Choosing Between Structures and Classes

Decide how to store data and model behavior.


Structures and classes are good choices for storing data and modeling behavior in your apps, but their similarities can make it difficult to choose one over the other.

Consider the following recommendations to help choose which option makes sense when adding a new data type to your app.

  • Use structures by default.

  • Use classes when you need Objective-C interoperability.

  • Use classes when you need to control the identity of the data you're modeling.

  • Use structures along with protocols to adopt behavior by sharing implementations.

Choose Structures by Default

Use structures to represent common kinds of data. Structures in Swift include many features that are limited to classes in other languages: They can include stored properties, computed properties, and methods. Moreover, Swift structures can adopt protocols to gain behavior through default implementations. The Swift standard library and Foundation use structures for types you use frequently, such as numbers, strings, arrays, and dictionaries.

Using structures makes it easier to reason about a portion of your code without needing to consider the whole state of your app. Because structures are value types—unlike classes—local changes to a structure aren't visible to the rest of your app unless you intentionally communicate those changes as part of the flow of your app. As a result, you can look at a section of code and be more confident that changes to instances in that section will be made explicitly, rather than being made invisibly from a tangentially related function call.

Use Classes When You Need Objective-C Interoperability

If you use an Objective-C API that needs to process your data, or you need to fit your data model into an existing class hierarchy defined in an Objective-C framework, you might need to use classes and class inheritance to model your data. For example, many Objective-C frameworks expose classes that you are expected to subclass.

Use Classes When You Need to Control Identity

Classes in Swift come with a built-in notion of identity because they're reference types. This means that when two different class instances have the same value for each of their stored properties, they're still considered to be different by the identity operator (===). It also means that when you share a class instance across your app, changes you make to that instance are visible to every part of your code that holds a reference to that instance. Use classes when you need your instances to have this kind of identity. Common use cases are file handles, network connections, and shared hardware intermediaries like CBCentralManager.

For example, if you have a type that represents a local database connection, the code that manages access to that database needs full control over the state of the database as viewed from your app. It's appropriate to use a class in this case, but be sure to limit which parts of your app get access to the shared database object.

Use Structures When You Don't Control Identity

Use structures when you're modeling data that contains information about an entity with an identity that you don't control.

In an app that consults a remote database, for example, an instance's identity may be fully owned by an external entity and communicated by an identifier. If the consistency of an app's models is stored on a server, you can model records as structures with identifiers. In the example below, jsonResponse contains an encoded PenPalRecord instance from a server:

struct PenPalRecord {
    let myID: Int
    var myNickname: String
    var recommendedPenPalID: Int

var myRecord = try JSONDecoder().decode(PenPalRecord.self, from: jsonResponse)

Local changes to model types like PenPalRecord are useful. For example, an app might recommend multiple different penpals in response to user feedback. Because the PenPalRecord structure doesn't control the identity of the underlying database records, there's no risk that the changes made to local PenPalRecord instances accidentally change values in the database.

If another part of the app changes myNickname and submits a change request back to the server, the most recently rejected penpal recommendation won't be mistakenly picked up by the change. Because the myID property is declared as a constant, it can't change locally. As a result, requests to the database won't accidentally change the wrong record.

Use Structures and Protocols to Model Inheritance and Share Behavior

Structures and classes both support a form of inheritance. Structures and protocols can only adopt protocols; they can't inherit from classes. However, the kinds of inheritance hierarchies you can build with class inheritance can be also modeled using protocol inheritance and structures.

If you're building an inheritance relationship from scratch, prefer protocol inheritance. Protocols permit classes, structures, and enumerations to participate in inheritance, while class inheritance is only compatible with other classes. When you're choosing how to model your data, try building the hierarchy of data types using protocol inheritance first, then adopt those protocols in your structures.

See Also

Data Modeling

Adopting Common Protocols

Make your custom types easier to use by ensuring that they conform to Swift protocols.