What References Do

There are three basic operations performed using references: assigning by reference, passing by reference, and returning by reference. This section will give an introduction to these operations, with links for further reading.

Assign By Reference

In the first of these, PHP references allow you to make two variables refer to the same content. Meaning, when you do:

<?php
$a 
=& $b;
?>
it means that $a and $b point to the same content.

Note:

$a and $b are completely equal here. $a is not pointing to $b or vice versa. $a and $b are pointing to the same place.

Note:

If you assign, pass, or return an undefined variable by reference, it will get created.

Example #1 Using references with undefined variables

<?php
function foo(&$var) { }

foo($a); // $a is "created" and assigned to null

$b = array();
foo($b['b']);
var_dump(array_key_exists('b'$b)); // bool(true)

$c = new StdClass;
foo($c->d);
var_dump(property_exists($c'd')); // bool(true)
?>

The same syntax can be used with functions that return references, and with the new operator (since PHP 4.0.4 and before PHP 5.0.0):

<?php
$foo 
=& find_var($bar);
?>
Since PHP 5, new returns a reference automatically, so using =& in this context is deprecated and produces an E_DEPRECATED message in PHP 5.3 and later, and an E_STRICT message in earlier versions. As of PHP 7.0 it is syntactically invalid. (Technically, the difference is that, in PHP 5, object variables, much like resources, are a mere pointer to the actual object data, so these object references are not "references" in the same sense used before (aliases). For more information, see Objects and references.)

Warning

If you assign a reference to a variable declared global inside a function, the reference will be visible only inside the function. You can avoid this by using the $GLOBALS array.

Example #2 Referencing global variables inside functions

<?php
$var1 
"Example variable";
$var2 "";

function 
global_references($use_globals)
{
    global 
$var1$var2;
    if (!
$use_globals) {
        
$var2 =& $var1// visible only inside the function
    
} else {
        
$GLOBALS["var2"] =& $var1// visible also in global context
    
}
}

global_references(false);
echo 
"var2 is set to '$var2'\n"// var2 is set to ''
global_references(true);
echo 
"var2 is set to '$var2'\n"// var2 is set to 'Example variable'
?>
Think about global $var; as a shortcut to $var =& $GLOBALS['var'];. Thus assigning another reference to $var only changes the local variable's reference.

Note:

If you assign a value to a variable with references in a foreach statement, the references are modified too.

Example #3 References and foreach statement

<?php
$ref 
0;
$row =& $ref;
foreach (array(
123) as $row) {
    
// do something
}
echo 
$ref// 3 - last element of the iterated array
?>

While not being strictly an assignment by reference, expressions created with the language construct array() can also behave as such by prefixing & to the array element to add. Example:

<?php
$a 
1;
$b = array(23);
$arr = array(&$a, &$b[0], &$b[1]);
$arr[0]++; $arr[1]++; $arr[2]++;
/* $a == 2, $b == array(3, 4); */
?>

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. Example:

<?php
/* Assignment of scalar variables */
$a 1;
$b =& $a;
$c $b;
$c 7//$c is not a reference; no change to $a or $b

/* Assignment of array variables */
$arr = array(1);
$a =& $arr[0]; //$a and $arr[0] are in the same reference set
$arr2 $arr//not an assignment-by-reference!
$arr2[0]++;
/* $a == 2, $arr == array(2) */
/* The contents of $arr are changed even though it's not a reference! */
?>
In other words, the reference behavior of arrays is defined in an element-by-element basis; the reference behavior of individual elements is dissociated from the reference status of the array container.

Pass By Reference

The second thing references do is to pass variables by reference. This is done by making a local variable in a function and a variable in the calling scope referencing the same content. Example:

<?php
function foo(&$var)
{
    
$var++;
}

$a=5;
foo($a);
?>
will make $a to be 6. This happens because in the function foo the variable $var refers to the same content as $a. For more information on this, read the passing by reference section.

Return By Reference

The third thing references can do is return by reference.

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User Contributed Notes 22 notes

up
25
ladoo at gmx dot at
12 years ago
I ran into something when using an expanded version of the example of pbaltz at NO_SPAM dot cs dot NO_SPAM dot wisc dot edu below.
This could be somewhat confusing although it is perfectly clear if you have read the manual carfully. It makes the fact that references always point to the content of a variable perfectly clear (at least to me).

<?php
$a
= 1;
$c = 2;
$b =& $a; // $b points to 1
$a =& $c; // $a points now to 2, but $b still to 1;
echo $a, " ", $b;
// Output: 2 1
?>
up
14
elrah [] polyptych [dot] com
6 years ago
It appears that references can have side-effects.  Below are two examples.  Both are simply copying one array to another.  In the second example, a reference is made to a value in the first array before the copy.  In the first example the value at index 0 points to two separate memory locations. In the second example, the value at index 0 points to the same memory location.

I won't say this is a bug, because I don't know what the designed behavior of PHP is, but I don't think ANY developers would expect this behavior, so look out.

An example of where this could cause problems is if you do an array copy in a script and expect on type of behavior, but then later add a reference to a value in the array earlier in the script, and then find that the array copy behavior has unexpectedly changed.

<?php
// Example one
$arr1 = array(1);
echo
"\nbefore:\n";
echo
"\$arr1[0] == {$arr1[0]}\n";
$arr2 = $arr1;
$arr2[0]++;
echo
"\nafter:\n";
echo
"\$arr1[0] == {$arr1[0]}\n";
echo
"\$arr2[0] == {$arr2[0]}\n";

// Example two
$arr3 = array(1);
$a =& $arr3[0];
echo
"\nbefore:\n";
echo
"\$a == $a\n";
echo
"\$arr3[0] == {$arr3[0]}\n";
$arr4 = $arr3;
$arr4[0]++;
echo
"\nafter:\n";
echo
"\$a == $a\n";
echo
"\$arr3[0] == {$arr3[0]}\n";
echo
"\$arr4[0] == {$arr4[0]}\n";
?>
up
10
Hlavac
10 years ago
Watch out for this:

foreach ($somearray as &$i) {
  // update some $i...
}
...
foreach ($somearray as $i) {
  // last element of $somearray is mysteriously overwritten!
}

Problem is $i contians reference to last element of $somearray after the first foreach, and the second foreach happily assigns to it!
up
4
nay at woodcraftsrus dot com
6 years ago
in PHP you don't really need pointer anymore if you want to share an  object across your program

<?php
class foo{
        protected
$name;
        function
__construct($str){
               
$this->name = $str;
        }
        function
__toString(){
                return 
'my name is "'. $this->name .'" and I live in "' . __CLASS__ . '".' . "\n";
        }
        function
setName($str){
               
$this->name = $str;
        }
}

class
MasterOne{
        protected
$foo;
        function
__construct($f){
               
$this->foo = $f;
        }
        function
__toString(){
                return
'Master: ' . __CLASS__ . ' | foo: ' . $this->foo . "\n";
        }
        function
setFooName($str){
               
$this->foo->setName( $str );
        }
}

class
MasterTwo{
        protected
$foo;
        function
__construct($f){
               
$this->foo = $f;
        }
        function
__toString(){
                return
'Master: ' . __CLASS__ . ' | foo: ' . $this->foo . "\n";
        }
        function
setFooName($str){
               
$this->foo