Casting and Type Conversion Best Practices in C#

Type casting or type converting is a common occurrance in C#, and as the language has evolved new methods and operators have been introduced that handle type conversion in varying ways.

Over the years, I have built up my own set of best practices and decided to get them out of my head with the goal of soliciting feedback and hopefully refining them further. Before laying them out, I’ll cover the basics of type casting and type conversion in C#.

  • Type Casting vs Type Conversion

    • “Casting” is only valid for reference types, value types are converted
    • The cast operator attempts to cast an object to a specific type, and throws an exception if it fails
    • Although (long)some_integer has the same syntax as a cast operation, the integer is actually being converted to a long
  • Upcasting vs Downcasting

    • Upcasting = Derived Class => Base Class
    • Upcasting is implicit (cast operator is not required)

      Animal animal = dog;

    • Downcasting = Base Class => Derived Class
    • Downcasting requires a cast operator (explicit)

      Dog dog = (Dog)animal;

  • is vs as Operators

    • The is operator checks the compatibility of an object with a given type and returns the result as a Boolean (True Or False)
    • The as operator attempts to cast an object to a specific type, and returns null if it fails

Casting/Type Conversion Best Practices

If ’randomObject’ really ’should’ be an instance ‘TargetType’, i.e. if it’s not, that means there’s a bug, then casting is the right solution. Throwing an exception immediately means that no more work is done under incorrect assumptions, and the exception correctly shows the type of bug. (cast only)

// This will throw an exception if randomObject is non-null
// and refers to an object of an incompatible type.
//"Cast only" is the best method if that's the behavior you want.
TargetType convertedRandomObject = (TargetType) randomObject;

If randomObject might be an instance of TargetType and TargetType is a reference type, then use as-and-null-check:

TargetType convertedRandomObject = randomObject as TargetType;
if (convertedRandomObject != null)
{
    // Do stuff with convertedRandomObject
}

If randomObject might be an instance TargetType and TargetType is a value type, then we can’t use as with TargetType itself, but we can use a nullable type:

TargetType? convertedRandomObject = randomObject as TargetType?;
if (convertedRandomObject != null)
{
    // Do stuff with convertedRandomObject.Value
}

If you really don’t need the converted value, but you just need to know whether randomObject is an instance of TargetType, then use the is operator . In this case it doesn’t matter whether TargetType is a reference type or a value type.

Don’t do this:

// Bad code - checks type twice for no reason
if (randomObject is TargetType)
{
    TargetType foo = (TargetType) randomObject;
    // Do something with foo
}

is-and-cast (or is-and-as) are both potentially unsafe, as the type of randomObject may change due to another thread between the test and the cast (e.g., randomObject is a field or property rather than a local variable)

as-and-null-check gives a better separation of concerns. We have one statement which attempts a conversion, and then one statement which uses the result. The is-and-cast or is-and-as performs a test and then another attempt to convert the value.

However, all of the above guidelines are moot with C# 7.0, where pattern matching has largely replaced the as operator. It is now possible to write:

if (randomObject is TargetType tt)
{
    // Use tt here
}

This new construct enables cleaner syntax and eliminates the possibility of randomObject’s type being changed by another thread and resolves the issue where randomObject’s type is needlessly checked twice.