8.13 — Friend functions and classes

For much of this chapter, we’ve been preaching the virtues of keeping your data private. However, you may occasionally find situations where you will find you have classes and functions outside of those classes that need to work very closely together. For example, you might have a class that stores data, and a function (or another class) that displays the data on the screen. Although the storage class and display code have been separated for easier maintenance, the display code is really intimately tied to the details of the storage class. Consequently, there isn’t much to gain by hiding the storage classes details from the display code.

In situations like this, there are two options:
1) Have the display code use the publicly exposed functions of the storage class. However, this has several potential downsides. First, these public member functions have to be defined, which takes time, and can clutter up the interface of the storage class. Second, the storage class may have to expose functions for the display code that it doesn’t really want accessible to anybody else. There is no way to say “this function is meant to be used by the display class only”.

2) Alternatively, using friend classes and friend functions, you can give your display code access to the private details of the storage class. This lets the display code directly access all the private members and functions of the storage class, while keeping everyone else out! In this lesson, we’ll take a closer look at how this is done.

Friend functions

A friend function is a function that can access the private members of a class as though it were a member of that class. In all other regards, the friend function is just like a normal function. A friend function may be either a normal function, or a member function of another class. To declare a friend function, simply use the friend keyword in front of the prototype of the function you wish to be a friend of the class. It does not matter whether you declare the friend function in the private or public section of the class.

Here’s an example of using a friend function:

In this example, we’ve declared a function named reset() that takes an object of class Accumulator, and sets the value of m_value to 0. Because reset() is not a member of the Accumulator class, normally reset() would not be able to access the private members of Accumulator. However, because Accumulator has specifically declared this reset() function to be a friend of the class, the reset() function is given access to the private members of Accumulator.

Note that we have to pass an Accumulator object to reset(). This is because reset() is not a member function. It does not have a *this pointer, nor does it have an Accumulator object to work with, unless given one.

Here’s another example:

In this example, we declare the isEqual() function to be a friend of the Value class. isEqual() takes two Value objects as parameters. Because isEqual() is a friend of the Value class, it can access the private members of all Value objects. In this case, it uses that access to do a comparison on the two objects, and returns true if they are equal.

While both of the above examples are fairly contrived, the latter example is very similar to cases we’ll encounter in chapter 9 when we discuss operator overloading!

Multiple friends

A function can be a friend of more than one class at the same time. For example, consider the following example:

There are two things worth noting about this example. First, because PrintWeather is a friend of both classes, it can access the private data from objects of both classes. Second, note the following line at the top of the example:

This is a class prototype that tells the compiler that we are going to define a class called Humidity in the future. Without this line, the compiler would tell us it doesn’t know what a Humidity is when parsing the prototype for PrintWeather() inside the Temperature class. Class prototypes serve the same role as function prototypes -- they tell the compiler what something looks like so it can be used now and defined later. However, unlike functions, classes have no return types or parameters, so class prototypes are always simply class ClassName, where ClassName is the name of the class.

Friend classes

It is also possible to make an entire class a friend of another class. This gives all of the members of the friend class access to the private members of the other class. Here is an example:

Because the Display class is a friend of Storage, any of Display’s members that use a Storage class object can access the private members of Storage directly. This program produces the following result:

6.7 5

A few additional notes on friend classes. First, even though Display is a friend of Storage, Display has no direct access to the *this pointer of Storage objects. Second, just because Display is a friend of Storage, that does not mean Storage is also a friend of Display. If you want two classes to be friends of each other, both must declare the other as a friend. Finally, if class A is a friend of B, and B is a friend of C, that does not mean A is a friend of C.

Be careful when using friend functions and classes, because it allows the friend function or class to violate encapsulation. If the details of the class change, the details of the friend will also be forced to change. Consequently, limit your use of friend functions and classes to a minimum.

Friend member functions

Instead of making an entire class a friend, you can make a single member function a friend. This is done similarly to making a normal function a friend, except using the name of the member function with the className:: prefix included (e.g. Display::displayItem).

However, in actuality, this can be a little trickier than expected. Let’s convert the previous example to make Display::displayItem a friend member function. You might try something like this:

However, it turns out this won’t work. In order to make a member function a friend, the compiler has to have seen the full definition for the class of the friend member function (not just a forward declaration). Since class Storage hasn’t seen the full definition for class Display yet, the compiler will error at the point where we try to make the member function a friend.

Fortunately, this is easily resolved simply by moving the definition of class Display before the definition of class Storage.

