6.1. File Handling

File handling in C++ also uses a stream in a similar way to the cout and cin functions of <iostream>. The library that allows for input and output of files is <fstream>.

You must declare any file streams before you use them to read and write data. For example, the following statements inform the compiler to create a stream called in_stream that is an input-file-stream object, <ifstream>, and another called out_stream that is an output-file-stream object, <ofstream>.

ifstream in_stream;
ofstream out_stream;

6.2. Member Functions and Precision

A function that is associated with a certain type of object is called a member function of that object. You have already used member functions setf(...) and precision(...) for formatting our output streams using cout. These functions are included briefly below:

// Use cout's member function "set flags", called setf
// The arguement here means to use a fixed point rather than scientific notation

// Use cout's setf function again, but this time
// The arguement tells cout to show the decimal point

// Use cout's member function, called Precision
// The arguement indicated to display 2 digits of precision

6.3. File Operations

Having created a stream with the declaration above, we can connect it to a file (i.e. open the file) using the member function open(filename). For example, the following statement will allow the C++ program to open the file called “myFile.txt”, assuming a file named that exists in the current directory, and connect in_stream to the beginning of the file:


Once connected, the program can read from that file. Pictorially, this is what happens:


the <ostream> class also has an open(filename) member function, but it is defined differently. Consider the following statement:


Pictorally, we get a stream of data flowing out of the program:


Because out_stream is an object of type <ostream>, connecting it to the file named “anotherFile.txt” will create that file if it does not exist. If the file “anotherFile.txt” already exists, it will be wiped and replaced with whatever is fed into the output stream.

To disconnect the ifstream in_stream from whatever file it opened, we use it’s close() member function:


To close the file for out_stream, we use its close() function, which also adds an end-of-file marker to indicate where the end of the file is:


6.4. Dealing with I/O Failures

File operations, such as opening and closing files, are often a source of runtime errors for various reasons. Well-written programs always should include error checking and Handling routines for possible problems dealing with files. Error checking and handling generally involves the programmer inserting statements in functions that perform I/O to check if any of the operations have failed. In C (the predecessor to C++), the system call to open a file returns a value after the function is called. A negative number means the operation failed for some reason, which the program can check to see if reading from a file is alright. In C++, a simple error checking mechanism is provided by the member function fail():


This function returns true only if the previous stream operation for in_stream was not successful, such as if we tried to open a non-existent file. If a failure has occured, in_stream may be in a corrupted state and it is best not to attempt any more operations with it.

The following example code fragment safely quits the program entirely in case an I/O operation fails:

After opening the “myFile.txt” file, the if conditional checks to see if there was an error. If so, the program will output the apologetic error message and then exit. The exit(1) function from the library cstdlib enables the program to terminate at that point and have it return a “1” versus a “0”, indicating an Error has occurred.

For more on Error Handling, see section 1.11.

6.5. Reading and Writing with File Streams

As file I/O streams work in a similar way to cin and cout, the operators “>>” and “<<” perform the same direction of data for files, with the exact same syntax.

For example, execution of the following statement will write the number 25, a space, the number 15, and another space into the out_stream output stream.

out_stream << 25 << ' ';
out_stream << 15 << ' ';

The extra space after the value 25 is important because data in a text file is typically seperated by a space, tab, or newline. Without the space, the value 2515 will be placed in the file, and subsequent read operations on that file would consider 2515 as a single value. For example, suppose that after the previous statement, the program opens the same file with the input stream in_stream. The following statement would put the number 25 into the variable inputn.

int inputn;
in_stream >> inputn;

6.6. The End-Of-File (EOF) for Systems that Implement eof()

So far, the assumption was that the programmer knew exactly how much data to read from an open file. However, it is common for a program to keep reading from a file without any idea how much data exists. Most versions of C++ incorporate an end-of-file (EOF) flag at the end of the file to let programs know when to stop. Otherwise, they could read data from a different file that happened to be right after it in the hard drive, which can be disastrous.

