C++ File I/O


C++ file I/O is done via streams. The key abstractions are:

std::istream for reading text.

std::ostream for writing text.

std::streambuf for reading or writing characters.

Formatted input uses operator>>.

Formatted output uses operator<<.

Streams use std::locale, e.g., for details of the formatting and for translation between external encodings and the internal encoding.

More on streams: <iostream> Library

Opening a file

Opening a file is done in the same way for all 3 file streams (ifstream, ofstream, and fstream).

You can open the file directly in the constructor:

std::ifstream ifs("foo.txt");  // ifstream: Opens file "foo.txt" for reading only.

std::ofstream ofs("foo.txt");  // ofstream: Opens file "foo.txt" for writing only.

std::fstream iofs("foo.txt");  // fstream:  Opens file "foo.txt" for reading and writing.

Alternatively, you can use the file stream's member function open():

std::ifstream ifs;
ifs.open("bar.txt");           // ifstream: Opens file "bar.txt" for reading only.

std::ofstream ofs;
ofs.open("bar.txt");           // ofstream: Opens file "bar.txt" for writing only.

std::fstream iofs;
iofs.open("bar.txt");          // fstream:  Opens file "bar.txt" for reading and writing.

You should always check if a file has been opened successfully (even when writing). Failures can include: the file doesn't exist, file hasn't the right access rights, file is already in use, disk errors occurred, drive disconnected ... Checking can be done as follows:

// Try to read the file 'foo.txt'.
std::ifstream ifs("fooo.txt");  // Note the typo; the file can't be opened.

// Check if the file has been opened successfully.
if (!ifs.is_open()) {
    // The file hasn't been opened; take appropriate actions here.
    throw CustomException(ifs, "File could not be opened");

When file path contains backslashes (for example, on Windows system) you should properly escape them:

// Open the file 'c:\folder\foo.txt' on Windows.
std::ifstream ifs("c:\\folder\\foo.txt"); // using escaped backslashes

or use raw literal:

// Open the file 'c:\folder\foo.txt' on Windows.
std::ifstream ifs(R"(c:\folder\foo.txt)"); // using raw literal

or use forward slashes instead:

// Open the file 'c:\folder\foo.txt' on Windows.
std::ifstream ifs("c:/folder/foo.txt");

If you want to open file with non-ASCII characters in path on Windows currently you can use non-standard wide character path argument:

// Open the file 'пример\foo.txt' on Windows.
std::ifstream ifs(LR"(пример\foo.txt)"); // using wide characters with raw literal

Reading from a file

There are several ways to read data from a file.

If you know how the data is formatted, you can use the stream extraction operator (>>). Let's assume you have a file named foo.txt which contains the following data:

John Doe 25 4 6 1987
Jane Doe 15 5 24 1976

Then you can use the following code to read that data from the file:

// Define variables.
std::ifstream is("foo.txt");
std::string firstname, lastname;
int age, bmonth, bday, byear;

// Extract firstname, lastname, age, bday month, bday day, and bday year in that order.
// Note: '>>' returns false if it reached EOF (end of file) or if the input data doesn't
// correspond to the type of the input variable (for example, the string "foo" can't be
// extracted into an 'int' variable).
while (is >> firstname >> lastname >> age >> bmonth >> bday >> byear)
    // Process the data that has been read.

The stream extraction operator >> extracts every character and stops if it finds a character that can't be stored or if it is a special character:

  • For string types, the operator stops at a whitespace () or at a newline (\n).
  • For numbers, the operator stops at a non-number character.

This means that the following version of the file foo.txt will also be successfully read by the previous code:

Doe 25
4 6 1987

15 5

The stream extraction operator >> always returns the stream given to it. Therefore, multiple operators can be chained together in order to read data consecutively. However, a stream can also be used as a Boolean expression (as shown in the while loop in the previous code). This is because the stream classes have a conversion operator for the type bool. This bool() operator will return true as long as the stream has no errors. If a stream goes into an error state (for example, because no more data can be extracted), then the bool() operator will return false. Therefore, the while loop in the previous code will be exited after the input file has been read to its end.

If you wish to read an entire file as a string, you may use the following code:

// Opens 'foo.txt'.
std::ifstream is("foo.txt");
std::string whole_file;

// Sets position to the end of the file.
is.seekg(0, std::ios::end);

// Reserves memory for the file.

// Sets position to the start of the file.
is.seekg(0, std::ios::beg);

// Sets contents of 'whole_file' to all characters in the file.

This code reserves space for the string in order to cut down on unneeded memory allocations.

If you want to read a file line by line, you can use the function getline():

std::ifstream is("foo.txt");   

// The function getline returns false if there are no more lines.
for (std::string str; std::getline(is, str);) {
    // Process the line that has been read.

If you want to read a fixed number of characters, you can use the stream's member function read():

std::ifstream is("foo.txt");
char str[4];

// Read 4 characters from the file.
is.read(str, 4);

After executing a read command, you should always check if the error state flag failbit has been set, as it indicates whether the operation failed or not. This can be done by calling the file stream's member function fail():

is.read(str, 4); // This operation might fail for any reason.

if (is.fail())
    // Failed to read!

