Kotlin Help

Interoperability with C

Kotlin/Native follows the general tradition of Kotlin to provide excellent existing platform software interoperability. In the case of a native platform, the most important interoperability target is a C library. So Kotlin/Native comes with a cinterop tool, which can be used to quickly generate everything needed to interact with an external library.

The following workflow is expected when interacting with the native library:

  1. Create a .def file describing what to include into bindings.

  2. Use the cinterop tool to produce Kotlin bindings.

  3. Run the Kotlin/Native compiler on an application to produce the final executable.

The interoperability tool analyses C headers and produces a "natural" mapping of the types, functions, and constants into the Kotlin world. The generated stubs can be imported into an IDE for the purpose of code completion and navigation.

Interoperability with Swift/Objective-C is provided too and covered in Objective-C interop.

Platform libraries

Note that in many cases there's no need to use custom interoperability library creation mechanisms described below, as for APIs available on the platform standardized bindings called platform libraries could be used. For example, POSIX on Linux/macOS platforms, Win32 on Windows platform, or Apple frameworks on macOS/iOS are available this way.

Simple example

Install libgit2 and prepare stubs for the git library:

cd samples/gitchurn ../../dist/bin/cinterop -def src/nativeInterop/cinterop/libgit2.def \ -compiler-option -I/usr/local/include -o libgit2

Compile the client:

../../dist/bin/kotlinc src/gitChurnMain/kotlin \ -library libgit2 -o GitChurn

Run the client:

./GitChurn.kexe ../..

Create bindings for a new library

To create bindings for a new library, start from creating a .def file. Structurally it's a simple property file, which looks like this:

headers = png.h headerFilter = png.h package = png

Then run the cinterop tool with something like this (note that for host libraries that are not included in the sysroot search paths, headers may be needed):

cinterop -def png.def -compiler-option -I/usr/local/include -o png

This command will produce a png.klib compiled library and png-build/kotlin directory containing Kotlin source code for the library.

If the behavior for a certain platform needs to be modified, you can use a format like compilerOpts.osx or compilerOpts.linux to provide platform-specific values to the options.

Note that the generated bindings are generally platform-specific, so if you are developing for multiple targets, the bindings need to be regenerated.

After the generation of bindings, they can be used by the IDE as a proxy view of the native library.

For a typical Unix library with a config script, the compilerOpts will likely contain the output of a config script with the --cflags flag (maybe without exact paths).

The output of a config script with --libs will be passed as a -linkedArgs kotlinc flag value (quoted) when compiling.

Select library headers

When library headers are imported to a C program with the #include directive, all of the headers included by these headers are also included in the program. So all header dependencies are included in generated stubs as well.

This behavior is correct but it can be very inconvenient for some libraries. So it is possible to specify in the .def file which of the included headers are to be imported. The separate declarations from other headers can also be imported in case of direct dependencies.

Filter headers by globs

It is possible to filter headers by globs using filter properties from the .def file. They are treated as a space-separated list of globs.

  • To include declarations from headers, use the headerFilter property. If the included header matches any of the globs, the declarations are included in the bindings.

    The globs are applied to the header paths relative to the appropriate include path elements, for example, time.h or curl/curl.h. So if the library is usually included with #include <SomeLibrary/Header.h>, it would probably be correct to filter headers with the following filter:

    headerFilter = SomeLibrary/**

    If headerFilter is not provided, all the headers are included. However, we encourage you to use headerFilter and specify the glob as precisely as possible. In this case, the generated library contains only the necessary declarations. It can help avoid various issues when upgrading Kotlin or tools in your development environment.

  • To exclude specific headers, use the excludeFilter property.

    It can be helpful to remove redundant or problematic headers and optimize compilation, as declarations from the specified headers are not included into the bindings.

    excludeFilter = SomeLibrary/time.h

Filter headers by module maps

Some libraries have proper module.modulemap or module.map files in their headers. For example, macOS and iOS system libraries and frameworks do. The module map file describes the correspondence between header files and modules. When the module maps are available, the headers from the modules that are not included directly can be filtered out using the experimental excludeDependentModules option of the .def file:

headers = OpenGL/gl.h OpenGL/glu.h GLUT/glut.h compilerOpts = -framework OpenGL -framework GLUT excludeDependentModules = true

When both excludeDependentModules and headerFilter are used, they are applied as an intersection.

