I am reading the docs on DigitalRead() and wondering why it stores seemingly boolean HIGH and LOW inputs in int data type variable.

I have two issues with that:

  1. int is 2-byte, while bool and uint8_t are 1-byte so it seems like a waste of memory for no benefit whatsoever.
  2. It gets me confused when reading the code about whether the input came from digital or analog since int can have a wide range.

Is there any particular reason for storing digital inputs as int?

EDIT: bool and uint8_t are out of the question as per the answer below. int8_t still looks suitable for the purpose though.

  • Note that the value returned by a function is passed in internal CPU registers, so no waste of RAM here. If I ever had to store the returned value in memory, I would indeed use an uint8_t. Mar 4, 2020 at 8:37

4 Answers 4


You receive the data as int, but you store it as byte.

For example, when you call the serial library function to receive a data byte, the library will return either the data or a -1 if a problem has occurred.

The binary value of -1 is a byte 11111111 or int 1111111111111111.

The binary value of 255 is a byte 11111111 or int 0000000011111111.

I think that you can see the problem if you use byte data and the data is 255.

So, if you receive an int -1, then you do not process the data. Otherwise you cast the int to uint8_t.

You could receive byte data, but then the value of 255 would be undefined.

  • I suspected there was something hidden going on. What about int8_t? It can store -1, 0, and 1 and still takes up 1 byte Mar 4, 2020 at 5:14
  • 1
    int8_t stores values of -128 to 127 .... uint8_t stores values of 0 to 255 ... the two data types both store 8 bits ... they are just there so that the compiler will throw a warning if the limits are exceeded
    – jsotola
    Mar 4, 2020 at 5:36
  • So I just replaced all ints storing digital inputs in my program with 1-byte int8_ts. It seems to work fine so far. Mar 4, 2020 at 5:49
  • Neither digitalRead() nor analogRead() ever return -1. There is no reason why digitalRead() is a int function instead of uint8_t, and it indeed needlessly wastes space. The compiler will probably optimize it away though, if you store the result as uint8_t or int8_t
    – towe
    Mar 4, 2020 at 10:31

I did not check the internals a while, but in early days there was a

 #define HIGH 1

meaning that HIGH is a const int.

Perhaps someone did not want to disable some TRI-STATE digital logic in the beginning, and since then nobody wanted to change the basics.

But of course bool is a more appropriate data type for HIGH/LOW and of course you can always treat them this way, for example like

if (! digitalRead(pin) ) { // pin is LOW

jsotola's answer why Serial.read() returns an int is a different issue. And correct of course.


The smallest unit in most languages is a byte (8 bits), whether signed or unsigned. So returning a byte, even if it only returns three different values, is the smallest and most efficient unit available, that I'm aware of.

If you want to store later, you can assign each bit of a byte as a high or low, thus giving you 8 storage spots.


One could always store the value of digitalRead() as a bit in a variable, compacting the data from say 8 pins down into 1 byte

// read an input and store it, say the reads of D2 thru D9 are stored in byte bits9to2
// 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2
// first clear the state for 2
bits9to2 = bits9to2 && 0b11111110; // two && for bit manipulation? Or just 1?
// then map in the new value
if (digitalRead(D2) == HIGH){
bits9to2 = bits9to2 || 0b00000001;// two || for bit manipulation? Or just 1?
// leave it as 0

Then to use it later on:

if ((bits9to2 && 0b00000001) != 0){
// bit is set (HIGH), do whatever
else {
// bit is clear (LOW), do whatever, or maybe do nothing

Can use an unsigned int and store 16 bits compacted that way, or unsigned long for 32 bits.

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