C++ Iterators

This is a quick summary of iterators in the Standard Template Library. For information on defining iterators for new containers, see here.

Iterator: a pointer-like object that can be incremented with ++, dereferenced with *, and compared against another iterator with !=.

Iterators are generated by STL container member functions, such as begin() and end(). Some containers return iterators that support only the above operations, while others return iterators that can move forward and backward, be compared with <, and so on.

The generic algorithms use iterators just as you use pointers in C to get elements from and store elements to various containers. Passing and returning iterators makes the algorithms

Some algorithms can work with the minimal iterators, others may require the extra features. So a certain algorithm may require certain containers because only those containers can return the necessary kind of iterators.

An Example

Here's an example call to copy(), an algorithm that we'll use in our examples below:

copy(v.begin(), v.end(), l.begin());

copy() takes three arguments, all iterators:

In this case, v and l are some STL containers and begin() and end() are member functions that return iterators pointing to locations within those containers.

Note 1: begin() returns a location you can dereference. end() does not. Dereferencing the end pointer is an error. The end pointer is only to be used to see when you've reached it.

Note 2: copy() assumes that the destination already has room for the elements being copied. It would be an error to copy into an empty list or vector. However, this limitation is easily overcome with insert operators.

Iterator Classes

Iterators are divided into classes. These are not real C++ classes, but simply categories of kind of iterators. Each category specifies the operations the iterator supports. For example, some iterators support incrementing but not decrementing, some support dereferencing for getting data but not for storing data, some support scalar arithmetic, i.e., adding n, and some don't. Each STL container defines what class of iterators it can return. Each algorithm specifies what class of iterators it requires. The more powerful iterator classes are usually subclasses of the weaker ones, so if an algorithm requires a minimal iterator, it will work just fine with an iterator with more power.


InputIterator is a useful but limited class of iterators. If iter is an InputIterator, you can use:

All STL containers can return at least this level of iterator. Here's typical code that prints out everything in a vector:

	vector<int> v;
	vector<int>::iterator iter;
	for (iter = v.begin(); iter != v.end(); iter++)
	  cout << (*iter) << endl;

This is called an input iterator because you can only use it to "read" data from a container. You can't use it to store data, that is,

*iter = 4;

is illegal if iter is no more than an input iterator. It will work for the iterator above because vectors return iterators more powerful than just input iterators. But if iter were an istream iterator (discussed shortly), then the above restriction would apply.


OutputIterator is another limited class of iterators, basically the opposite of InputIterator. If iter is an OutputIterator, you can use:

Output iterators are only for storing. If something is no more an output iterator, you can't read from it with *iter, nor can you test it with == and !=.

It may seem like an iterator you can only write to, not read from, is about as sensible as Barnstable Bear in Pogo who could write but not read what he wrote. But there are two very useful subclasses of OutputIterator:

Insert Iterators

Insert iterators let you "point" to some location in a container and insert elements. You do this with just dereferencing and assignment:

*iter = value;

This inserts the value in the place pointed to by the iterator. If you assign again, a new value will be inserted. Whether value goes before or after the previous value depends on what kind of insert operator you've created. Notice that you don't need to increment the iterator. You just keep assigning.

You create an insert iterator with one of the following:

An example of using the insert iterators appears when describing istream iterators.

Ostream OutputIterator

Ostream iterators let you "point" to an output stream and insert elements into it, i.e., write to the output stream.

We can construct an ostream iterator from a C++ output stream as follows:

ostream_iterator<int> outIter( cout, " " );
copy( v.begin(), v.end(), outIter );

The first line defines outIter to be an ostream iterator for integers. The " " means "put a space between each integer." If we'd said "\n" then outIter would put a newline between each integer. The second line uses the generic algorithm copy() to copy our vector v from beginning to end to cout. Note how much simpler this is than the equivalent for loop with cout and <<.

Istream InputIterator

Istream iterators for input streams work similarly to ostream iterators. Istream iterators are InputIterators. The following code fragment constructs an istream iterator that reads integers from cin and copies them into a vector v. We use a back_inserter to add the elements to the end of the vector, which could beempty:

copy( istream_iterator<int>( cin ),
      back_inserter( v ) );

The first argument to copy calls an istream iterator constructor that simply points to the input stream cin. The second argument calls a special constructor that creates a pointer to "the end of the input." What this actually means, especially for terminal input, depends on your operating system. So the above says "copy from the current item in the input sream to the end of the input stream into the container v."


