6.7 — External linkage

In the prior lesson (%Failed lesson reference, id 9386%), we discussed how internal linkage limits the use of an identifier to a single file. In this lesson, we’ll explore the concept of external linkage.

An identifier with external linkage can be seen and used both from the file in which it is defined, and from other code files (via a forward declaration). In this sense, identifiers with external linkage are truly “global” in that they can be used anywhere in your program!

Functions have external linkage by default

In lesson 2.8 -- Programs with multiple code files, you learned that you can call a function defined in one file from another file. This is because functions have external linkage by default.

In order to call a function defined in another file, you must place a forward declaration for the function in any other files wishing to use the function. The forward declaration tells the compiler about the existence of the function, and the linker connects the function calls to the actual function definition.

Here’s an example:



The above program prints:


In the above example, the forward declaration of function sayHi() in main.cpp allows main.cpp to access the sayHi() function defined in a.cpp. The forward declaration satisfies the compiler, and the linker is able to link the function call to the function definition.

If function sayHi() had internal linkage instead, the linker would not be able to connect the function call to the function definition, and a linker error would result.

Global variables with external linkage

Global variables with external linkage are sometimes called external variables. To make a global variable external (and thus accessible by other files), we can use the extern keyword to do so:

Non-const global variables are external by default (if used, the extern keyword will be ignored).

Variable forward declarations via the extern keyword

To actually use an external global variable that has been defined in another file, you also must place a forward declaration for the global variable in any other files wishing to use the variable. For variables, creating a forward declaration is also done via the extern keyword (with no initialization value).

Here is an example of using a variable forward declaration:



In the above example, a.cpp and main.cpp both reference the same global variable named g_x. So even though g_x is defined and initialized in a.cpp, we are able to use its value in main.cpp via the forward declaration of g_x.

Note that the extern keyword has different meanings in different contexts. In some contexts, extern means “give this variable external linkage”. In other contexts, extern means “this is a forward declaration for an external variable that is defined somewhere else”. Yes, this is confusing, so we summarize all of these usages in lesson 6.3 -- Global variables with internal linkage.


If you want to define an uninitialized non-const global variable, do not use the extern keyword, otherwise C++ will think you’re trying to make a forward declaration for the variable.


Although constexpr variables can be given external linkage via the extern keyword, they can not be forward declared, so there is no value in giving them external linkage.

Note that function forward declarations don’t need the extern keyword -- the compiler is able to tell whether you’re defining a new function or making a forward declaration based on whether you supply a function body or not. Variables forward declarations do need the extern keyword to help differentiate variables definitions from variable forward declarations (they look otherwise identical):

File scope vs. global scope

The terms “file scope” and “global scope” tend to cause confusion, and this is partly due to the way they are informally used. Technically, in C++, all global variables have “file scope”, and the linkage property controls whether they can be used in other files or not.

Consider the following program:



Variable g_x has file scope within global.cpp -- it can be used from the point of definition to the end of the file, but it can not be directly seen outside of global.cpp.

Inside main.cpp, the forward declaration of g_x also has file scope -- it can be used from the point of declaration to the end of the file.

However, informally, the term “file scope” is more often applied to global variables with internal linkage, and “global scope” to global variables with external linkage (since they can be used across the whole program, with the appropriate forward declarations).

Quick summary

We provide a comprehensive summary in lesson 6.3 -- Global variables with internal linkage.

Quiz time

Question #1

What’s the difference between a variable’s scope, duration, and linkage? What kind of scope, duration, and linkage do global variables have?

Show Solution

6.9 -- Why (non-const) global variables are evil
6.6 -- Internal linkage