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Default Marshaling for Strings

Both the System.String and System.StringBuilder classes have similar marshaling behavior. The major difference between them is that strings are immutable, whereas the contents of StringBuilder buffers can be changed by the callee and copied back to the caller.

Strings are marshaled as a COM-style BSTR type or as a character array terminating in a null reference (Nothing in Visual Basic). The characters within the string can be marshaled as Unicode or ANSI, or in a platform-dependent manner (Unicode on Microsoft Windows NT, Windows 2000, and Windows XP; ANSI on Windows 98 and Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me).

This topic provides the following information on marshaling string types:

Strings Used in Interfaces

The following table shows the marshaling options for the string data type when marshaled as a method argument to unmanaged code. The MarshalAsAttribute attribute provides several UnmanagedType enumeration values to marshal strings to COM interfaces.

Enumeration typeDescription of unmanaged format
UnmanagedType.BStr
(default)
A COM-style BSTR with a prefixed length and Unicode characters.
UnmanagedType.LPStr A pointer to a null-terminated array of ANSI characters.
UnmanagedType.LPWStrA pointer to a null-terminated array of Unicode characters.

The following example shows strings declared in the IStringWorker interface.

public interface IStringWorker {
void PassString1(String s);
void PassString2([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.BStr)]String s);
void PassString3([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPStr)]String s);
void PassString4([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPWStr)]String s);
void PassStringRef1(ref String s);
void PassStringRef2([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.BStr)]ref String s);
void PassStringRef3([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPStr)]ref String s);
void PassStringRef4([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPWStr)]ref String s);
);

The following example shows the corresponding interface described in a type library.

[...]
interface IStringWorker : IDispatch {
HRESULT PassString1([in] BSTR s);
HRESULT PassString2([in] BSTR s);
HRESULT PassString3([in] LPStr s);
HRESULT PassString4([in] LPWStr s);
HRESULT PassStringRef1([in, out] BSTR *s);
HRESULT PassStringRef2([in, out] BSTR *s);
HRESULT PassStringRef3([in, out] LPStr *s);
HRESULT PassStringRef4([in, out] LPWStr *s);
);

Strings Used in Platform Invoke

Platform invoke copies string arguments, converting from the .NET Framework format (Unicode) to the platform unmanaged format. Strings are immutable and are not copied back from unmanaged memory to managed memory when the call returns.

The following table lists the marshaling options for strings when marshaled as a method argument of a platform invoke call. The MarshalAsAttribute attribute provides several UnmanagedType enumeration values to marshal strings.

Enumeration typeDescription of unmanaged format
UnmanagedType.AnsiBStrA COM-style BSTR with a prefixed length and ANSI characters.
UnmanagedType.BStr
(default)
A COM-style BSTR with a prefixed length and Unicode characters.
UnmanagedType.LPStr A pointer to a null-terminated array of ANSI characters.
UnmanagedType.LPTStrA pointer to a null-terminated array of platform-dependent characters.
UnmanagedType.LPWStrA pointer to a null-terminated array of Unicode characters.
UnmanagedType.TBStrA COM-style BSTR with a prefixed length and platform-dependent characters.

The following type definition shows the correct use of MarshalAsAttribute for platform invoke calls.

Class StringLibAPI    
Public Declare Auto Sub PassLPStr Lib "StringLib.Dll" _
(<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPStr)> s As String)    
Public Declare Auto Sub PassLPWStr Lib "StringLib.Dll" _
(<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPWStr)> s As String)    
Public Declare Auto Sub PassLPTStr Lib "StringLib.Dll" _
(<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPTStr)> s As String)    
Public Declare Auto Sub PassBStr Lib "StringLib.Dll" _
(<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.BStr)> s As String)    
Public Declare Auto Sub PassAnsiBStr Lib "StringLib.Dll" _
(<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.AnsiBStr)> s As String)    
Public Declare Auto Sub PassTBStr Lib "StringLib.Dll" _
(<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.TBStr)> s As String)
End Class
[C#]
class StringLibAPI {
[DllImport("StringLib.Dll")]
public static extern void PassLPStr([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPStr)]
String s);
[DllImport("StringLib.Dll")]
public static extern void 
PassLPWStr([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPWStr)]String s);
[DllImport("StringLib.Dll")]
public static extern void 
PassLPTStr([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPTStr)]String s);
[DllImport("StringLib.Dll")]
public static extern void PassBStr([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.BStr)]
String s);
[DllImport("StringLib.Dll")]
public static extern void 
PassAnsiBStr([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.AnsiBStr)]String s);
[DllImport("StringLib.Dll")]
public static extern void PassTBStr([MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.TBStr)]
String s);
}

Strings Used in Structures

Strings are valid members of structures; however, StringBuilder buffers are invalid in structures. The following table shows the marshaling options for the string data type when the type is marshaled as a field. The MarshalAsAttribute attribute provides several UnmanagedType enumeration values to marshal strings to a field.

