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Argument Passing By Value and By Reference 

In Visual Basic, you can pass an argument to a procedure by value or by reference. This is known as the passing mechanism, and it determines whether the procedure can modify the programming element underlying the argument in the calling code. The procedure declaration determines the passing mechanism for each parameter by specifying the ByVal or ByRef keyword.


When passing an argument to a procedure, be aware of several different distinctions that interact with each other:

  • Whether the underlying programming element is modifiable or nonmodifiable

  • Whether the argument itself is modifiable or nonmodifiable

  • Whether the argument is being passed by value or by reference

  • Whether the argument data type is a value type or a reference type

For more information, see Differences Between Modifiable and Nonmodifiable Arguments and Differences Between Passing an Argument By Value and By Reference.

Choice of Passing Mechanism

You should choose the passing mechanism carefully for each argument.

  • Protection. In choosing between the two passing mechanisms, the most important criterion is the exposure of calling variables to change. The advantage of passing an argument ByRef is that the procedure can return a value to the calling code through that argument. The advantage of passing an argument ByVal is that it protects a variable from being changed by the procedure.

  • Performance. Although the passing mechanism can affect the performance of your code, the difference is usually insignificant. One exception to this is a value type passed ByVal. In this case, Visual Basic copies the entire data contents of the argument. Therefore, for a large value type such as a structure, it can be more efficient to pass it ByRef.

    For reference types, only the pointer to the data is copied (four bytes on 32-bit platforms, eight bytes on 64-bit platforms). Therefore, you can pass arguments of type String or Object by value without harming performance.

Determination of the Passing Mechanism

The procedure declaration specifies the passing mechanism for each parameter. The calling code cannot override a ByVal mechanism, but if a parameter is declared with ByRef, the calling code can force the mechanism to ByVal by enclosing the argument name in parentheses in the call.

The default in Visual Basic is to pass arguments by value. You can make your code easier to read by using the ByVal keyword. It is good programming practice to include either the ByVal or ByRef keyword with every declared parameter.

When To Pass an Argument by Value

  • If the calling code element underlying the argument is a nonmodifiable element, declare the corresponding parameter ByVal. No code can change the value of a nonmodifiable element.

  • If the underlying element is modifiable, but you do not want the procedure to be able to change its value, declare the parameter ByVal. Only the calling code can change the value of a modifiable element passed by value.

When To Pass an Argument by Reference

  • If the procedure has a genuine need to change the underlying element in the calling code, declare the corresponding parameter ByRef.

  • If the correct execution of the code depends on the procedure changing the underlying element in the calling code, declare the parameter ByRef. If you pass it by value, or if the calling code overrides the ByRef passing mechanism by enclosing the argument in parentheses, the procedure call might produce unexpected results.

See Also