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Java offers both basic built-in arrays and also an ArrayList class. The more basic arrays come from Java's C heritage. When creating an array, the size must be specified and can never be changed:

// create an array of 100 integers
int[] array = new int[100];

ArrayLists on the other hand start out empty and can grow dynamically as the program runs. The ArrayList class also contains helpful methods. In this class, we'll use ArrayList almost all of the time.


Creating an ArrayList

An ArrayList of Strings can be declared as follows:

ArrayList<String> names = new ArrayList<>();

The type should be indicated inside the angled brackets. It's possible to leave this off, but then the list could store any type of data whatsoever. By specifying the type we let the compiler help us make sure only the right sort of thing goes into the list.

The second pair of angled brackets can also have the type in it again:

ArrayList<String> names = new ArrayList<String>();

This line does the same thing as the one previous. The angled brackets do need to be there one way or another. Leaving the type off is less typing, so that's the approach taken here.

Each of these two lines declare and also initialize and ArrayList. An ArrayList cannot be used if it's not declared. The compiler will let you run your program if you forget to initialize the list. But objects must be initialized before they are used. This code will crash, for instance:

ArrayList<String> names;

Another complication in creating ArrayLists is that they cannot be created for the primitive Java types such as int, float, boolean and so on. This is because Java's generic system is based on Object types alone.

Wrapper classes exist for all the primitive types to get around this limitation. To make and ArrayList of ints, instead do:

ArrayList<Integer> names = new ArrayList<>();


ArrayList Methods

One of the benefits of using ArrayLists is the amount of methods the class has for modifying and working with the list. The Javadocs page for ArrayList lists them all in detail.

Probably the most commonly used ones are:


Looping through an ArrayList

There are two main ways to loop through an ArrayList. The first is the older, C-style for loop:

for (int i = 0; i < names.size(); i++) {

This works by keeping a counter variable, i, as an index into the list. It starts at 0 and keeps going while it's less than the size of the list. This variable is then passed into the get() method to retrieve each item from the list.

There is also the newer "foreach" style for loop, reminiscent of Python's for loop:

for (String name : names) {

The benefit of this is that it is shorter and less error-prone. For instance, you can't get an off-by-one error with your index with this style for loop. The downside is that we don't have an index variable. So if we need to know which element we're on we'd need to use the first style loop.


Calling Methods on Elements

One thing we will often want to do with ArrayLists is to call a method on each object being stored in the list. For instance, let's say we have a Student class which has a method called printReport(). We can make an ArrayList of Student objects like this:

ArrayList<Student> students = new ArrayList<>();

How then could we call the method we want? Some beginner programmers attempt to call printReport() on the ArrayList, like this:


However, this will not work because students is not a Student object, it's an ArrayList object. And ArrayList does not have any method called printReport. So instead we need to get at the individual students stored in the list, by using a loop:

for (Student s : students) {

Copyright © 2023 Ian Finlayson | Licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.