However, we now have another problem. Because member function Display::displayItem() uses Storage as a reference parameter, and we just moved the definition of Storage below the definition of Display, the compiler will complain it doesn’t know what a Storage is. We can’t fix this one by rearranging the definition order, because then we’ll undo our previous fix.

Fortunately, this is also fixable in a couple of simple steps. First, we can add class Storage as a forward declaration. Second, we can move the definition of Display::displayItem() out of the class, after the full definition of Storage class.

Here’s what this looks like:

Now everything will compile properly: the forward declaration of class Storage is enough to satisfy the declaration of Display::displayItem() inside the Display class, the full definition of Display satisfies declaring Display::displayItem() as a friend of Storage, and the full definition of class Storage is enough to satisfy the definition of member function Display::displayItem(). If that’s a bit confusing, see the comments in the program above.

If this seems like a pain -- it is. Fortunately, this dance is only necessary because we’re trying to do everything in a single file. A better solution is to put each class definition in a separate header file, with the member function definitions in corresponding .cpp files. That way, all of the class definitions would have been visible immediately in the .cpp files, and no rearranging of classes or functions is necessary!


A friend function or class is a function or class that can access the private members of another class as though it were a member of that class. This allows the friend or class to work intimately with the other class, without making the other class expose its private members (e.g. via access functions).

Friending is uncommonly used when two or more classes need to work together in an intimate way, or much more commonly, when defining overloading operators (which we’ll cover in chapter 9).

Note that making a specific member function a friend requires the full definition for the class of the member function to have been seen first.

Quiz time

1) In geometry, a point is a position in space. We can define a point in 3d-space as the set of coordinates x, y, and z. For example, the Point(2.0, 1.0, 0.0) would be the point at coordinate space x=2.0, y=1.0, and z=0.0.

In physics, a vector is a quantity that has a magnitude (length) and a direction (but no position). We can define a vector in 3d-space as an x, y, and z value representing the direction of the vector along the x, y, and z axis (the length can be derived from these). For example, the Vector(2.0, 0.0, 0.0) would be a vector representing a direction along the positive x-axis (only), with length 2.0.

A Vector can be applied to a Point to move the Point to a new position. This is done by adding the vector’s direction to the point’s position to yield a new position. For example, Point(2.0, 1.0, 0.0) + Vector(2.0, 0.0, 0.0) would yield the point (4.0, 1.0, 0.0).

Points and Vectors are often used in computer graphics (the point to represent vertices of shape, and vectors represent movement of the shape).

Given the following program:

1a) Make Point3d a friend class of Vector3d, and implement function Point3d::moveByVector()

Show Solution

1b) Instead of making class Point3d a friend of class Vector3d, make member function Point3d::moveByVector a friend of class Vector3d.

Show Solution

1c) Reimplement the solution to quiz question 1b using 5 separate files: Point3d.h, Point3d.cpp, Vector3d.h, Vector3d.cpp, and main.cpp.

Thanks to reader Shiva for the suggestion and solution.

Show Solution

8.14 -- Anonymous objects
8.12 -- Static member functions

184 comments to 8.13 — Friend functions and classes

  • Joseph

    Hi Alex,

    In your explanation of the friend member function, after the code was set properly:
    "Now everything will compile properly: the forward declaration of class Storage is enough to satisfy the declaration of Display::displayItem() inside the Display class, and the full definition of class Storage is enough to satisfy the definition of Display::displayItem()."

    Is it not the full definition of class Display satisfying the definition of Display::displayItem in being a friend of the Storage class?

  • Rex Lucas

    Hi Alex
    I have heard mention elsewhere of "helper functions". I notice you don’t mention them in any of your lessons. Are they relevant to C++? Are they perhaps somehow related to friend functions?

    • Alex

      A “helper function” isn’t a well-defined term. It usually refers to some function that isn’t meant to be called directly, but instead is called by other functions in order to help keep the code simpler (two simpler functions are better than one more complex function).

  • Serge Boucher

    Hi Alex,

    I’ve copied those 5 files into Code::Blocks 16.01 and got this error on line 9: undefined reference to ‘Point3d::print()’
    I got error on lines 10 and 11 as well. Could it be a configuration problem of the GNU GCC Compiler?



    Just out of curiosity. You defining the constructor and initializing the variables in the header file instead in the .cpp. Doesn’t that violate the One-Definition Rule if the header file is included in other files???

    • Alex

      Great question. The answer is no for two reasons:
      1) Types are exempt from the one-definition rule, and class definitions are user-defined types.
      2) Member functions defined inside a class definition are considered inline, thus avoiding duplicate definition issues altogether.

  • Like in your last quiz, I tried to make 3 different files (Class.h, Class.cpp, and main.cpp)

    Also I defined the constructor of "Class" in the Class.cpp file.

