What’s the difference between struct and class in .NET?

In .NET, there are two categories of types, reference types and value types.

Structs are value types and classes are reference types.

The general difference is that a reference type lives on the heap, and a value type lives inline, that is, wherever it is your variable or field is defined.

A variable containing a value type contains the entire value type value. For a struct, that means that the variable contains the entire struct, with all its fields.

A variable containing a reference type contains a pointer, or a reference to somewhere else in memory where the actual value resides.

This has one benefit, to begin with:

  • value types always contains a value
  • reference types can contain a null-reference, meaning that they don’t refer to anything at all at the moment

Internally, reference types are implemented as pointers, and knowing that, and knowing how variable assignment works, there are other behavioral patterns:

  • copying the contents of a value type variable into another variable, copies the entire contents into the new variable, making the two distinct. In other words, after the copy, changes to one won’t affect the other
  • copying the contents of a reference type variable into another variable, copies the reference, which means you now have two references to the same somewhere else storage of the actual data. In other words, after the copy, changing the data in one reference will appear to affect the other as well, but only because you’re really just looking at the same data both places

When you declare variables or fields, here’s how the two types differ:

  • variable: value type lives on the stack, reference type lives on the stack as a pointer to somewhere in heap memory where the actual memory lives (though note Eric Lipperts article series: The Stack Is An Implementation Detail.)
  • class/struct-field: value type lives completely inside the type, reference type lives inside the type as a pointer to somewhere in heap memory where the actual memory lives.

A short summary of each:

Classes Only:

  • Can support inheritance
  • Are reference (pointer) types
  • The reference can be null
  • Have memory overhead per new instance

Structs Only:

  • Cannot support inheritance
  • Are value types
  • Are passed by value (like integers)
  • Cannot have a null reference (unless Nullable is used)
  • Do not have a memory overhead per new instance – unless ‘boxed’

Both Classes and Structs:

  • Are compound data types typically used to contain a few variables that have some logical relationship
  • Can contain methods and events
  • Can support interfaces

Code Example

When you pass round a reference type there is only one actually stored. All the code that accesses the instance is accessing the same one.

When you pass round a value type each one is a copy. All the code is working on its own copy.

This can be shown with an example:

struct MyStruct 
{
    string MyProperty { get; set; }
}

void ChangeMyStruct(MyStruct input) 
{ 
   input.MyProperty = "new value";
}

...

// Create value type
MyStruct testStruct = new MyStruct { MyProperty = "initial value" }; 

ChangeMyStruct(testStruct);

// Value of testStruct.MyProperty is still "initial value"
// - the method changed a new copy of the structure.

For a class this would be different

class MyClass 
{
    string MyProperty { get; set; }
}

void ChangeMyClass(MyClass input) 
{ 
   input.MyProperty = "new value";
}

...

// Create reference type
MyClass testClass = new MyClass { MyProperty = "initial value" };

ChangeMyClass(testClass);

// Value of testClass.MyProperty is now "new value" 
// - the method changed the instance passed.
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