Variables and Mutability

Cairo uses an immutable memory model, meaning that once a memory cell is written to, it can't be overwritten but only read from. To reflect this immutable memory model, variables in Cairo are immutable by default. However, the language abstracts this model and gives you the option to make your variables mutable. Let’s explore how and why Cairo enforces immutability, and how you can make your variables mutable.

When a variable is immutable, once a value is bound to a name, you can’t change that value. To illustrate this, generate a new project called variables in your cairo_projects directory by using scarb new variables.

Then, in your new variables directory, open src/lib.cairo and replace its code with the following code, which won’t compile just yet:

Filename: src/lib.cairo

fn main() {
    let x = 5;
    println!("The value of x is: {}", x);
    x = 6;
    println!("The value of x is: {}", x);
}

Save and run the program using scarb cairo-run. You should receive an error message regarding an immutability error, as shown in this output:

error: Cannot assign to an immutable variable.
 --> lib.cairo:5:5
    x = 6;
    ^***^

error: could not compile `variables` due to previous error

This example shows how the compiler helps you find errors in your programs. Compiler errors can be frustrating, but they only mean your program isn’t safely doing what you want it to do yet; they do not mean that you’re not a good programmer! Experienced Caironautes still get compiler errors.

You received the error message Cannot assign to an immutable variable. because you tried to assign a second value to the immutable x variable.

It’s important that we get compile-time errors when we attempt to change a value that’s designated as immutable because this specific situation can lead to bugs. If one part of our code operates on the assumption that a value will never change and another part of our code changes that value, it’s possible that the first part of the code won’t do what it was designed to do. The cause of this kind of bug can be difficult to track down after the fact, especially when the second piece of code changes the value only sometimes.

Cairo, unlike most other languages, has immutable memory. This makes a whole class of bugs impossible, because values will never change unexpectedly. This makes code easier to reason about.

But mutability can be very useful, and can make code more convenient to write. Although variables are immutable by default, you can make them mutable by adding mut in front of the variable name. Adding mut also conveys intent to future readers of the code by indicating that other parts of the code will be changing the value associated to this variable.

However, you might be wondering at this point what exactly happens when a variable is declared as mut, as we previously mentioned that Cairo's memory is immutable. The answer is that the value is immutable, but the variable isn't. The value associated to the variable can be changed. Assigning to a mutable variable in Cairo is essentially equivalent to redeclaring it to refer to another value in another memory cell, but the compiler handles that for you, and the keyword mut makes it explicit. Upon examining the low-level Cairo Assembly code, it becomes clear that variable mutation is implemented as syntactic sugar, which translates mutation operations into a series of steps equivalent to variable shadowing. The only difference is that at the Cairo level, the variable is not redeclared so its type cannot change.

For example, let’s change src/lib.cairo to the following:

Filename: src/lib.cairo

fn main() {
    let mut x = 5;
    println!("The value of x is: {}", x);
    x = 6;
    println!("The value of x is: {}", x);
}

When we run the program now, we get this:

$ scarb cairo-run
The value of x is: 5
The value of x is: 6
Run completed successfully, returning []

We’re allowed to change the value bound to x from 5 to 6 when mut is used. Ultimately, deciding whether to use mutability or not is up to you and depends on what you think is clearest in that particular situation.

Constants

Like immutable variables, constants are values that are bound to a name and are not allowed to change, but there are a few differences between constants and variables.

First, you aren’t allowed to use mut with constants. Constants aren’t just immutable by default—they’re always immutable. You declare constants using the const keyword instead of the let keyword, and the type of the value must be annotated. We’ll cover types and type annotations in the next section, “Data Types”, so don’t worry about the details right now. Just know that you must always annotate the type.

Constants can only be declared in the global scope, which makes them useful for values that many parts of code need to know about.

The last difference is that constants may natively be set only to a constant expression, not the result of a value that could only be computed at runtime. Only literal constants are currently supported.

Here’s an example of a constant declaration:

const ONE_HOUR_IN_SECONDS: u32 = 3600;

Nonetheless, it is possible to use the consteval_int! macro to create a const variable that is the result of some computation:

const ONE_HOUR_IN_SECONDS: u32 = consteval_int!(60 * 60);

We will dive into more detail about macros in the dedicated section.

Cairo's naming convention for constants is to use all uppercase with underscores between words.

Constants are valid for the entire time a program runs, within the scope in which they were declared. This property makes constants useful for values in your application domain that multiple parts of the program might need to know about, such as the maximum number of points any player of a game is allowed to earn, or the speed of light.

Naming hardcoded values used throughout your program as constants is useful in conveying the meaning of that value to future maintainers of the code. It also helps to have only one place in your code you would need to change if the hardcoded value needed to be updated in the future.

Shadowing

Variable shadowing refers to the declaration of a new variable with the same name as a previous variable. Caironautes say that the first variable is shadowed by the second, which means that the second variable is what the compiler will see when you use the name of the variable. In effect, the second variable overshadows the first, taking any uses of the variable name to itself until either it itself is shadowed or the scope ends. We can shadow a variable by using the same variable’s name and repeating the use of the let keyword as follows:

Filename: src/lib.cairo

fn main() {
    let x = 5;
    let x = x + 1;
    {
        let x = x * 2;
        println!("Inner scope x value is: {}", x);
    }
    println!("Outer scope x value is: {}", x);
}

This program first binds x to a value of 5. Then it creates a new variable x by repeating let x =, taking the original value and adding 1 so the value of x is then 6. Then, within an inner scope created with the curly brackets, the third let statement also shadows x and creates a new variable, multiplying the previous value by 2 to give x a value of 12. When that scope is over, the inner shadowing ends and x returns to being 6. When we run this program, it will output the following:

scarb cairo-run
Inner scope x value is: 12
Outer scope x value is: 6
Run completed successfully, returning []

Shadowing is different from marking a variable as mut because we’ll get a compile-time error if we accidentally try to reassign to this variable without using the let keyword. By using let, we can perform a few transformations on a value but have the variable be immutable after those transformations have been completed.

Another distinction between mut and shadowing is that when we use the let keyword again, we are effectively creating a new variable, which allows us to change the type of the value while reusing the same name. As mentioned before, variable shadowing and mutable variables are equivalent at the lower level. The only difference is that by shadowing a variable, the compiler will not complain if you change its type. For example, say our program performs a type conversion between the u64 and felt252 types.

fn main() {
    let x: u64 = 2;
    println!("The value of x is {} of type u64", x);
    let x: felt252 = x.into(); // converts x to a felt, type annotation is required.
    println!("The value of x is {} of type felt252", x);
}

The first x variable has a u64 type while the second x variable has a felt252 type. Shadowing thus spares us from having to come up with different names, such as x_u64 and x_felt252; instead, we can reuse the simpler x name. However, if we try to use mut for this, as shown here, we’ll get a compile-time error:

fn main() {
    let mut x: u64 = 2;
    println!("The value of x is: {}", x);
    x = 'a short string';
    println!("The value of x is: {}", x);
}

The error says we were expecting a u64 (the original type) but we got a different type:

$ scarb cairo-run

error: The value does not fit within the range of type core::integer::u64.
 --> lib.cairo:9:9
    x = 'a short string';
        ^**************^

error: could not compile `variables` due to previous error

Now that we’ve explored how variables work, let’s look at more data types they can have.