Layout of unions

Disclaimer: This chapter represents the consensus from issue #13. The statements in here are not (yet) "guaranteed" not to change until an RFC ratifies them.

Note: This document has not yet been updated to RFC 2645.

Layout of individual union fields

A union consists of several variants, one for each field. All variants have the same size and start at the same memory address, such that in memory the variants overlap. This can be visualized as follows:

[ <--> [field0_ty] <----> ]
[ <----> [field1_ty] <--> ]
[ <---> [field2_ty] <---> ]

Figure 1 (union-field layout): Each row in the picture shows the layout of the union for each of its variants. The <-...-> and [ ... ] denote the differently-sized gaps and fields, respectively.

The individual fields ([field{i}_ty_]) are blocks of fixed size determined by the field's layout. Since we allow creating references to union fields (&u.i), the only degrees of freedom the compiler has when computing the layout of a union are the size of the union, which can be larger than the size of its largest field, and the offset of each union field within its variant. How these are picked depends on certain constraints like, for example, the alignment requirements of the fields, the #[repr] attribute of the union, etc.

Unions with default layout ("repr(Rust)")

Except for the guarantees provided below for some specific cases, the default layout of Rust unions is, in general, unspecified.

That is, there are no general guarantees about the offset of the fields, whether all fields have the same offset, what the call ABI of the union is, etc.


As of this writing, we want to keep the option of using non-zero offsets open for the future; whether this is useful depends on what exactly the compiler-assumed invariants about union contents are. This might become clearer after the validity of unions is settled.

Even if the offsets happen to be all 0, there might still be differences in the function call ABI. If you need to pass unions by-value across an FFI boundary, you have to use #[repr(C)].

Layout of unions with a single non-zero-sized field

The layout of unions with a single non-1-ZST-field" is the same as the layout of that field if it has no padding bytes.

For example, here:

use std::mem::{size_of, align_of};
#[derive(Copy, Clone)]
struct SomeStruct(i32);
#[derive(Copy, Clone)]
struct Zst;
union U0 {
   f0: SomeStruct,
   f1: Zst,
fn main() {
assert_eq!(size_of::<U0>(), size_of::<SomeStruct>());
assert_eq!(align_of::<U0>(), align_of::<SomeStruct>());

the union U0 has the same layout as SomeStruct, because SomeStruct has no padding bits - it is equivalent to an i32 due to repr(transparent) - and because Zst is a 1-ZST.

On the other hand, here:

use std::mem::{size_of, align_of};
#[derive(Copy, Clone)]
struct SomeOtherStruct(i32);
#[derive(Copy, Clone)]
#[repr(align(16))] struct Zst2;
union U1 {
   f0: SomeOtherStruct,
   f1: Zst2,
fn main() {
assert_eq!(size_of::<U1>(), align_of::<Zst2>());
assert_eq!(align_of::<U1>(), align_of::<Zst2>());
assert_eq!(align_of::<Zst2>(), 16);

the layout of U1 is unspecified because:

  • Zst2 is not a 1-ZST, and
  • SomeOtherStruct has an unspecified layout and could contain padding bytes.

C-compatible layout ("repr C")

The layout of repr(C) unions follows the C layout scheme. Per sections and of the C11 specification, this means that the offset of every field is 0. Unsafe code can cast a pointer to the union to a field type to obtain a pointer to any field, and vice versa.


Since all fields are at offset 0, repr(C) unions do not have padding before their fields. They can, however, have padding in each union variant after the field, to make all variants have the same size.

Moreover, the entire union can have trailing padding, to make sure the size is a multiple of the alignment:

use std::mem::{size_of, align_of};
#[repr(C, align(2))]
union U { x: u8 }
fn main() {
// The repr(align) attribute raises the alignment requirement of U to 2
assert_eq!(align_of::<U>(), 2);
// This introduces trailing padding, raising the union size to 2
assert_eq!(size_of::<U>(), 2);

Note: Fields are overlapped instead of laid out sequentially, so unlike structs there is no "between the fields" that could be filled with padding.

Zero-sized fields

repr(C) union fields of zero-size are handled in the same way as in struct fields, matching the behavior of GCC and Clang for unions in C when zero-sized types are allowed via their language extensions.

That is, these fields occupy zero-size and participate in the layout computation of the union as usual:

use std::mem::{size_of, align_of};
union U {
  x: u8,
  y: [u16; 0],
fn main() {
// The zero-sized type [u16; 0] raises the alignment requirement to 2
assert_eq!(align_of::<U>(), 2);
// This in turn introduces trailing padding, raising the union size to 2
assert_eq!(size_of::<U>(), 2);

C++ compatibility hazard: C++ does, in general, give a size of 1 to types with no fields. When such types are used as a union field in C++, a "naive" translation of that code into Rust will not produce a compatible result. Refer to the struct chapter for further details.