Calling plain C functions from Python

Most Objective-C APIs are exposed through Objective-C classes and methods, but some parts are implemented as plain C functions. You might also want to want to use a pure C library that provides no Objective-C interface at all. Calling C functions is quite different from calling Objective-C methods and requires some additional work, which will be explained in this how-to.

See also

The ctypes tutorial in the Python documentation, which explains how to call C functions in general (without a specific focus on Apple platforms and Objective-C).

A simple example: puts

We’ll start with a simple example: calling the puts function from the C standard library. puts takes a C string and outputs it to standard output — it’s the C equivalent of a simple print call.

Before we can call the function, we need to look it up first. To do this, we need to find and load the library in which the function is defined. In the case of standard C functions, this is the standard C library, libc. Because this library is commonly used, Rubicon already loads it by default and exposes it in Python as rubicon.objc.runtime.libc.

>>> from rubicon.objc.runtime import libc
>>> libc
<CDLL '/usr/lib/libc.dylib', handle 7fff60d0cb90 at 0x105850b38>


For a list of all C libraries that Rubicon loads and exposes by default, see the C libraries section of the rubicon.objc.runtime reference documentation.

To access a library that is not predefined by Rubicon, you can use the load_library() function:

>>> from rubicon.objc.runtime import load_library
>>> libm = load_library("m")
>>> libm
<CDLL '/usr/lib/libm.dylib', handle 7fff60d0cb90 at 0x10596be10>

C functions are accessed as attributes on their library:

>>> libc.puts
<_FuncPtr object at 0x110178f20>

However, unlike Objective-C methods, we cannot call C functions right away — we must first declare the function’s argument and return types. (Rubicon cannot do this automatically like with Objective-C methods, because plain C doesn’t provide the runtime type information necessary for this.) This type information is found in C header files, in this case stdio.h (which defines standard C input/output functions, including puts).

The exact location of the macOS C headers varies depending on your version of macOS and the developer tools — it is not a fixed path. To open the header directory in the Finder, run the following command in the terminal:

$ open "$(xcrun --show-sdk-path)/usr/include"


This command requires a version of the macOS developer tools to be installed. If you do not have Xcode or the command-line developer tools installed yet, run this command in the terminal to install the command-line developer tools:

$ xcode-select --install

Once you have opened the relevant header file in a text editor, you need to search for the declaration of the function you’re looking for. In the case of puts, it looks like this:

int puts(const char *);

This means that puts returns an int and takes a single argument of type const char * (a pointer to one or more characters, i.e. a C string). This translates to the following Python ctypes code:

>>> from ctypes import c_char_p, c_int
>>> libc.puts.restype = c_int
>>> libc.puts.argtypes = [c_char_p]

Now that we have provided all of the necessary type information, we can call libc.puts.

For the c_char_p argument, we pass a byte string with the message we want to print out. ctypes automatically converts the byte string object to a c_char_p (char *) as the C function expects it. The string specifically needs to be a byte string (bytes), because C’s char * strings are byte-based, unlike normal Python strings (str), which are Unicode-based.

>>> res = libc.puts(b"Hello!")


If you’re running this code from an editor or IDE and don’t see Hello! printed out, try running the code from a Python REPL in a terminal window instead. Some editors/IDEs, such as Python’s IDLE, can only capture and display output produced by high-level Python functions (such as print), but not output from low-level C functions (such as puts).

The return value of puts is ignored in this example. It indicates whether or not the call was successful. If puts succeeds, it returns a non-negative integer (the exact value is not significant and has no defined meaning). If puts encounters an error, it returns the EOF constant (on Apple OSes, this is -1).

The puts function generally doesn’t fail, except for edge cases that are unlikely to happen in practice. With most other C functions, you need to be more careful about checking the return value, to make sure that errors from the function call are detected and handled. Unlike in Python, if you forget to check whether a C function call failed, any errors from that call are silently ignored, which often leads to bad behavior or crashes.

Most real examples of C functions are more complicated than puts, but the basic procedure for calling them is the same: import or load the function’s C library, set the function’s return type and argument types based on the relevant header, and then call the function as needed.