    But when I try to access the constructor inside the main.cpp , it gives and error.

    "undefined reference to ‘Class::Class()’

    I use CODE BLOCKS.

    please help.
    Thank you.

    • Alex

      Did you put the forward declaration for the constructor inside the class definition in the header file? e.g.

      in yourHeader.h:

  • John Halfyard

    For the multi-file (Q1c) version you have a lot more in your header file than I would have thought.

    You also start of the Point3d.h header file with the comment

    I thought header files are only used for declaration and the class *.cpp file is used for definition??

    • Alex

      This is a common point of confusion, and I haven’t found a great way to explain it yet.

      Generally, your header files should include:
      * Function and variable forward declarations (not definitions)
      * Templates
      * User-defined type definitions

      To use a class, in most cases a code file needs to see the full definition of the class (it’s not enough to see a forward declaration, because the forward declaration of a class doesn’t tell the compiler anything about what members or access controls the class has).

      This means the class has to be defined in the header, so that the definition can be properly propagated. Normally defining something (such as a function) in a header file would put your program at risk of violating the one definition rule -- but types are exempt, precisely because they need to be propagated this way.

  • Luhan

    My quiz answers was like yours, but during the last question something happened before I found the solution, in the Point3d.h file if I do this:

    The compiler says I’m trying to redefine it, and I searched a little, and found it the problem was probably because it was inserting it more than once in the main function, but don’t the Vector3d.h file does it as well(here the vector3d.h)?

    • Alex

      If Point3d.h #includes Vector3d.h, then if your main program #includes Point3d.h, you’ll get Point3d.h and Vector3d.h. This shouldn’t be a problem due to the header guards on both headers. If you ran into an issue, then most likely your header guards are incorrect, or you maybe tried to have the compiler compile a header file as if it were a code file.

  • Lim Che Ling

    Hi Alex,

    For this problem you mentioned: "Because member function Display::displayItem() uses Storage as a reference parameter, and we just moved the definition of Storage below the definition of Display, the compiler will complain it doesn’t know what a Storage is. "
    And the solution proposed has two steps: "First, we can add class Storage as a forward declaration. Second, we can move the definition of Display::displayItem() out of the class, after the full definition of Storage class." I thought only Step 1 will solve the problem?  There is no need to have step 2, right?

    • Alex

      No. The forward declaration for Storage allows Display to compile. The full definition of Display is needed to declare the friend function in Storage. The implementation of Display::displayItem requires having seen the full definition of the Storage class (otherwise it doesn’t know any details about the Storage class, such as which members exist or are accessible)

  • Lim Che Ling

    Hi, Alex,

    In the last example, the definition of Display::displayItem() is moved out of Display class (after class Storage) because "needs to have seen the full declaration of class Storage". I can’t figure out why does it need to see full declaration of class Storage? Is it due to parameter Storage &storage? If so, would not a forward declaration of class Storage would do? Or is it because the object storage needs to access private variables of Storage "storage.m_nValue" and "storage.m_dValue"?

    Also, I do not understand the Summary part "Note that making a class a friend only requires a forward declaration for the class". In the example in Friend Classes, the first class is Storage, followed by Display. In the class Storage, "friend class Display;" to make class Display a friend but you do not do forward declaration. Why the contradiction? I am confused. Thanks very much.

    • Alex

      I’m not sure I fully understand why friend member functions require the full definition and friend classes don’t.

      In reference to the last bit, the friend class statement serves as the forward declaration. I’ve removed the statement about needing a forward declaration for a friend class in the summary, because the effective result is that you don’t need to explicitly provide one.

  • Alexxx

    Should be

    Also in 8-15-chapter-8-comprehensive-quiz.

    • Alex

      There’s no such thing as a const void return value. I presume you mean function print() should be a const member function. Yes, it probably should (though it’s not necessary for these examples since we don’t create any const Point3d objects).

  • CrazyL

    Hello Alex,

    many thanks for your tutorial on "friend" declaration, finally one that lists not only the possibilities but also the quirks and dangers of the concept in a concise way! A question regarding quiz 1a (and the following) remains: Why not declare "v" as a const reference in "moveByVector()", i.e.

    As far as I learned here about const refs, there would be two benefits:
    1.) You can’t accidentally change v’s members in that function (possible, because all Point3d’s member functions are declared as friends of class Vector3d, at least in quiz 1a)

    2.) You could use R-values in expressions like this (did I use that term correctly here in combination with class objects?)