Many development environments have I/O libraries that define how the member function eof() works for ifstream variables to test if this flag is set to true or false. Typically, one would like to know when the EOF has not been reached, so a common way is a negative boolean value. An alternative implementation is to keep reading using the >> operator; if that operation was successful (i.e. there was something in the file that was read), this success is interpreted as a 1 (true).

Incidentally, that is why if you forget the second equals sign in a comparison between a variable and a value, you are assigning the value to the variable, which is a successful operation, which means the condition ends up evaluating to true.

The following two code fragments highlight the possibilities:

Using the eof() member function

while(!in_stream.eof()) {
    // statements to execute
    // while EOF has not been
    // reached

Using the >> operator

while(in_stream>>inputn) {
    // statements to execute
    // while reads are successful

Here is an example of a program that essentially uses the second technique mentioned above to read all the numbers in a file and output them in a neater format. The while loop to scan through a file is located in the make_neat(...) function.

The input file rawdata.txt must be in the same directory (folder) as the program in order for it to open successfully. The program will create a file called “neat.dat” to output the results.

6.7. Passing Streams as Parameters

In the above program, you see that the input and output streams are passed to the file via pass by reference. This fact may at first seem like a surprising choice until you realize that a stream must be changed in order to read from it or write to it. In other words, as streams “flow”, they are changed. For this reason, all streams will always be passed by reference.

6.8. File Names and C-Strings

In modern versions of C++, you can use the <string> library for filenames, but earlier versions of C++ required the use of C-strings. The program above will try to open the file called “rawdata.txt” and output its results to a file called “neat.dat” every time it runs, which is not very flexible. Ideally, the user should be able to enter filenames that the program will use instead of the same names. We have previously talked about the char data type that allows users to store and manipulate a single character at a time. A sequence of characters such as “myFileName.dat” can be stored in an array of chars called a c-string, which can be declared as follows:

// Syntax: char C-string_name[LEN];
// Example:
char filename[16];

This declaration creates a variable called filename that can hold a string of length up to 16-1 characters. The square brackets after the variable name indicate to the compiler the maximum number of character storage that is needed for the variable. A \0 or NULL character terminates the C-string, wo the system know how much of the array is actually used.

  1. The number of characters for a c-string must be one greater than the number of actual characters!
  2. Also, LEN must be an integer number or a declared const int, it cannot be a variable.

C-strings are an older type of string that was inherited from the C language, and people frequently refer to both types as “strings”, which can be confusing.

Typically, string from the <string> library should be used in all other cases when not working with file names or when a modern version of C+++ can be used.

6.9. Putting it all Together

The following program combines all of the elements above and asks the user for the input and output filenames. After testing for open failures, it will read three numbers from the input file and write the sum into the output file.

6.10. Summary

  1. File handling in C++ uses stream similar to cout and cin in <iosteam> library but is <fsream> for file stream.
  2. ifstream in_stream creates an input stream object, in_stream, that can be used to input text from a file to C++.
  3. ofstream out_stream creates an output stream object,out_steam, that can be used to write text from C++ to a file.
  4. End-of-File or .eof() is a method for the instance variables of fstream, input and output stream objects, and can be used to carry out a task until a file has ended or do some task after a file has ended.

6.11. Check Yourself

    Q-112: Which of the following are libraries for C++ input and output? (Choose all that are true.)
  • fstream
  • Yes, fstream is library for handling file input and output.
  • ifstream
  • No, ifstream is an object type for handling input.
  • ofstream
  • No, ofstream is an object type for handling output.
  • iostream
  • Yes, iostream is a library for handling console input and output.
    Drag the corresponding library to what you would use it for. Which library is used for which task?
  • fstream
  • I want to write to a file
  • iostream
  • I want to write to the console

Fill in the blank with the value of inputn when the following code runs.

ifstream in_stream;
ofstream out_stream;
int inputn;

out_stream << 25;
out_stream << 15 << ' ';
out_stream << 101 << ' ';

in_stream >> inputn;
cout << inputn;
in_stream >> inputn;
Next Section - 6.12. Glossary