C compiler and linker options

Options passed to the C compiler (used to analyze headers, such as preprocessor definitions) and the linker (used to link final executables) can be passed in the definition file as compilerOpts and linkerOpts respectively. For example:

compilerOpts = -DFOO=bar linkerOpts = -lpng

Target-specific options only applicable to the certain target can be specified as well:

compilerOpts = -DBAR=bar compilerOpts.linux_x64 = -DFOO=foo1 compilerOpts.macos_x64 = -DFOO=foo2

With such a configuration, C headers will be analyzed with -DBAR=bar -DFOO=foo1 on Linux and with -DBAR=bar -DFOO=foo2 on macOS . Note that any definition file option can have both common and the platform-specific part.

Linker errors

Linker errors might occur when a Kotlin library depends on C or Objective-C libraries, for example, using the CocoaPods integration. If dependent libraries aren't installed locally on the machine or configured explicitly in the project build script, the "Framework not found" error occurs.

If you're a library author, you can help your users resolve linker errors with custom messages. To do that, add a userSetupHint=message property to your .def file or pass the -Xuser-setup-hint compiler option to cinterop.

Add custom declarations

Sometimes it is required to add custom C declarations to the library before generating bindings (e.g., for macros). Instead of creating an additional header file with these declarations, you can include them directly to the end of the .def file, after a separating line, containing only the separator sequence ---:

headers = errno.h --- static inline int getErrno() { return errno; }

Note that this part of the .def file is treated as part of the header file, so functions with the body should be declared as static. The declarations are parsed after including the files from the headers list.

Include a static library in your klib

Sometimes it is more convenient to ship a static library with your product, rather than assume it is available within the user's environment. To include a static library into .klib use staticLibrary and libraryPaths clauses. For example:

headers = foo.h staticLibraries = libfoo.a libraryPaths = /opt/local/lib /usr/local/opt/curl/lib

When given the above snippet the cinterop tool will search libfoo.a in /opt/local/lib and /usr/local/opt/curl/lib, and if it is found include the library binary into klib.

When using such klib in your program, the library is linked automatically.


Basic interop types

All the supported C types have corresponding representations in Kotlin:

  • Signed, unsigned integral, and floating point types are mapped to their Kotlin counterpart with the same width.

  • Pointers and arrays are mapped to CPointer<T>?.

  • Enums can be mapped to either Kotlin enum or integral values, depending on heuristics and the definition file hints.

  • Structs and unions are mapped to types having fields available via the dot notation, i.e. someStructInstance.field1.

  • typedef are represented as typealias.

Also, any C type has the Kotlin type representing the lvalue of this type, i.e., the value located in memory rather than a simple immutable self-contained value. Think C++ references, as a similar concept. For structs (and typedefs to structs) this representation is the main one and has the same name as the struct itself, for Kotlin enums it is named ${type}Var, for CPointer<T> it is CPointerVar<T>, and for most other types it is ${type}Var.

For types that have both representations, the one with a "lvalue" has a mutable .value property for accessing the value.

Pointer types

The type argument T of CPointer<T> must be one of the "lvalue" types described above, e.g., the C type struct S* is mapped to CPointer<S>, int8_t* is mapped to CPointer<int_8tVar>, and char** is mapped to CPointer<CPointerVar<ByteVar>>.

C null pointer is represented as Kotlin's null, and the pointer type CPointer<T> is not nullable, but the CPointer<T>? is. The values of this type support all the Kotlin operations related to handling null, e.g. ?:, ?., !! etc.:

val path = getenv("PATH")?.toKString() ?: ""

Since the arrays are also mapped to CPointer<T>, it supports the [] operator for accessing values by index:

fun shift(ptr: CPointer<BytePtr>, length: Int) { for (index in 0 .. length - 2) { ptr[index] = ptr[index + 1] } }

The .pointed property for CPointer<T> returns the lvalue of type T, pointed by this pointer. The reverse operation is .ptr: it takes the lvalue and returns the pointer to it.

void* is mapped to COpaquePointer – the special pointer type which is the supertype for any other pointer type. So if the C function takes void*, then the Kotlin binding accepts any CPointer.

