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How To Read From a File in C++

In your programming journey, there will come a time when you’ll want to start working with real-world data. This kind of data is typically stored in files on disk. Since reading from files involves interacting with your operating system, it amounts to a rather complex task. In this article, we’ll look at C++ streams, file handling, and three different methods for reading data from a file into a C++ program. 

If you come from a high-level programming language like Python, reading a file into a program seems like a simple enough task. You open the file, read its contents and close it. Working with a file might take up one or two lines of your code. In C++, the workflow of reading a file is a bit more complex — there is the added step of reading to or from a stream object. To understand how our C++ programs interact with files, let us now take a look at the concept of streams in C++. 

What Are C++ Streams?

C++ streams are interfaces for processing sequence-like input and output. If you’ve written a “Hello World” program in C++ before, then you have worked with streams. Let’s briefly go over how this would look:

std::cout << "Hello World!\n";

In this example, we stream our string object into the character output stream (“cout” for short). cout is part of the iostream library, and an instance of the more general class of output streams (“ostream”). ostream’s sister class is “istream,” a class for handling input streams. 

When working with files, we employ another subclass of streams: the fstream class (for file stream) consists of ifstreams for input and ofstreams for output to file. For this example, we’ll work with ifstreams, since they allow us to read from a file. 

File Handling in C++

To read a character sequence from a text file, we’ll need to perform the following steps:

  1. Create a stream object. 
  2. Connect it to a file on disk. 
  3. Read the file’s contents into our stream object. 
  4. Close the file.

The  steps that we examine in detail below, register under the action of “file handling.” At each stage, our stream object may occupy different states, which we can check for using the following member functions:

  • bad() returns True if an error occurred while reading from or writing to a stream. If a stream is “bad,” no further operations involving the stream are possible.
  • fail() returns True if an error occurs, but we can still operate on the  stream.
  • eof() returns True if the end of the file (EOF) is reached, with False returned otherwise.
  • good() returns True if each of the other three states are false, i.e., the stream is neither bad nor failed, nor has it reached the end of the file. 

Another important method is provided by is_open(). It evaluates to True if a stream object is open. Let’s now finally bring all the components together and read in a file in C++.

Read a File in C++

Say we have a shopping list stored in a .txt file:

eggs and spam
spam and eggs

Our goal is to print the list’s contents to the console. Before we start writing our program, let’s include the relevant header files:

#include <iostream>
#include <fstream>
#include <string>

We’re now ready to write our function. Let’s first declare our fstream variable and connect it to a stream object by opening the file:

int main () {
std::ifstream myfile; myfile.open("shopping_list.txt");

Strictly speaking, we could have performed that action in a single line, using the class constructor to open the file directly when initializing the stream object:

int main () {
std::ifstream myfile ("shopping_list.txt"); // this is equivalent to the above method

Before we get to read the file’s contents into our stream, all that’s left to do is to declare a string variable that can hold the contents:

std::string mystring;

Read a File in C++ Using the >> Operator

For starters, let’s use the stream input operator >> to read in our list from the file.

if ( myfile.is_open() ) { // always check whether the file is open
myfile >> mystring; // pipe file's content into stream
std::cout << mystring; // pipe stream's content to standard output

Note that the ifstream destructor closes our file automatically,  which is one of the perks of using this class. If we wanted, we could have added an infile.close() command to the end of the program. This is seen as good practice, but it does not really add any value.

When we run that function, here’s the output we get on the screen:


That’s not what we expected. Our function printed only the first item of our shopping list. That’s because the >> operator reads a string only until it encounters a white space character (such as a space or line break). To read the entire file, we can place the line into a while loop:

if ( myfile.is_open() ) {     while ( myfile.good() ) {
myfile >> mystring;
std::cout << mystring;
}          }

Once we reach the end of the file, myfile.good() evaluates to False, causing the while loop to terminate. We can abbreviate the condition as follows:

while ( myfile ) {

This is equivalent to asking if our file is good. How does our code perform now?


Two things happened here: All our shopping items got chained together, with the last item being printed twice. While the latter has to do with how C++ handles buffered data and is out of the scope of this tutorial, the first was to be expected. After all, >> ignores whitespace, meaning that all the space and newline characters get lost. How can we include that information in the output? The answer to that question lies in the get() function.

Read a File in C++ Using get()

We’ll replace >> with get(), a member function of our fstream class that reads in one character at a time. The great thing about get() is that it does not ignore white space and instead treats it as a series of ordinary characters. To read in the file’s contents in their entirety, we’ll stick to our while-loop:

if ( myfile.is_open() ) {
char mychar;
while ( myfile ) {
mychar = myfile.get();
std::cout << mychar;

How does the output of our little script look now?

eggs and spam
spam and eggs

Success! Our entire shopping list was printed to the console. To demonstrate that this function really does stream each character one by one, let’s add a little functionality that tells us the position of the stream’s pointer after each output. 

std::cout << ": " << myfile.tellg() << ", " ;

The tellg() function’s name is short for “tell get.” It returns the current position of the pointer as it moves through the input stream. Once the entire file has been traversed, tellg() returns the value -1. 

Let’s look at just the first two lines of the output after running the modified code:

e: 2, g: 3, g: 4, s: 5,
: 6, h: 7, a: 8, m: 9,

For every get() action, the standard output shows the letter of the input, and the position of the pointer. We can see that every character was indeed processed individually, causing the code to evaluate the pointer’s position after every single character, be it a letter or white space.

Read a File in C++ Using getline()

For our use case, there’s little point in processing every character separately — after all, we want to print every line from our shopping list to the screen one by one. This calls for getline(), another member function, which reads in the text until it encounters a line break. Here’s how we would modify our code:

std::string myline;
if ( myfile.is_open() ) {
while ( myfile ) {
std::getline (myfile, myline);
std::cout << myline << ": " << myfile.tellg() << '\n';

And here’s the output:

eggs: 5
ham: 9
eggs and spam: 23
spam and eggs: 37

The pointer’s position is now evaluated after every line read in by our file stream.

To wrap things up, here’s the final version of our script for reading a file in C++ line by line:

#include <iostream>
#include <fstream>
#include <string>

int main (){
std::ifstream myfile;
std::string myline;
if ( myfile.is_open() ) {
while ( myfile ) { // equivalent to myfile.good()
std::getline (myfile, myline);
std::cout << myline << '\n';
else {
std::cout << "Couldn't open file\n";
return 0;      }

Adding an else-condition, as we did at the end of this script, is a good idea if you encounter a problematic file. Instead of simply terminating wordlessly, the script will tell you that it was not able to open the file.

Read a File in C++ Using C-style Read File

As with many aspects about the C++ language, we have another class for reading from and writing to files that’s a leftover from C, its predecessor. C-style streams are encoded in FILE objects from the cstdio library. stdin and stdout are expressions of type FILE* for handling input and output streams respectively.

With C-style file reading, the most important difference to the fstream class is that FILE* objects do not close files for you: If you forget to close your file, it will remain open. That’s why proponents of the fstream class argue that it’s safer to use.

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