Writing to a file

There are several ways to write to a file. The easiest way is to use an output file stream (ofstream) together with the stream insertion operator (<<):

std::ofstream os("foo.txt");
    os << "Hello World!";

Instead of <<, you can also use the output file stream's member function write():

std::ofstream os("foo.txt");
    char data[] = "Foo";

    // Writes 3 characters from data -> "Foo".
    os.write(data, 3);

After writing to a stream, you should always check if error state flag badbit has been set, as it indicates whether the operation failed or not. This can be done by calling the output file stream's member function bad():

os << "Hello Badbit!"; // This operation might fail for any reason.
if (os.bad())
    // Failed to write!

Opening modes

When creating a file stream, you can specify an opening mode. An opening mode is basically a setting to control how the stream opens the file.

(All modes can be found in the std::ios namespace.)

An opening mode can be provided as second parameter to the constructor of a file stream or to its open() member function:

std::ofstream os("foo.txt", std::ios::out | std::ios::trunc);

std::ifstream is;
is.open("foo.txt", std::ios::in | std::ios::binary);

It is to be noted that you have to set ios::in or ios::out if you want to set other flags as they are not implicitly set by the iostream members although they have a correct default value.

If you don't specify an opening mode, then the following default modes are used:

  • ifstream - in
  • ofstream - out
  • fstream - in and out

The file opening modes that you may specify by design are:

appappendOutputAppends data at the end of the file.
binarybinaryInput/OutputInput and output is done in binary.
ininputInputOpens the file for reading.
outoutputOutputOpens the file for writing.
trunctruncateInput/OutputRemoves contents of the file when opening.
ateat endInputGoes to the end of the file when opening.

Note: Setting the binary mode lets the data be read/written exactly as-is; not setting it enables the translation of the newline '\n' character to/from a platform specific end of line sequence.

For example on Windows the end of line sequence is CRLF ("\r\n").
Write: "\n" => "\r\n"
Read: "\r\n" => "\n"

Closing a file

Explicitly closing a file is rarely necessary in C++, as a file stream will automatically close its associated file in its destructor. However, you should try to limit the lifetime of a file stream object, so that it does not keep the file handle open longer than necessary. For example, this can be done by putting all file operations into an own scope ({}):

std::string const prepared_data = prepare_data();
    // Open a file for writing.
    std::ofstream output("foo.txt");

    // Write data.
    output << prepared_data;
}  // The ofstream will go out of scope here.
   // Its destructor will take care of closing the file properly.

Calling close() explicitly is only necessary if you want to reuse the same fstream object later, but don't want to keep the file open in between:

// Open the file "foo.txt" for the first time.
std::ofstream output("foo.txt");

// Get some data to write from somewhere.
std::string const prepared_data = prepare_data();

// Write data to the file "foo.txt".
output << prepared_data;

// Close the file "foo.txt".

// Preparing data might take a long time. Therefore, we don't open the output file stream
// before we actually can write some data to it.
std::string const more_prepared_data = prepare_complex_data();

// Open the file "foo.txt" for the second time once we are ready for writing.

// Write the data to the file "foo.txt".
output << more_prepared_data;

// Close the file "foo.txt" once again.

Flushing a stream

File streams are buffered by default, as are many other types of streams. This means that writes to the stream may not cause the underlying file to change immediately. In oder to force all buffered writes to take place immediately, you can flush the stream. You can do this either directly by invoking the flush() method or through the std::flush stream manipulator:

std::ofstream os("foo.txt");
os << "Hello World!" << std::flush;

char data[3] = "Foo";
os.write(data, 3);

There is a stream manipulator std::endl that combines writing a newline with flushing the stream:

// Both following lines do the same thing
os << "Hello World!\n" << std::flush;
os << "Hello world!" << std::endl;

Buffering can improve the performance of writing to a stream. Therefore, applications that do a lot of writing should avoid flushing unnecessarily. Contrary, if I/O is done infrequently, applications should consider flushing frequently in order to avoid data getting stuck in the stream object.

Reading an ASCII file into a std::string

std::ifstream f("file.txt");

if (f)
  std::stringstream buffer;
  buffer << f.rdbuf();

  // The content of "file.txt" is available in the string `buffer.str()`

The rdbuf() method returns a pointer to a streambuf that can be pushed into buffer via the stringstream::operator<< member function.

Another possibility (popularized in Effective STL by Scott Meyers) is:

std::ifstream f("file.txt");

if (f)
  std::string str((std::istreambuf_iterator<char>(f)),

  // Operations on `str`...

This is nice because requires little code (and allows reading a file directly into any STL container, not only strings) but can be slow for big files.

NOTE: the extra parentheses around the first argument to the string constructor are essential to prevent the most vexing parse problem.

Last but not least:

std::ifstream f("file.txt");

if (f)
  f.seekg(0, std::ios::end);
  const auto size = f.tellg();

  std::string str(size, ' ');
  f.read(&str[0], size); 

  // Operations on `str`...

which is probably the fastest option (among the three proposed).

