2”, and “arg3”. The program invocation (myprogram) is included in the arguments!

Alternatively, you could use:

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

This is also valid.

There is another parameter you can add:

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

The envp parameter also contains environment variables. Each entry follows this format:


like this:


The environment variables list is null-terminated.

IMPORTANT: DO NOT use any argv or envp values directly in calls to system()! This is a huge security hole as malicious users could set environment variables to command-line commands and (potentially) cause massive damage. In general, just don’t use system(). There is almost always a better solution implemented through C libraries.

The parameters to main represent the command line parameters provided to the program when it was started. The argc parameter represents the number of command line arguments, and char *argv[] is an array of strings (character pointers) representing the individual arguments provided on the command line.

The main function can have two parameters, argc and argv. argc is an integer (int) parameter, and it is the number of arguments passed to the program.

The program name is always the first argument, so there will be at least one argument to a program and the minimum value of argc will be one. But if a program has itself two arguments the value of argc will be three.

Parameter argv points to a string array and is called the argument vector. It is a one dimensional string array of function arguments.

The first parameter is the number of arguments provided and the second parameter is a list of strings representing those arguments.

Lets consider the declaration:

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

In the above declaration, the type of the second parameter named argv is actually a char**. That is, argv is a pointer to a pointer to a char. This is because a char* [] decays to a char** due to type decay. For example, the below given declarations are equivalent:

int main (int argc, char *argv[]); //first declaration
int main (int argc, char **argv);  //RE-DECLARATION. Equivalent to the above declaration

In other words, argv is a pointer that points to the first element of an array with elements of type char*. Moreover, each elements argv[i] of the array(with elements of type char*) itself point to a character which is the start of a null terminated character string. That is, each element argv[i] points to the first element of an array with elements of type char(and not const char). A diagram is given for illustration purposes:

As already said in other answers, this form of declaration of main is used when we want to make use of the command line argument(s).

Both of

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

are legal definitions of the entry point for a C or C++ program. Stroustrup: C++ Style and Technique FAQ details some of the variations that are possible or legal for your main function.

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