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Swift has:

  • Strong References
  • Weak References
  • Unowned References

How is an unowned reference different from a weak reference?

When is it safe to use an unowned reference?

Are unowned references a security risk like dangling pointers in C/C++?

Both weak and unowned references do not create a strong hold on the referred object (a.k.a. they don't increase the retain count in order to prevent ARC from deallocating the referred object).

But why two keywords? This distinction has to do with the fact that Optional types are built-in the Swift language. Long story short about them: optional types offer memory safety (this works beautifully with Swift's constructor rules - which are strict in order to provide this benefit).

weak reference allows the posibility of it to become nil (this happens automatically when the referenced object is deallocated), therefore the type of your property must be optional - so you, as a programmer, are obligated to check it before you use it (basically the compiler forces you, as much as it can, to write safe code).

An unowned reference presumes that it will never become nil during it's lifetime. A unowned reference must be set during initialization - this means that the reference will be defined as a non-optional type that can be used safely without checks. If somehow the object being referred is deallocated, then the app will crash when the unowned reference will be used.

From the Apple docs:

Use a weak reference whenever it is valid for that reference to become nil at some point during its lifetime. Conversely, use an unowned reference when you know that the reference will never be nil once it has been set during initialization.

In the docs there are some examples that discusses retain cycles and how to break them. All these examples are extracted from the docs.

Example for the weak keyword:

class Person {
    let name: String
    init(name: String) { = name }
    var apartment: Apartment?

class Apartment {
    let number: Int
    init(number: Int) { self.number = number }
    weak var tenant: Person?

And now, for some ASCII art (you should go see the docs - they have pretty diagrams):

Person ===(strong)==> Apartment
Person <==(weak)===== Apartment

The Person and Apartment example shows a situation where two properties, both of which are allowed to be nil, have the potential to cause a strong reference cycle. This scenario is best resolved with a weak reference. Both entities can exist without having a strict dependency upon the other.

Example for the unowned keyword:

class Customer {
    let name: String
    var card: CreditCard?
    init(name: String) { = name }

class CreditCard {
    let number: UInt64
    unowned let customer: Customer
    init(number: UInt64, customer: Customer) { self.number = number; self.customer = customer }

In this example, a Customer may or may not have a CreditCard, but a CreditCard will always be associated with a Customer. To represent this, the Customer class has an optional card property, but the CreditCard class has a non-optional (and unowned) customer property.

Customer ===(strong)==> CreditCard
Customer <==(unowned)== CreditCard

The Customer and CreditCard example shows a situation where one property that is allowed to be nil and another property that cannot be nil have the potential to cause a strong reference cycle. This scenario is best resolved with an unowned reference.

Note from Apple:

Weak references must be declared as variables, to indicate that their value can change at runtime. A weak reference cannot be declared as a constant.

There is also a third scenario when both properties should always have a value, and neither property should ever be nil once initialization is complete.

And there are also the classic retain cycle scenarios to avoid when working with closures.

For this, I encourage you to visit the Apple docs, or read the book.

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