ForwardIterator combines InputIterator and OutputIterator. You can use them to read and write to a container. They also support:

A trivial example of this is

iterSaved = iter;
cout << "Previous element is " << (*iterSaved) << endl;
cout << "Current element is " << (*iter) << endl; 

This will work if the iterators are ForwardIterator's. Note that it can't work for InputIterator's and OutputIterator's, such as istream and ostream iterators. I/O streams such as standard input and output don't support backing up and starting over.

Note: A saved iterator is only valid if the underlying container is not modified. If you insert elements or otherwise change the container, using a saved iterator will have undefined behavior.


If iter is a BidirectionalIterator, you can use:


If iter1 and iter2 are RandomAccessIterator's, you can use:

Since BidirectionalIterator's support ++ and --, don't they support these operations too? The answer is that RandomAccessIterator's support these operations in constant time. That is, you can jump N elements in the same time it takes to jump 1 element. So an STL list container can return a BidirectionalIterator, but not a RandomAccessIterator. Vectors and deques can return RandomAccessIterator's.

Why Iterators Make Code General and Efficient

There are two rules for making container-based code general and efficient:


Suppose we wanted to define product() to multiply together the numbers in a container.

We can immediately reject any definition like this:

double product( vector<double> v ) ...

because it's

But we could define it like this:

template <class Container>
double product( const Container & container )
  Container::iterator i = container.begin();
  double prod = 1;

  while ( i != container.end() ) prod *= *i++;

  return prod;

This definition seems general. It works for any STL container, e.g.,

vector<double> nums;
return product( nums );

Unfortunately, it won't work with regular arrays, e.g.,

double nums[] = { 1.2, 3.0, 3.5, 2.8 };
return product( nums );

because there are no begin() or end() methods for regular C-style arrays. Furthermore, it doesn't let us calculate the product of a subrange of the container.

The following definition is clearly more general:

template <class Iter>
double product( Iter start, Iter stop )
  double prod = 1;

  while ( start != stop ) prod *= *start++;

  return prod;


This works fine with regular arrays:

double nums[] = { 1.2, 3.0, 3.5, 2.8 };

return product( nums, nums + 4 );

as well as with STL containers and subranges.


Both definitions of product() above are efficient. Neither copies the container involved. But consider a function -- let's call it generate() -- that has to generate multiple answers. There are two common situations:

The obvious way to define generate() is like this:

template <class Container>
Container generate()
  Container temp; 
  return temp; 

We would call generate() like this:

vector<int> v = generate<vector< int > >( ... );

but this has two bad properties:

If the container already exists and generate() is returning a subset of the elements in it, e.g., all the odd numbers, then the thing to do is to

The template for this kind of definition is simple:

template <class Iter >
Iter generate( Iter start, Iter stop )
{ Iter temp; 
  ...set temp to first answer ...
  return temp; 

The following loop would then get the answers and print or store them, as desired:

vector<int> nums;
vector<int>::iterator ans
  = generate( nums.begin(), nums.end() );

while ( ans != nums.end() ) {
  process ans
  ans = generate( ans, nums.end() );

If the container does not exist, you have to be a little smarter. In particular, both of the following are very bad (and won't even compile without some more work):

template <class Container>
Container & generate()
  Container temp; 
  return temp; 
template <class Container>
Container::iterator generate()
  Container temp; 
  return temp.begin(); 

Both of these return references to temp which no longer exists when generate() exits.

The following is better

template <class Container>
Container * generate()
  Container *temp = new Container(); 
  return temp; 

but now we're dealing with pointers and we have to guarantee that the container that generate() dynamically allocates gets deallocated by some other piece of code. Otherwise, we have a bad memory leak.

Avoid code that allocates memory in one place and deallocates it in another.

The clever way to solve this problem is to do this:

template <class Iter>
void generate( Iter iter ) 
  *iter++ = ...; 

In other words, don't have any container in generate() at all. Just pass generate() an iterator to store answers in. As before, what container to use (if any) is up to the calling code. Two ways we could call generate() are:

generate( back_inserter( v ) ); // stores answers in v
generate( ostream_iterator<type>( cout, "\n" ) ); //print answers

As before, by using iterators, we have made generate() far more useful and general and efficient than any version that takes or returns containers.

Warning: generate() has to be a template function for this to work. If generate() is actually a member function of some class, then generate() has to be a template member function. Older compilers (and some current ones, alas) have poor support for template member functions.

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