Each C library only needs to be imported/loaded once, and the restype and argtypes only need to be set once per function. This is usually done at module level near the beginning of the module, similar to Python imports.

Inline functions (e.g. NSLocationInRange)

Regular C functions can be called as explained above, but there is also a second kind of C function that needs to be handled differently: inline functions. Unlike regular C functions, inline functions cannot be called through a library object at runtime. Instead, their implementation is only provided as source code in a header file.

When an inline function is called from regular C code, the C compiler copies (inlines) the inline function’s implementation into the calling code. To call an inline C function from Python, we need to do the same thing — copy the code from the header into our own code — but in addition we need to translate the C code from the header into equivalent Python/ctypes code.

As an example we will use the function NSLocationInRange from the Foundation framework. This function checks whether an index lies inside a NSRange value. The definition of this function, from the Foundation header NSRange.h, looks like this:

NS_INLINE BOOL NSLocationInRange(NSUInteger loc, NSRange range) {
    return (!(loc < range.location) && (loc - range.location) < range.length) ? YES : NO;

In this case, the translation to Python consists (roughly) of the following steps:

  1. The outer part of the function definition needs to be translated to Python’s def syntax. The return type and argument types can be omitted in the Python code — because Python is dynamically typed, these explicit types are not needed.
  2. The YES and NO constants in the return expressions need to be replaced with their Python equivalents, True and False.
  3. Some operators in the return expression need to be changed: C !cond translates to Python not cond, C left && right becomes left and right, and C cond ? true_val : false_val becomes true_val if cond else false_val.

The translated Python code looks like this:

def NSLocationInRange(loc, range):
    return True if (not (loc < range.location) and (loc - range.location) < range.length) else False

You can then put this translated function into your Python code and call it in place of the corresponding C inline function.


Python code translated from C like this is sometimes more complicated than necessary and can be simplified. In this case for example, True if cond else False can be simplified to just cond, not (x < y) can be simplified to x >= y, and a few redundant parentheses can be removed. A cleaner version of the translated code might look like this:

def NSLocationInRange(loc, range):
    return loc >= range.location and loc - range.location < range.length

Global variables and constants (e.g. NSFoundationVersionNumber)

Some C libraries expose not just functions, but also global variables. An example of this is the Foundation framework, which defines the global variable NSFoundationVersionNumber in <Foundation/NSObjCRuntime.h>:

FOUNDATION_EXPORT double NSFoundationVersionNumber;

Like functions, global variables are accessed via the library that they are defined by. The syntax is somewhat different for global variables though - instead of reading them directly as attributes of the library object, you use the in_dll method of the variable’s type. (Every ctypes type has an in_dll method.)

>>> from ctypes import c_double
>>> from rubicon.objc.runtime import Foundation
>>> NSFoundationVersionNumber = c_double.in_dll(Foundation, "NSFoundationVersionNumber")
>>> NSFoundationVersionNumber

Note that in_dll doesn’t return the variable’s value directly - instead it returns a ctypes data object that has the variable’s type, in this case c_double. To access the variable’s actual value, you can use the data object’s value attribute:

>>> NSFoundationVersionNumber.value

Objective-C object constants

A special case of global variables is often found in Objective-C libraries: object constants. These are global Objective-C object variables with a const modifier, meaning that they cannot be modified. Constants of type NSString * are especially common and can be found in many places, such as Foundation’s <Foundation/NSMetadataAttribute.h>:

FOUNDATION_EXPORT NSString * const NSMetadataItemFSNameKey;

Because they are so common, Rubicon provides the convenience function objc_const specifically for accessing Objective-C object constants:

>>> from rubicon.objc import objc_const
>>> from rubicon.objc.runtime import Foundation
>>> NSMetadataItemFSNameKey = objc_const(Foundation, "NSMetadataItemFSNameKey")
>>> NSMetadataItemFSNameKey
<rubicon.objc.collections.ObjCStrInstance 0x10eecf350: __NSCFConstantString at 0x1072a67e8: kMDItemFSName>


Sometimes it’s not obvious that a constant is an Objective-C object, because its actual type is hidden behind a typedef. This is common with the “extensible string enum” pattern, where a set of related string constants are defined together. An example can be found in <Foundation/NSCalendar.h>:

typedef NSString * NSCalendarIdentifier NS_EXTENSIBLE_STRING_ENUM;

FOUNDATION_EXPORT NSCalendarIdentifier const NSCalendarIdentifierGregorian;
FOUNDATION_EXPORT NSCalendarIdentifier const NSCalendarIdentifierBuddhist;
FOUNDATION_EXPORT NSCalendarIdentifier const NSCalendarIdentifierChinese;
// ... many more ...