Reading a file into a container

In the example below we use std::string and operator>> to read items from the file.

    std::ifstream file("file3.txt");

    std::vector<std::string>  v;

    std::string s;
    while(file >> s) // keep reading until we run out

In the above example we are simply iterating through the file reading one "item" at a time using operator>>. This same affect can be achieved using the std::istream_iterator which is an input iterator that reads one "item" at a time from the stream. Also most containers can be constructed using two iterators so we can simplify the above code to:

    std::ifstream file("file3.txt");

    std::vector<std::string>  v(std::istream_iterator<std::string>{file},

We can extend this to read any object types we like by simply specifying the object we want to read as the template parameter to the std::istream_iterator. Thus we can simply extend the above to read lines (rather than words) like this:

// Unfortunately there is  no built in type that reads line using >>
// So here we build a simple helper class to do it. That will convert
// back to a string when used in string context.
struct Line
    // Store data here
    std::string data;
    // Convert object to string
    operator std::string const&() const {return data;}
    // Read a line from a stream.
    friend std::istream& operator>>(std::istream& stream, Line& line)
        return std::getline(stream, line.data);

    std::ifstream file("file3.txt");

    // Read the lines of a file into a container.
    std::vector<std::string>  v(std::istream_iterator<Line>{file},

Reading a `struct` from a formatted text file.

struct info_type
    std::string name;
    int age;
    float height;
    // we define an overload of operator>> as a friend function which
    // gives in privileged access to private data members 
    friend std::istream& operator>>(std::istream& is, info_type& info)
        // skip whitespace
        is >> std::ws;
        std::getline(is, info.name);
        is >> info.age;
        is >> info.height;
        return is;

void func4()
    auto file = std::ifstream("file4.txt");

    std::vector<info_type> v;

    for(info_type info; file >> info;) // keep reading until we run out
        // we only get here if the read succeeded

    for(auto const& info: v)
        std::cout << "  name: " << info.name << '\n';
        std::cout << "   age: " << info.age << " years" << '\n';
        std::cout << "height: " << info.height << "lbs" << '\n';
        std::cout << '\n';


Wogger Wabbit
Bilbo Baggins
Mary Poppins


name: Wogger Wabbit
 age: 2 years
height: 6.2lbs

name: Bilbo Baggins
 age: 111 years
height: 81.3lbs

name: Mary Poppins
 age: 29 years
height: 154.8lbs

Copying a file

std::ifstream  src("source_filename", std::ios::binary);
std::ofstream  dst("dest_filename",   std::ios::binary);
dst << src.rdbuf();

With C++17 the standard way to copy a file is including the <filesystem> header and using copy_file:

std::fileystem::copy_file("source_filename", "dest_filename");

The filesystem library was originally developed as boost.filesystem and finally merged to ISO C++ as of C++17.

Checking end of file inside a loop condition, bad practice?

eof returns true only after reading the end of file. It does NOT indicate that the next read will be the end of stream.

while (!f.eof())
  // Everything is OK

  f >> buffer;

  // What if *only* now the eof / fail bit is set?

  /* Use `buffer` */

You could correctly write:

while (!f.eof()) 
  f >> buffer >> std::ws;

  if (f.fail())

  /* Use `buffer` */


while (f >> buffer)
  /* Use `buffer` */

is simpler and less error prone.

Further references:

  • std::ws: discards leading whitespace from an input stream
  • std::basic_ios::fail: returns true if an error has occurred on the associated stream

Writing files with non-standard locale settings

If you need to write a file using different locale settings to the default, you can use std::locale and std::basic_ios::imbue() to do that for a specific file stream:

Guidance for use:

  • You should always apply a local to a stream before opening the file.
  • Once the stream has been imbued you should not change the locale.

Reasons for Restrictions: Imbuing a file stream with a locale has undefined behavior if the current locale is not state independent or not pointing at the beginning of the file.

UTF-8 streams (and others) are not state independent. Also a file stream with a UTF-8 locale may try and read the BOM marker from the file when it is opened; so just opening the file may read characters from the file and it will not be at the beginning.

#include <iostream>
#include <fstream>
#include <locale>

int main()
  std::cout << "User-preferred locale setting is "
            << std::locale("").name().c_str() << std::endl;

  // Write a floating-point value using the user's preferred locale.
  std::ofstream ofs1;
  ofs1 << 78123.456 << std::endl;

  // Use a specific locale (names are system-dependent)
  std::ofstream ofs2;
  ofs2 << 78123.456 << std::endl;

  // Switch to the classic "C" locale
  std::ofstream ofs3;
  ofs3 << 78123.456 << std::endl;

Explicitly switching to the classic "C" locale is useful if your program uses a different default locale and you want to ensure a fixed standard for reading and writing files. With a "C" preferred locale, the example writes


If, for example, the preferred locale is German and hence uses a different number format, the example writes

78 123,456

(note the decimal comma in the first line).