Box is an owned pointer to data on the heap:

fn main() {
    let five = Box::new(5);
    println!("five: {}", *five);

Box<T> implements Deref<Target = T>, which means that you can call methods from T directly on a Box<T>.

Recursive data types or data types with dynamic sizes need to use a Box:

enum List<T> {
    /// A non-empty list: first element and the rest of the list.
    Element(T, Box<List<T>>),
    /// An empty list.

fn main() {
    let list: List<i32> =
        List::Element(1, Box::new(List::Element(2, Box::new(List::Nil))));
This slide should take about 8 minutes.
  • Box is like std::unique_ptr in C++, except that it’s guaranteed to be not null.

  • A Box can be useful when you:

    • have a type whose size that can’t be known at compile time, but the Rust compiler wants to know an exact size.
    • want to transfer ownership of a large amount of data. To avoid copying large amounts of data on the stack, instead store the data on the heap in a Box so only the pointer is moved.
  • If Box was not used and we attempted to embed a List directly into the List, the compiler would not be able to compute a fixed size for the struct in memory (the List would be of infinite size).

  • Box solves this problem as it has the same size as a regular pointer and just points at the next element of the List in the heap.

  • Remove the Box in the List definition and show the compiler error. We get the message “recursive without indirection”, because for data recursion, we have to use indirection, a Box or reference of some kind, instead of storing the value directly.

More to Explore

Niche Optimization

Though Box looks like std::unique_ptr in C++, it cannot be empty/null. This makes Box one of the types that allow the compiler to optimize storage of some enums.

For example, Option<Box<T>> has the same size, as just Box<T>, because compiler uses NULL-value to discriminate variants instead of using explicit tag (“Null Pointer Optimization”):

use std::mem::size_of_val;

struct Item(String);

fn main() {
    let just_box: Box<Item> = Box::new(Item("Just box".into()));
    let optional_box: Option<Box<Item>> =
        Some(Box::new(Item("Optional box".into())));
    let none: Option<Box<Item>> = None;

    assert_eq!(size_of_val(&just_box), size_of_val(&optional_box));
    assert_eq!(size_of_val(&just_box), size_of_val(&none));

    println!("Size of just_box: {}", size_of_val(&just_box));
    println!("Size of optional_box: {}", size_of_val(&optional_box));
    println!("Size of none: {}", size_of_val(&none));