Casting a pointer (including COpaquePointer) can be done with .reinterpret<T>, e.g.:

val intPtr = bytePtr.reinterpret<IntVar>()


val intPtr: CPointer<IntVar> = bytePtr.reinterpret()

As is with C, these reinterpret casts are unsafe and can potentially lead to subtle memory problems in the application.

Also, there are unsafe casts between CPointer<T>? and Long available, provided by the .toLong() and .toCPointer<T>() extension methods:

val longValue = ptr.toLong() val originalPtr = longValue.toCPointer<T>()

Note that if the type of the result is known from the context, the type argument can be omitted as usual due to the type inference.

Memory allocation

The native memory can be allocated using the NativePlacement interface, e.g.

val byteVar = placement.alloc<ByteVar>()


val bytePtr = placement.allocArray<ByteVar>(5)

The most "natural" placement is in the object nativeHeap. It corresponds to allocating native memory with malloc and provides an additional .free() operation to free allocated memory:

val buffer = nativeHeap.allocArray<ByteVar>(size) <use buffer> nativeHeap.free(buffer)

However, the lifetime of allocated memory is often bound to the lexical scope. It is possible to define such scope with memScoped { ... }. Inside the braces, the temporary placement is available as an implicit receiver, so it is possible to allocate native memory with alloc and allocArray, and the allocated memory will be automatically freed after leaving the scope.

For example, the C function returning values through pointer parameters can be used like

val fileSize = memScoped { val statBuf = alloc<stat>() val error = stat("/", statBuf.ptr) statBuf.st_size }

Pass pointers to bindings

Although C pointers are mapped to the CPointer<T> type, the C function pointer-typed parameters are mapped to CValuesRef<T>. When passing CPointer<T> as the value of such a parameter, it is passed to the C function as is. However, the sequence of values can be passed instead of a pointer. In this case the sequence is passed "by value", i.e., the C function receives the pointer to the temporary copy of that sequence, which is valid only until the function returns.

The CValuesRef<T> representation of pointer parameters is designed to support C array literals without explicit native memory allocation. To construct the immutable self-contained sequence of C values, the following methods are provided:

  • ${type}Array.toCValues(), where type is the Kotlin primitive type

  • Array<CPointer<T>?>.toCValues(), List<CPointer<T>?>.toCValues()

  • cValuesOf(vararg elements: ${type}), where type is a primitive or pointer

For example:


void foo(int* elements, int count); ... int elements[] = {1, 2, 3}; foo(elements, 3);


foo(cValuesOf(1, 2, 3), 3)


Unlike other pointers, the parameters of type const char* are represented as a Kotlin String. So it is possible to pass any Kotlin string to a binding expecting a C string.

There are also some tools available to convert between Kotlin and C strings manually:

  • fun CPointer<ByteVar>.toKString(): String

  • val String.cstr: CValuesRef<ByteVar>.

To get the pointer, .cstr should be allocated in native memory, e.g.

val cString = kotlinString.cstr.getPointer(nativeHeap)

In all cases, the C string is supposed to be encoded as UTF-8.

To skip automatic conversion and ensure raw pointers are used in the bindings, a noStringConversion statement in the .def file could be used, i.e.

noStringConversion = LoadCursorA LoadCursorW

This way any value of type CPointer<ByteVar> can be passed as an argument of const char* type. If a Kotlin string should be passed, code like this could be used:

memScoped { LoadCursorA(null, "cursor.bmp".cstr.ptr) // for ASCII version LoadCursorW(null, "cursor.bmp".wcstr.ptr) // for Unicode version }

Scope-local pointers

It is possible to create a scope-stable pointer of C representation of CValues<T> instance using the CValues<T>.ptr extension property, available under memScoped { ... }. It allows using the APIs which require C pointers with a lifetime bound to a certain MemScope. For example:

memScoped { items = arrayOfNulls<CPointer<ITEM>?>(6) arrayOf("one", "two").forEachIndexed { index, value -> items[index] = value.cstr.ptr } menu = new_menu("Menu".cstr.ptr, items.toCValues().ptr) ... }

In this example, all values passed to the C API new_menu() have a lifetime of the innermost memScope it belongs to. Once the control flow leaves the memScoped scope the C pointers become invalid.

