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C - File I/O and Binary File I/O

In this tutorial, you'll learn how to do file IO, text and binary, in C, using fopen, fwrite, and fread, fprintf, fscanf, fgetc and fputc.


For C File I/O you need to use a FILE pointer, which will let the program keep track of the file being accessed. (You can think of it as the memory address of the file or the location of the file).

For example:

FILE *fp;


To open a file you need to use the fopen function, which returns a FILE pointer. Once you've opened a file, you can use the FILE pointer to let the compiler perform input and output functions on the file.

FILE *fopen(const char *filename, const char *mode);

In the filename, if you use a string literal as the argument, you need to remember to use double backslashes rather than a single backslash as you otherwise risk an escape character such as \t. Using double backslashes \\ escapes the \ key, so the string works as it is expected. Your users, of course, do not need to do this! It's just the way quoted strings are handled in C and C++.

fopen modes

The allowed modes for fopen are as follows:

r  - open for reading
w  - open for writing (file need not exist)
a  - open for appending (file need not exist)
r+ - open for reading and writing, start at beginning
w+ - open for reading and writing (overwrite file)
a+ - open for reading and writing (append if file exists)

Here's a simple example of using fopen:

FILE *fp;
fp=fopen("c:\\test.txt", "r");


When you're done working with a file, you should close it using the function

int fclose(FILE *a_file);

Reading and writing with fprintf, fscanf fputc, and fgetc

To work with text input and output, you use fprintf and fscanf, both of which are similar to their friends printf and scanf except that you must pass the FILE pointer as first argument. For example:

FILE *fp;
fp=fopen("c:\\test.txt", "w");
fprintf(fp, "Testing...\n");

It is also possible to read (or write) a single character at a time--this can be useful if you wish to perform character-by-character input (for instance, if you need to keep track of every piece of punctuation in a file it would make more sense to read in a single character than to read in a string at a time.) The fgetc function, which takes a file pointer, and returns an int, will let you read a single character from a file:

int fgetc (FILE *fp);

Binary file I/O - fread and fwrite

For binary File I/O you use fread and fwrite. The declarations for each are similar:

size_t fread(void *ptr, size_t size_of_elements, size_t number_of_elements, FILE *a_file);
size_t fwrite(const void *ptr, size_t size_of_elements, size_t number_of_elements, FILE *a_file);

Both of these functions deal with blocks of memories - usually arrays. Because they accept pointers, you can also use these functions with other data structures; you can even write structs to a file or a read struct into memory.

The final argument is simply the file pointer we've been using. When fread is used, after being passed an array, fread will read from the file until it has filled the array, and it will return the number of elements actually read. If the file, for example, is only 30 bytes, but you try to read 100 bytes, it will return that it read 30 bytes. To check to ensure the end of file was reached, use the feof function, which accepts a FILE pointer and returns true if the end of the file has been reached.

fwrite is similar in usage, except instead of reading into the memory you write from memory into a file.

For example,

FILE *fp;
fp=fopen("c:\\test.bin", "wb");
char x[10]="ABCDEFGHIJ";
fwrite(x, sizeof(x[0]), sizeof(x)/sizeof(x[0]), fp);