Differences between signed int and unsigned int type

difference between signed int and unsigned int type and uses of signed int ,uses of unsigned int

The main difference between signed and unsigned int data types in C++ is that signed int can represent both +ve and -ve value while unsigned int can represent only +ve value.A simple code is given below

signed int si=-90;
unsigned int usi=-90 ;

cout<< si << endl ///prints -90
 << usi ;///prints some +ve value not -90

The method that signed int and int type employ to support negative value is simple.In int or signed int type the left most bit is preserve for storing either 1 or 0 bit.These bits hold certain significance in terms of the sign the value assigned to the two types should have.If the preserve bit is mark 1 then the value will have -ve sign but if the bit is mark 0 then the sign is +ve.These bits are deduced automatically by the compiler when the value is assigned to the signed or int variable.If the value assigned is negative value then the compiler knows that the left most bit should be 1 so it mark the left most bit as 1,whereas if the value is +ve the compiler mark the left most bit as 0.This method is rather simple to implement but it has a side effect.Since the left most bit is preserve for either 1 or 0 bit,there is only 31 bits left to represent the absolute value.The integer zero(0) is considered as +ve value so the maximum +ve value a signed int can represent is ( 231-1) which is 2147483647 .And the smallest -ve value it can represent is -231 which is -2147483648.

Unlike the signed int the unsigned int type does not make any special allocation of the left most bit for +ve or -ve sign.This means they have a total of 32 bits left at their disposal to represent the integer value.So they can represent values larger then int or signed type but only +ve values.The range of values it can represent varies from 0 to (232 – 1) (4294967295). A simple program is given below to show that unsigned int type does not support -ve integer value.

#include < iostream >

using namespace std ;

int main( )
signed int si=-90;
unsigned usi=-900;
cout<< si << endl;
cout << usi << endl ; //Negative value is not the output here

cin.get( ) ;
return 0 ;


The output of the above program is:


As you can see when as negative integer is assigned to unsigned variable the output is a +ve value.The reason why the output of the unsigned int variable assigned the value -900 is 4294966396 will be discussed in another post Negative value assigned to unsigned int variable..Do check out the post it might be worth it.

Uses of int and unsigned int

We know the differences between signed int and unsigned int type(which is given above) now,let’s see their uses.Signed int can represent both +ve and -ve value so we can use it in our program involving both +ve and -ve value.But,if our program needs only +ve value we can use the unsigned int type.However,it is recommended that we use int or signed int type instead of unsigned int type because we are not always sure that our program will need only +ve value.

Use unsigned type if you need an integer value for bit wise operation.Using signed type for bit wise operation can sometime give an unexpected output.Consider the program below.

signed short si1=65532 , si2=4 , sresult1 ;
unsigned short usresult1 ;

usresult1=si1 | si2 ;
sresult1=si1 | si2 ;

cout<< usresult << endl
<< sresult << endl ;

Before we examine the output of the program let’s perform a bit wise ‘or‘ operation between si1 and si2, and see for ourselves what value can be expected.The bit format of si1(65532)=1111111111111100 and si2=0000000000000100.The bit wise ‘or’ operation is shown below.

disadvantage of using unsigned int in bit wise operation
Fig. Defect of using unsigned in bit wise operation

We expect the output to be 65532 for both the value.However, it is not and in case of signed int variable the output is -4.This unexpected output value is due to the fact that since unsigned cannot represent 65532 a bit wise complement is performed on the value 65532 and outputs the value -4.Such uncertainty in the resultant value of the bit wise operation when the variable is signed type can lead to some disastrous result if you are not careful.So ,to simplify things and prevent our program from behaving differently it is better that we always use unsigned type in every bit wise operation.

Related Link

->Integer data type : built-in data types in C++

->Negative value assigned to unsigned int variable.