Variables in PHP

22. 08. 2019

Obsah článku

This page is a complete summary of how variables work in PHP. The text is written in a slightly technical style and may not be fully understood by beginners. If you're interested in the complete basics, then read the beginner's tutorial and principles of writing variables.


A variable is a virtual location in operational memory, it is defined by name and data type. Within the data type, the variable then has some content.

Internally, PHP represents variables as a so-called hash table, i.e. all variables are stored in a table that is very fast to search, so the time required to access each variable is almost constant.

Writing examples:

$a = 10;
$b = 'cat';
$c = true;

Each line in the sample denotes the definition of one variable. The name of each variable starts with the dollar sign $ followed by the name itself. The equals sign can be used to assign a value to the variable.

Internally, the variables will be stored in memory as a hash table:

Name Type Abbreviation Value
$a integer int 10
$b string string cats
$c boolean bool true

Variable types

Variables are classified according to access rights and usage:

  • Global variables and variable variables should not be used because they contribute to code unreadability and "magical" (unexpected) application behavior.*

Allowed contents of variables

Variables can contain anything that their current data type allows. If the data type is not specified, it will be determined automatically, based on the content (this is not recommended, as it can lead to errors).

Datatypes work independently, so we can use almost any type. However, if we want to perform some merge operation, we must always ensure conversion to one format.

A good example is for example addition and multiplication of numbers:

$x = 5; // integer
$y = 3; // integer
$z = $y + $y; // the variable $z will be composed based on multiple variables

In this case, PHP is faced with the question of what data type the newly created variable $z will have. If they are the same data type and the operation is possible, the data type is inherited.

However, sometimes we can perform an operation with multiple data types:

$x = 1; // integer
$y = 3.14159; // float
$z = $y + $y; // float

In this case, we merge integer and float. The output will be a decimal number, so float is used. In this case, PHP will do something called dynamic repartitioning.

However, we can't always rely on this behavior. For example, how would you like to merge a number and a string?

$x = 256; // integer
$y = 'Hi!'; // float
$z = $y + $y; // ????

Data types (overview of the most important ones)

PHP is an interpreted language, so it has some peculiarities compared to other programming languages, one of them is that we don't need to specify data types for variables, i.e. each variable dynamically changes its data type according to its content (unless otherwise stated). Still, it is good to know at least the basic data types, especially useful when optimizing applications or working with databases.

The notation can look like this:

$x = (int) 25; // creates a variable of type integer

Data type overview.

Data type inheritance

What data type will the variable $x have if we only know this piece of source code?

$x = $y;

It depends on the data type of the variable $y from which both the value and its data type will be inherited. In this case, we do not know the variable $x, so we cannot continue evaluating the code and an error message would be thrown.

Dynamic override

Let's have the following 2 variables:

$x = 10;
$y = '10';

What is the difference between the contents of the variables $x and $y?

The variable $x is a number, $y is a string (containing a "1" and a "0"), so if we just store the variable in memory and do not perform any operation that will affect the value. For example, the following 2 entries will return the same result:

echo $x + 5; // prints 15
echo $y + 5; // prints 15

In the second case, the so-called dynamic rewriting occurs, i.e. the variable converts its data type so that a computational operation can be performed on it. This behaviour cannot always be relied upon and is more of a corrective behaviour to fix poorly written beginner scripts. If possible, always write numbers with a data type to store the numbers, as this increases their precision and makes them easier to use in the future.

Note: It is important to note that we cannot convert data types completely arbitrarily, so this is not always possible. If you overwrite a data type to some other (incompatible) one, either the conversion may not happen at all, or the original content may be corrupted or completely destroyed and replaced with another one. For example, if you rewrite a string to an integer (and some text that is not a number is stored in the variable), the value 1 will be stored in the variable instead of the numeric value.

Representing strings as arrays

All strings are stored internally as an array of characters. That is, each character has its own index and can be referenced. If we don't specify an index, the whole string is worked with.

$x = 'Let's program in PHP!';
$n = 3;
echo $x; // this prints the entire contents of the $x variable
echo $x[0]; // this prints the null character of the variable $x
echo $x[$n]; // this will print the nth character of the variable $x

Note: PHP numbers from zero, i.e. the zero character is 'P' and the first character is 'r'.

Additionally, the characters are byte-switched. For example, the character "no" in UTF-8 encoding is 2 bytes long, so the character index in the string will not match the real position when scrolling and 2 indices will be used to store the character.

The existence of an array element should always be verified with the isset() function:

if (isset($x[$n])) {
echo $x[$n];

Alternatively, this can be written nicely with the ternary operator:

echo $x[$n] ?? '';

Copying variables

Consider the following variable:

$q = 'Lorem ipsum, ...';

And then copy its value to the next variable:

$qi = $q;

Fortunately, no copying will be done and PHP will just store a reference to the value in a hash table. The value will only be actually copied when the value of one of the variables should change. This behavior is handled by a component generally called Garbridge collector.

Jan Barášek   Více o autorovi

Autor článku pracuje jako seniorní vývojář a software architekt v Praze. Navrhuje a spravuje velké webové aplikace, které znáte a používáte. Od roku 2009 nabral bohaté zkušenosti, které tímto webem předává dál.

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