  • Lynsey Lehmann

    In the first example for "multiple friend functions" I am having difficultly understanding why it is necessary to define:
        Temperature(int temp=0) { m_temp = temp; }

        void setTemperature(int temp) { m_temp = temp; }

    when "void setTemperature" is unused for the rest of the program and only "friend void printWeather(const Temperature &temperature, const Humidity &humidity);" is used for setting both temperature and humidity. I am confused on how they are all related and necessary to each other in the example.

    • Alex

      The Temperature constructor is used to set the temperature when the object is created. setTemperature is an access function to let you change the temperature _after_ the object has been created. But since it’s not used in the example, I removed it. printWeather() doesn’t set the temp and humidity, it just takes a Temperature and Humidity object and prints the values -- which it can do directly, since it’s a friend of both classes.

  • OswyChow

    Hi Alex, i have a question that i hope isn’t stupid:

    Why in the solution to exercise 1c in main.cpp and Point3d.cpp we #include both "Point3d.h" and "Vector3d.h" when it’s enough to just #include "Vector3d.h" and have it #include "Point3d.h"?

    It’s not that big of a deal but we save one line of code in both main.cpp and Point3d.cpp this way and it seems that the code compiles just fine.

    Or perhaps i’m missing something?

    Here’s the code:






    Sorry for my bad english and thanks for everything, learning how to program was my biggest dream and you’re giving me the chance to make it happen!

    • Alex

      It’s a best practice to always include all of the headers a code file includes directly. You shouldn’t rely on headers to include other headers. That way, if the implementation of a header file changes in the future, your program won’t break.

  • Mohsen

    Hi alex.
    i have a problem. all codes i’ve wrote were pretty the same as solution. and i get this errors:

    1>---- Build started: Project: 8.13, Configuration: Debug Win32 ----
    1>  Vector3d.cpp
    1>c:usersmohsendesktopprojectschapters8.138.13vector3d.cpp(9): fatal error C1010: unexpected end of file while looking for precompiled header. Did you forget to add ‘#include "stdafx.h"’ to your source?
    1>  Point3d.cpp
    1>c:usersmohsendesktopprojectschapters8.138.13point3d.cpp(16): fatal error C1010: unexpected end of file while looking for precompiled header. Did you forget to add ‘#include "stdafx.h"’ to your source?
    1>  Generating Code…
    ========== Build: 0 succeeded, 1 failed, 0 up-to-date, 0 skipped ==========

    i even changed my codes by yours and still i cant build the program. i googled it and tried to find precompiled header section on C++ menu of my project properties, but there isn’t such thing in properties. i’m using VS2015 community

    • Alex

      You’re using precompiled headers with visual studio, so the first line of each of your code (.cpp) files should be:

      #include “stdafx.h”

  • Brad

    Is there any problem with considering the friend keyword similar to the use of the static keyword and the only difference is the necessity to add the scope resolution operator if using the static keyword?

    For example, I modified the Value example to use a static bool isEqual member function prototype and it still compiled and produced the expected result:

    Would this only be a peculiarity with this example only? Or can static really be considered another way of achieving just what friend can achieve, just a little more verbosely?

    Fantastic lessons, btw. I’m really enjoying them.

    • Alex

      They are pretty similar.

      Ordinary member functions get 3 things:
      * Access to private members
      * Are considered in the scope of the class
      * Must be invoked on an instance of the class

      Friends only get the first. Static members get both the first and the second.

      You’d generally use a friend function when you want non-member functions of the class to have access to private members of the class. This is most often used for operator overloading.
      You’d generally use a static function when you want a member function of a class to be accessible without needing to have an instance of that class.

      • Brad

        Thanks heaps, that answers all the questions I had perfectly. Thanks again for these lessons too, they’re an invaluable resource for someone like me.

  • Moj

    For exercise 1c I’ve copied and pasted just the same code as yours in VS2015, everything’s fine except that it gives this single error:   Error C2653    ‘Point3d’: is not a class or namespace name
    Would you please help?
    Thanks for great explanations.

  • Alexander Kindel

    In completing exercise c, I was surprised to find that it was mandatory to specify in the forward declaration of moveByVector that the parameter is a reference. Experimenting with

    seemed to suggest that whether of not the parameter is a reference counts for uniqueness for function overloading. Is that right? I guess I hadn’t considered before how overloading interacts with forward declaration.

    What I actually did to begin with was not include a name for the parameter in the forward declaration, but I suppose it’s impossible to do without one in this case because otherwise there’s no syntax for specifying that it’s a reference?

    • Alex

      Yes, you need to specify all the types, including whether they are pointers or references. You don’t need to specify the parameter name for forward declarations. If your parameter is a reference, you can do this:

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