Even though the constants use the type name NSCalendarIdentifier, their actual type is still NSString *, based on the typedef before.

In some cases, constants use a typedef from a different header (or even a different library) than the one defining the constants, which can make it even harder to tell that they are actually Objective-C objects.

A complex example: dispatch_get_main_queue

As a final example, we’ll look at the function dispatch_get_main_queue from the libdispatch library. This is a very complex function definition, which involves many of the concepts introduced above, as well as heavy use of C preprocessor macros. If you don’t have a lot of experience with the C preprocessor, you may want to skip this section.

First, we need to look at the function’s definition, which is found in the header <dispatch/queue.h>:

    return DISPATCH_GLOBAL_OBJECT(dispatch_queue_main_t, _dispatch_main_q);

This is an inline function, which you can see based on the fact that it has a function body and the DISPATCH_INLINE/DISPATCH_ALWAYS_INLINE attributes. This means that we cannot look it up directly using ctypes - instead we have to translate the function body from C to Python.

We can ignore the first line of the function definition - they contain function attributes intended for the compiler, which we don’t need. The second and third line indicate the function’s signature - it takes no arguments and returns a value of type dispatch_queue_main_t.

The body is a little more complex: it uses DISPATCH_GLOBAL_OBJECT, which is actually a C macro. Its definition can be found in <dispatch/object.h>:

#define DISPATCH_GLOBAL_OBJECT(type, object) ((OS_OBJECT_BRIDGE type)&(object))

If we substitute the macro’s parameters (type and object) for their real values in our case (dispatch_queue_main_t and _dispatch_main_q), we get the expression ((OS_OBJECT_BRIDGE dispatch_queue_main_t)&(_dispatch_main_q)). OS_OBJECT_BRIDGE is also a macro, this time from <os/object.h>:

#define OS_OBJECT_BRIDGE __bridge

It expands to __bridge, which is an attribute related to Objective-C’s automatic reference counting (ARC) feature. In the context of Rubicon, ARC is not relevant (Rubicon performs its own reference management for Objective-C objects), so we can ignore this attribute. This leaves us with the expression ((dispatch_queue_main_t)&(_dispatch_main_q)), which we can substitute for the macro call in our original function:

    return (dispatch_queue_main_t)&(_dispatch_main_q));

With the macro expansion done, we can now see what the function does: it takes a pointer to the global variable _dispatch_main_q and casts it to the type dispatch_queue_main_t.

First, let’s look at the definition of the _dispatch_main_q variable, from <dispatch/queue.h>:

struct dispatch_queue_s _dispatch_main_q;

The variable’s type, struct dispatch_queue_s, is an opaque structure type - it is not defined in any public header. This means that we don’t know what fields the structure has, or even how large it is. As a result, we cannot perform any operations on the structure itself, but we can work with pointers to the structure - which is exactly what dispatch_get_main_queue does.

Even though struct dispatch_queue_s is opaque, we still need to define it in Python so that we can look up the _dispatch_main_q variable:

from ctypes import Structure
from rubicon.objc.runtime import load_library

# On Mac, libdispatch is part of libSystem.
libSystem = load_library("System")
libdispatch = libSystem

class struct_dispatch_queue_s(Structure):
    pass # No _fields_, because this is an opaque structure.