Pass and receive structs by value

When a C function takes or returns a struct / union T by value, the corresponding argument type or return type is represented as CValue<T>.

CValue<T> is an opaque type, so the structure fields cannot be accessed with the appropriate Kotlin properties. It should be possible, if an API uses structures as handles, but if field access is required, there are the following conversion methods available:

  • fun T.readValue(): CValue<T>. Converts (the lvalue) T to a CValue<T>. So to construct the CValue<T>, T can be allocated, filled, and then converted to CValue<T>.

  • CValue<T>.useContents(block: T.() -> R): R. Temporarily places the CValue<T> to memory, and then runs the passed lambda with this placed value T as receiver. So to read a single field, the following code can be used:

    val fieldValue = structValue.useContents { field }


To convert a Kotlin function to a pointer to a C function, staticCFunction(::kotlinFunction) can be used. It is also able to provide the lambda instead of a function reference. The function or lambda must not capture any values.

Pass user data to callbacks

Often C APIs allow passing some user data to callbacks. Such data is usually provided by the user when configuring the callback. It is passed to some C function (or written to the struct) as e.g. void*. However, references to Kotlin objects can't be directly passed to C. So they require wrapping before configuring the callback and then unwrapping in the callback itself, to safely swim from Kotlin to Kotlin through the C world. Such wrapping is possible with StableRef class.

To wrap the reference:

val stableRef = StableRef.create(kotlinReference) val voidPtr = stableRef.asCPointer()

where the voidPtr is a COpaquePointer and can be passed to the C function.

To unwrap the reference:

val stableRef = voidPtr.asStableRef<KotlinClass>() val kotlinReference = stableRef.get()

where kotlinReference is the original wrapped reference.

The created StableRef should eventually be manually disposed using the .dispose() method to prevent memory leaks:


After that it becomes invalid, so voidPtr can't be unwrapped anymore.

See the samples/libcurl for more details.


Every C macro that expands to a constant is represented as a Kotlin property. Other macros are not supported. However, they can be exposed manually by wrapping them with supported declarations. E.g. function-like macro FOO can be exposed as function foo by adding the custom declaration to the library:

headers = library/base.h --- static inline int foo(int arg) { return FOO(arg); }

Definition file hints

The .def file supports several options for adjusting the generated bindings.

  • excludedFunctions property value specifies a space-separated list of the names of functions that should be ignored. This may be required because a function declared in the C header is not generally guaranteed to be really callable, and it is often hard or impossible to figure this out automatically. This option can also be used to workaround a bug in the interop itself.

  • strictEnums and nonStrictEnums properties values are space-separated lists of the enums that should be generated as a Kotlin enum or as integral values correspondingly. If the enum is not included into any of these lists, then it is generated according to the heuristics.

  • noStringConversion property value is space-separated lists of the functions whose const char* parameters shall not be auto-converted as Kotlin string


Sometimes the C libraries have function parameters or struct fields of a platform-dependent type, e.g. long or size_t. Kotlin itself doesn't provide neither implicit integer casts nor C-style integer casts (e.g. (size_t) intValue), so to make writing portable code in such cases easier, the convert method is provided:

fun ${type1}.convert<${type2}>(): ${type2}

where each of type1 and type2 must be an integral type, either signed or unsigned.

.convert<${type}> has the same semantics as one of the .toByte, .toShort, .toInt, .toLong, .toUByte, .toUShort, .toUInt or .toULong methods, depending on type.

The example of using convert:

fun zeroMemory(buffer: COpaquePointer, size: Int) { memset(buffer, 0, size.convert<size_t>()) }

Also, the type parameter can be inferred automatically and so may be omitted in some cases.

Object pinning

Kotlin objects could be pinned, i.e. their position in memory is guaranteed to be stable until unpinned, and pointers to such objects inner data could be passed to the C functions. For example

fun readData(fd: Int): String { val buffer = ByteArray(1024) buffer.usePinned { pinned -> while (true) { val length = recv(fd, pinned.addressOf(0), buffer.size.convert(), 0).toInt() if (length <= 0) { break } // Now `buffer` has raw data obtained from the `recv()` call. } } }

Here we use service function usePinned, which pins an object, executes block and unpins it on normal and exception paths.

Last modified: 02 November 2023