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PHP References


  • $foo = 1; $bar = &$foo; // both $foo and $bar point to the same value: 1
  • $var = 1; function calc(&$var) { $var *= 15; } calc($var); echo $var;


While assigning two variables by reference, both variables point to the same value. Take the following example:

$foo = 1;
$bar = &$foo;

$foo does not point to $bar. $foo and $bar both point to the same value of $foo, which is 1. To illustrate:

$baz = &$bar;

If we had a points to relationship, this would be broken now after the unset(); instead, $foo and $baz still point to the same value, which is 2.

Assign by Reference

This is the first phase of referencing. Essentially when you assign by reference, you're allowing two variables to share the same value as such.

$foo = &$bar;

$foo and $bar are equal here. They do not point to one another. They point to the same place (the "value").

You can also assign by reference within the array() language construct. While not strictly being an assignment by reference.

$foo = 'hi';
$bar = array(1, 2);
$array = array(&$foo, &$bar[0]);

Note, however, that references inside arrays are potentially dangerous. Doing a normal (not by reference) assignment with a reference on the right side does not turn the left side into a reference, but references inside arrays are preserved in these normal assignments. This also applies to function calls where the array is passed by value.

Assigning by reference is not only limited to variables and arrays, they are also present for functions and all "pass-by-reference" associations.

function incrementArray(&$arr) {
    foreach ($arr as &$val) {

function &getArray() {
    static $arr = [1, 2, 3];
    return $arr;

var_dump(getArray()); // prints an array [2, 3, 4]

Assignment is key within the function definition as above. You can not pass an expression by reference, only a value/variable. Hence the instantiation of $a in bar().

Return by Reference

Occasionally there comes time for you to implicitly return-by-reference.

Returning by reference is useful when you want to use a function to find to which variable a reference should be bound. Do not use return-by-reference to increase performance. The engine will automatically optimize this on its own. Only return references when you have a valid technical reason to do so.

Taken from the PHP Documentation for Returning By Reference.

There are many different forms return by reference can take, including the following example:

function parent(&$var) {
    echo $var;
    $var = "updated";

function &child() {
    static $a = "test";
    return $a;

parent(child()); // returns "test"
parent(child()); // returns "updated"

Return by reference is not only limited to function references. You also have the ability to implicitly call the function:

function &myFunction() {
    static $a = 'foo';
    return $a;

$bar = &myFunction();
$bar = "updated"
echo myFunction();

You cannot directly reference a function call, it has to be assigned to a variable before harnessing it. To see how that works, simply try echo &myFunction();.


  • You are required to specify a reference (&) in both places you intend on using it. That means, for your function definition (function &myFunction() {...) and in the calling reference (function callFunction(&$variable) {... or &myFunction();).
  • You can only return a variable by reference. Hence the instantiation of $a in the example above. This means you can not return an expression, otherwise an E_NOTICE PHP error will be generated (Notice: Only variable references should be returned by reference in ......).
  • Return by reference does have legitimate use cases, but I should warn that they should be used sparingly, only after exploring all other potential options of achieving the same goal.

Pass by Reference

This allows you to pass a variable by reference to a function or element that allows you to modify the original variable.

Passing-by-reference is not limited to variables only, the following can also be passed by reference:

  • New statements, e.g. foo(new SomeClass)
  • References returned from functions


A common use of "passing-by-reference" is to modify initial values within an array without going to the extent of creating new arrays or littering your namespace. Passing-by-reference is as simple as preceding/prefixing the variable with an & => &$myElement.

Below is an example of harnessing an element from an array and simply adding 1 to its initial value.

$arr = array(1, 2, 3, 4, 5);

foreach($arr as &$num) {

Now when you harness any element within $arr, the original element will be updated as the reference was increased. You can verify this by:



You should take note when harnessing pass by reference within loops. At the end of the above loop, $num still holds a reference to the last element of the array. Assigning it post loop will end up manipulating the last array element! You can ensure this doesn't happen by unset()'ing it post-loop:

$myArray = array(1, 2, 3, 4, 5);

foreach($myArray as &$num) {

The above will ensure you don't run into any issues. An example of issues that could relate from this is present in this question on StackOverflow.


Another common usage for passing-by-reference is within functions. Modifying the original variable is as simple as:

$var = 5;
// define
function add(&$var) {
// call

Which can be verified by echo'ing the original variable.

echo $var;

There are various restrictions around functions, as noted below from the PHP docs:

Note: There is no reference sign on a function call - only on function definitions. Function definitions alone are enough to correctly pass the argument by reference. As of PHP 5.3.0, you will get a warning saying that "call-time pass-by-reference" is deprecated when you use & in foo(&$a);. And as of PHP 5.4.0, call-time pass-by-reference was removed, so using it will raise a fatal error.

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