_dispatch_main_q = struct_dispatch_queue_s.in_dll(libdispatch, "_dispatch_main_q")

Now we need to look at the definition of the dispatch_queue_main_t type. This definition is not very obvious to find - it’s actually this line in <dispatch/queue.h>:

DISPATCH_DECL_SUBCLASS(dispatch_queue_main, dispatch_queue_serial);

DISPATCH_DECL_SUBCLASS is a macro from <dispatch/object.h>, defined like this:


It directly calls another macro, OS_OBJECT_DECL_SUBCLASS, defined in <os/object.h>:

#define OS_OBJECT_DECL_SUBCLASS(name, super) \
        OS_OBJECT_DECL_IMPL(name, <OS_OBJECT_CLASS(super)>)

Let’s substitute this macro into our original code:

OS_OBJECT_DECL_IMPL(dispatch_queue_main, <OS_OBJECT_CLASS(dispatch_queue_serial)>);

Next is the OS_OBJECT_DECL_IMPL macro, also defined in <os/object.h>:

#define OS_OBJECT_DECL_IMPL(name, ...) \
        OS_OBJECT_DECL_PROTOCOL(name, __VA_ARGS__) \
        typedef NSObject<OS_OBJECT_CLASS(name)> \
                * OS_OBJC_INDEPENDENT_CLASS name##_t

After we substitute this macro into our code, it looks like this:

OS_OBJECT_DECL_PROTOCOL(dispatch_queue_main, <OS_OBJECT_CLASS(dispatch_queue_serial)>) \
typedef NSObject<OS_OBJECT_CLASS(dispatch_queue_main)> \
    * OS_OBJC_INDEPENDENT_CLASS dispatch_queue_main_t;

And another macro, OS_OBJECT_DECL_PROTOCOL, also from <os/object.h>:

#define OS_OBJECT_DECL_PROTOCOL(name, ...) \
        @protocol OS_OBJECT_CLASS(name) __VA_ARGS__ \

Which we can substitute into our code:

@protocol OS_OBJECT_CLASS(dispatch_queue_main) <OS_OBJECT_CLASS(dispatch_queue_serial)> \
@end \
typedef NSObject<OS_OBJECT_CLASS(dispatch_queue_main)> \
    * OS_OBJC_INDEPENDENT_CLASS dispatch_queue_main_t;

Now let’s take care of the OS_OBJECT_CLASS macro, defined like this in <os/object.h>:

#define OS_OBJECT_CLASS(name) OS_##name

And substituted into our code:

@protocol OS_dispatch_queue_main <OS_dispatch_queue_serial> \
@end \
typedef NSObject<OS_dispatch_queue_main> \
    * OS_OBJC_INDEPENDENT_CLASS dispatch_queue_main_t;

Finally we’re left with the OS_OBJECT_INDEPENDENT_CLASS macro, which is a compiler attribute that we can ignore.

@protocol OS_dispatch_queue_main <OS_dispatch_queue_serial>
typedef NSObject<OS_dispatch_queue_main> * dispatch_queue_main_t;

Now we’re done with macro expansion and can see what the code actually does - it defines an Objective-C protocol called OS_dispatch_queue_main and defines dispatch_queue_main_t as a pointer type to an object conforming to that protocol. For our purposes, most of these details don’t matter - the important part is that dispatch_queue_main_t is actually an Objective-C object pointer type. Because Rubicon doesn’t differentiate between object pointer types, we can replace dispatch_queue_main_t in our original function with the generic id type:

    return (id)&(_dispatch_main_q));

This code can finally be translated to Python:

from ctypes import byref, cast
from rubicon.objc import ObjCInstance
from rubicon.objc.runtime import objc_id

# This requires the _dispatch_main_q Python code from before.

def dispatch_get_main_queue():
    return ObjCInstance(cast(byref(_dispatch_main_q), objc_id))

Further information

  • An online service to translate C type syntax into more understandable English.
  • A reference site about the standard C and C++ languages and libraries.
  • Apple’s reference documentation: Official API documentation for Apple platforms. Make sure to change the language to Objective-C in the top-right corner, otherwise you’ll get Swift documentation, which can differ significantly from Objective-C.
  • macOS man pages, sections 2 and 3: Documentation for the C functions provided by macOS. View these using the man command, or by typing a function name into the search box of the macOS Terminal’s Help menu.