Enumeration typeDescription of unmanaged format
UnmanagedType.BStr A COM-style BSTR with a prefixed length and Unicode characters.
UnmanagedType.LPStr A pointer to a null-terminated array of ANSI characters.
UnmanagedType.LPTStrA pointer to a null-terminated array of platform-dependent characters.
UnmanagedType.LPWStrA pointer to a null-terminated array of Unicode characters.
UnmanagedType.ByValTStrA fixed-length array of characters; the array's type is determined by the character set of the containing structure.

The ByValTStr type is used for inline, fixed-length character arrays that appear within a structure. Other types apply to string references contained within structures that contain pointers to strings.

The CharSet argument of the StructLayoutAttribute attribute that is applied to the containing structure determines the character format of strings in structures. The following example structures contain string references and inline strings, as well as ANSI, Unicode, and platform-dependent characters.

Type library representation

struct StringInfoA {
   char *    f1;
   char      f2[256];
};
struct StringInfoW {
   WCHAR *   f1;
   WCHAR     f2[256];
   BSTR      f3;
};
struct StringInfoT {
   TCHAR *   f1;
   TCHAR     f2[256];
};

The following code example shows how to use the MarshalAsAttribute attribute to define the same structure in different formats.

<StructLayout(LayoutKind.Sequential, CharSet := CharSet.Ansi)> _
Structure StringInfoA
<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPStr)> Public f1 As String
<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValTStr, SizeConst := 256)> _
Public f2 As String
End Structure
<StructLayout(LayoutKind.Sequential, CharSet := CharSet.Unicode)> _
Structure StringInfoW
<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPWStr)> Public f1 As String
<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValTStr, SizeConst := 256)> _
Public f2 As String
<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.BStr)> Public f3 As String
End Structure
<StructLayout(LayoutKind.Sequential, CharSet := CharSet.Auto)> _
Structure StringInfoT
<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPTStr)> Public f1 As String
<MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValTStr, SizeConst := 256)> _
Public f2 As String
End Structure
[C#]
[StructLayout(LayoutKind.Sequential, CharSet=CharSet.Ansi)]
struct StringInfoA {
   [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPStr)] public String f1;
   [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValTStr, SizeConst=256)] public String f2;
}
[StructLayout(LayoutKind.Sequential, CharSet=CharSet.Unicode)]
struct StringInfoW {
   [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPWStr)] public String f1;
   [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValTStr, SizeConst=256)] public String f2;
   [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.BStr)] public String f3;
}
[StructLayout(LayoutKind.Sequential, CharSet=CharSet.Auto)]
struct StringInfoT {
   [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.LPTStr)] public String f1;
   [MarshalAs(UnmanagedType.ByValTStr, SizeConst=256)] public String f2;
}

Fixed-Length String Buffers

In some circumstances, a fixed-length character buffer must be passed into unmanaged code to be manipulated. Simply passing a string does not work in this case because the callee cannot modify the contents of the passed buffer. Even if the string is passed by reference, there is no way to initialize the buffer to a given size.

The solution is to pass a StringBuilder buffer as the argument instead of a string. A StringBuilder can be dereferenced and modified by the callee, provided it does not exceed the capacity of the StringBuilder. It can also be initialized to a fixed length. For example, if you initialize a StringBuilder buffer to a capacity of N, the marshaler provides a buffer of size (N+1) characters. The +1 accounts for the fact that the unmanaged string has a null terminator while StringBuilder does not.

For example, the Microsoft Win32 API GetWindowText function (defined in Windows.h) is a fixed-length character buffer that must be passed into unmanaged code to be manipulated. LpString points to a caller-allocated buffer of size nMaxCount. The caller is expected to allocate the buffer and set the nMaxCount argument to the size of the allocated buffer. The following code shows the GetWindowText function declaration as defined in Windows.h.

int GetWindowText(
HWND hWnd,        // Handle to window or control.
LPTStr lpString,  // Text buffer.
int nMaxCount     // Maximum number of characters to copy.
);

A StringBuilder can be dereferenced and modified by the callee, provided it does not exceed the capacity of the StringBuilder. The following code example demonstrates how StringBuilder can be initialized to a fixed length.

Public Class Win32API
Public Declare Auto Sub GetWindowText Lib "User32.Dll" _
(h As Integer, s As StringBuilder, nMaxCount As Integer)
End Class
Public Class Window
   Friend h As Integer ' Friend handle to Window.
   Public Function GetText() As String
      Dim sb As New StringBuilder(256)
      Win32API.GetWindowText(h, sb, sb.Capacity + 1)
   Return sb.ToString()
   End Function
End Class
[C#]
public class Win32API {
[DllImport("User32.Dll")]
public static extern void GetWindowText(int h, StringBuilder s, 
int nMaxCount);
}
public class Window {
   internal int h;        // Internal handle to Window.
   public String GetText() {
      StringBuilder sb = new StringBuilder(256);
      Win32API.GetWindowText(h, sb, sb.Capacity + 1);
   return sb.ToString();
   }
}

See Also

Default Marshaling Behavior | Blittable and Non-Blittable Types | Directional Attributes | Copying and Pinning

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