One of my favorite features of Swift, Apple’s new programming language for iOS and OS X development, is how it handles nil values through Optionals. Optionals address the many problems created by nil values, such as inadvertently using nil (null) values from function outputs or not initializing fields. These easy-to-make mistakes usually lead to confusing and difficult-to-debug runtime crashes, especially in compiled languages such as Java, C++, and Objective-C.

Swift Optionals address the nil problem by maintaining a distinction between variables that have a value and variables that may have the absence of any value (Optionals). Let’s take a look at the basics of how they work!

Regular (Non-Optional) Variables

Let’s start with regular variables, declared with just the type name:

class Foo {
    var count: Int     // regular variables
    var thing: Int = 5 // regular variable assigned value

    init(numPlayers: Int) {
        // must initialize count before it is used
        count = numPlayers
        // thing already has a value, so it does not need to be set

Any regular instance variable in Swift must have a non-nil value set before it is used. That ensures that regular variables will always have a value. For instance, the following code is incorrect:

var thing = 5     // type inference: thing is a regular Int
thing = nil       // WRONG: would not compile

So, what does this mean? For instance, if a function returns a regular variable, you are guaranteed to receive a value, and do not have to worry about receiving nil and crashing. Also, if a function signature takes a regular variable as a parameter, it is guaranteed to receive a value.

func doubleValue(num: Int) -> Int {
    // num is guaranteed to have a value
    // doubleValue must also return a value
    return num * 2

The behavior of regular variables is different than that of variables in other languages. Take Java for example:

class Foo {
    Thing t;

    public static void main(String[] args) {
        // oops, forgot to initialize the Thing!
        int val = doubleValue(t);
        System.out.println("value: " + val);

    int doubleValue(Thing t) {
        return t.getValue() * 2;

This would crash with a NullPointerException because t was not initialized when doubleValue tried to access it.

Optional Variables

So, what if you need to have nil values? Take, for instance, casting a String to an Int:

var inputStr = "123456"
var num: Int = Int(inputStr) // WRONG: can't compile, because some Strings
                             // cannot be successfully parsed into an Int! 

Casting a String to an Int can fail. If it fails, instead of throwing an exception or crashing the program, the cast will return nil. Thus, to handle it, we can store the output into an Optional type, declared with a ? after the type:

var inputStr = "lorem ipsum"
var num: Int? = Int(inputStr) // num will be assigned nil

The ? indicates that that particular variable may or may not have a value. These Optionals do not have to be initialized in the constructor because they can be nil at any time.

So, how do we use Optional variables in places where we want non-nil values? You can do this in three different ways, each suiting a specific purpose.

1. if let Optional Binding

First, a slight segue: constants in Swift (declared with let instead of var) are implicitly non-nil, because a nil constant would be quite meaningless.

let firstStr: String = "first"  // ok
let secondStr: String = nil     // WRONG: will not compile

So, to run some code only if an Optional has a non-nil value, we can use the if let construct:

if let definitelyNumber = Int(someString) { // cast may not work
    print("double the num is \(definitelyNumber * 2)!")

This code states that if the Optional returned from the cast contains an Int, assign it to definitelyNumber and run the code inside the if. Otherwise, move on.

One if let can be used on multiple optionals, to make sure that all variables you need in a code block have an assigned value.

if let firstNumber = Int(someString),
       secondNumber = Int(anotherString) {
    print("\(firstNumber) and \(secondNumber), both are safe!")
} else {
    print("parsing was not successful :(")

if let is very useful in practice, and helps safely and efficiently handle nil cases, in ways explicitly stated by the developer. It’s a clean way to handle nil in code and describe exactly how you want your program to behave given an Optional.

2. ? Optional Chaining

if let is a powerful tool, but can lead to long, far indented code, especially when you have to call many functions that return optional values and use them. To optimize this, you can use ? after fields and functions: this will run the code following the ? only if the output of the optional is not nil.

// getThingAtIndex returns an optional, so use ? chaining
// function will only be called if all chained optionals were non-nil

Optional chaining is short and sweet, and works well when you want to call a function on an object if the object exists.

3. Forced Unwrapping

This is arguably the simplest technique we can use, and the most dangerous. We can force the wrapping of an Optional to a regular variable using a ! following the variable name. If the Optional contained a null value, this could result in your program crashing!

var num = Int(someString)
return doubleNum(num!)  // WARNING: will crash if num is null

You can also chain forced unwraps:

// this code will crash if any optionals were nil
// if everything succeeded, notOptional must have a non-nil value
let notOptional = getThingAtIndex(index)!.someOptional!.function()

Forced unwrapping should only be used in two situations: when you are confident that a value does not contain nil, or when you want your program to crash if a value is not present (for example, when checking for existence of essential data values for your app).

Implicitly Unwrapped Optionals

Finally, there are cases when you are sure that an optional will always have a value, or when its absence of a value means critical failure for your program. In this case, an implicitly unwrapped optional, declared with ! after the type, may be the best choice. Implicitly unwrapped optionals can be nil but never need to be unwrapped, potentially saving you time and code, at the risk of crashing on nil values.

var implicit: NSTimer! // implicitly unwrapped optional        // no need for ? or if let, will crash if nil

Implicitly unwrapped optionals should not be used if there is a chance of it becoming nil sometime during execution, because this could easily lead to crashes. When in doubt, use a regular optional or a regular, non-optional variable.

That’s it!

Those were the basics of Optionals in Swift! If you’re interested in more advanced features of Swift Optionals or want to learn more about the language, check out the links below:

  • Swift Language Guide: Apple’s guide to the Swift Programming Language.
  • Swift Resources: Videos and sample code for Swift.
  • Swift Tutorials: Tutorials and articles on Swift on raywenderlich. This is a great resource if you want to learn about Swift and iOS development!

Finally, stay tuned to the blog for future posts on Swift, and thanks for reading!