Bit field

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Declares a class data member with explicit size, in bits. Adjacent bit field members may be packed to share and straddle the individual bytes.

A bit field declaration is a class data member declaration which uses the following declarator:

identifier(optional) attr(optional) : size (1)

The type of the bit field is introduced by the decl-specifier-seq of the declaration syntax.

attr(C++11) - optional sequence of any number of attributes
identifier - the name of the bit field that is being declared. The name is optional: nameless bitfields introduce the specified number of bits of padding
size - an integral constant expression with a value greater or equal to zero. When greater than zero, this is the number of bits that this bit field will occupy. The value zero is only allowed for nameless bitfields and has special meaning: it specifies that the next bit field in the class definition will begin at an allocation unit's boundary.


The number of bits in a bit field sets the limit to the range of values it can hold:

#include <iostream>
struct S {
 // three-bit unsigned field,
 // allowed values are 0...7
 unsigned int b : 3;
int main()
    S s = {7};
    ++s.b; // unsigned overflow
    std::cout << s.b << '\n'; // output: 0

Multiple adjacent bit fields are usually (but it's implementation defined if) packed together:

#include <iostream>
struct S {
    // will usually occupy 2 bytes:
    // 3 bits: value of b1
    // 2 bits: unused
    // 6 bits: value of b2
    // 2 bits: value of b3
    // 3 bits: unused
    unsigned char b1 : 3, : 2, b2 : 6, b3 : 2;
int main()
    std::cout << sizeof(S) << '\n'; // usually prints 2

The special unnamed bit field of size zero can be forced to break up padding. It specifies that the next bit field begins at the beginning of its allocation unit:

#include <iostream>
struct S {
    // will usually occupy 2 bytes:
    // 3 bits: value of b1
    // 5 bits: unused
    // 6 bits: value of b2
    // 2 bits: value of b3
    unsigned char b1 : 3;
    unsigned char :0; // start a new byte
    unsigned char b2 : 6
    unsigned char b3 : 2;
int main()
    std::cout << sizeof(S) << '\n'; // usually prints 2

If the specified size of the bit field is greater than the size of its type, the value is limited by the type: a std::uint8_t b : 1000; would still hold values between 0 and 255. the extra bits become unused padding.

Because bit fields do not necessarily begin at the beginning of a byte, address of a bit field cannot be taken. Pointers and non-const references to bit fields are not possible. When initializing a const reference from a bit field, a temporary is created (its type is the type of the bit field), copy initialized with the value of the bit field, and the reference is bound to that temporary.

The type of a bit field can only be integral or enumeration type.

A bit field cannot be a static data member.


The following properties of bit fields are implementation-defined

  • Everything about the actual allocation details of bit fields within the class object
  • For example, on some platforms, bit fields don't straddle bytes, on others they do
  • Also, on some platforms, bit fields are packed left-to-right, on others right-to-left
  • Whether char, short, int, long, and long long bit fields that aren't explicitly signed or unsigned are signed or unsigned.
  • For example, int b:3; may have the range of values 0..7 or -4..3.