Exceptions in Java, Part 1: Exception handling basics

Throwing, trying, catching, and cleaning up after Java exceptions

A target floats aimlessly in an ocean of missed darts.

Java exceptions are library types and language features used to represent and deal with program failure. If you've wanted to understand how failure is represented in source code, you've come to the right place. In addition to an overview of Java exceptions, I'll get you started with Java's language features for throwing objects, trying code that may fail, catching thrown objects, and cleaning up your Java code after an exception has been thrown.

In the first half of this tutorial you'll learn about basic language features and library types that have been around since Java 1.0. In the second half, you'll discover advanced capabilities introduced in more recent Java versions.

Note that code examples in this tutorial are compatible with JDK 12.

Download the source code for example applications in this tutorial. Created by Jeff Friesen for JavaWorld.

What are Java exceptions?

Failure occurs when a Java program's normal behavior is interrupted by unexpected behavior. This divergence is known as an exception. For example, a program tries to open a file to read its contents, but the file doesn't exist. Java classifies exceptions into a few types, so let's consider each one.

Checked exceptions

Java classifies exceptions arising from external factors (such as a missing file) as checked exceptions. The Java compiler checks that such exceptions are either handled (corrected) where they occur or documented to be handled elsewhere.

Runtime (unchecked) exceptions

Suppose a program attempts to divide an integer by integer 0. This impossibility illustrates another kind of exception, namely a runtime exception. Unlike checked exceptions, runtime exceptions typically arise from poorly written source code, and should thus be fixed by the programmer. Because the compiler doesn't check that runtime exceptions are handled or documented to be handled elsewhere, you can think of a runtime exception as an unchecked exception.


Some exceptions are very serious because they jeopardize a program's ability to continue execution. For example, a program tries to allocate memory from the JVM but there isn't enough free memory to satisfy the request. Another serious situation occurs when a program tries to load a classfile via a Class.forName() method call, but the classfile is corrupt. This kind of exception is known as an error. You should never try to handle errors yourself because the JVM might not be able to recover from it.

Exceptions in source code

An exception may be represented in source code as an error code or as an object. I'll introduce both and show you why objects are superior.

Error codes versus objects

Programming languages such as C use integer-based error codes to represent failure and reasons for failure--i.e., exceptions. Here are a couple of examples:

if (chdir("C:\\temp"))
   printf("Unable to change to temp directory: %d\n", errno);
FILE *fp = fopen("C:\\temp\\foo");
if (fp == NULL)
   printf("Unable to open foo: %d\n", errno);

C's chdir() (change directory) function returns an integer: 0 on success or -1 on failure. Similarly, C's fopen() (file open) function returns a nonnull pointer (integer address) to a FILE structure on success or a null (0) pointer (represented by constant NULL) on failure. In either case, to identify the exception that caused the failure, you must read the global errno variable's integer-based error code.

Error codes present some problems:

  • Integers are meaningless; they don't describe the exceptions they represent. For example, what does 6 mean?
  • Associating context with an error code is awkward. For example, you might want to output the name of the file that couldn't be opened, but where are you going to store the file's name?
  • Integers are arbitrary, which can lead to confusion when reading source code. For example, specifying if (!chdir("C:\\temp")) (! signifies NOT) instead of if (chdir("C:\\temp")) to test for failure is clearer. However, 0 was chosen to indicate success, and so if (chdir("C:\\temp")) must be specified to test for failure.
  • Error codes are too easy to ignore, which can lead to buggy code. For example, the programmer could specify chdir("C:\\temp"); and ignore the if (fp == NULL) check. Furthermore, the programmer need not examine errno. By not testing for failure, the program behaves erratically when either function returns a failure indicator.

To solve these problems, Java embraced a new approach to exception handling. In Java, we combine objects that describe exceptions with a mechanism based on throwing and catching these objects. Here are some advantages of using objects versus error code to denote exceptions:

  • An object can be created from a class with a meaningful name. For example, FileNotFoundException (in the java.io package) is more meaningful than 6.
  • Objects can store context in various fields. For example, you can store a message, the name of the file that could not be opened, the most recent position where a parse operation failed, and/or other items in an object's fields.
  • You don't use if statements to test for failure. Instead, exception objects are thrown to a handler that's separate from the program code. As a result, the source code is easier to read and less likely to be buggy.

Throwable and its subclasses

Java provides a hierarchy of classes that represent different kinds of exceptions. These classes are rooted in the java.lang package's Throwable class, along with its Exception, RuntimeException, and Error subclasses.

Throwable is the ultimate superclass where exceptions are concerned. Only objects created from Throwable and its subclasses can be thrown (and subsequently caught). Such objects are known as throwables.

A Throwable object is associated with a detail message that describes an exception. Several constructors, including the pair described below, are provided to create a Throwable object with or without a detail message:

  • Throwable() creates a Throwable with no detail message. This constructor is appropriate for situations where there is no context. For example, you only want to know that a stack is empty or full.
  • Throwable(String message) creates a Throwable with message as the detail message. This message can be output to the user and/or logged.

Throwable provides the String getMessage() method to return the detail message. It also provides additional useful methods, which I'll introduce later.

The Exception class

Throwable has two direct subclasses. One of these subclasses is Exception, which describes an exception arising from an external factor (such as attempting to read from a nonexistent file). Exception declares the same constructors (with identical parameter lists) as Throwable, and each constructor invokes its Throwable counterpart. Exception inherits Throwable's methods; it declares no new methods.

Java provides many exception classes that directly subclass Exception. Here are three examples:

  • CloneNotSupportedException signals an attempt to clone an object whose class doesn't implement the Cloneable interface. Both types are in the java.lang package.
  • IOException signals that some kind of I/O failure has occurred. This type is located in the java.io package.
  • ParseException signals that a failure has occurred while parsing text. This type can be found in the java.text package.

Notice that each Exception subclass name ends with the word Exception. This convention makes it easy to identify the class's purpose.

You'll typically subclass Exception (or one of its subclasses) with your own exception classes (whose names should end with Exception). Here are a couple of custom subclass examples:

public class StackFullException extends Exception

public class EmptyDirectoryException extends Exception
   private String directoryName;

   public EmptyDirectoryException(String message, String directoryName)
      this.directoryName = directoryName;

   public String getDirectoryName()
      return directoryName;

The first example describes an exception class that doesn't require a detail message. It's default noargument constructor invokes Exception(), which invokes Throwable().

The second example describes an exception class whose constructor requires a detail message and the name of the empty directory. The constructor invokes Exception(String message), which invokes Throwable(String message).

Objects instantiated from Exception or one of its subclasses (except for RuntimeException or one of its subclasses) are checked exceptions.

The RuntimeException class

Exception is directly subclassed by RuntimeException, which describes an exception most likely arising from poorly written code. RuntimeException declares the same constructors (with identical parameter lists) as Exception, and each constructor invokes its Exception counterpart. RuntimeException inherits Throwable's methods. It declares no new methods.

Java provides many exception classes that directly subclass RuntimeException. The following examples are all members of the java.lang package:

  • ArithmeticException signals an illegal arithmetic operation, such as attempting to divide an integer by 0.
  • IllegalArgumentException signals that an illegal or inappropriate argument has been passed to a method.
  • NullPointerException signals an attempt to invoke a method or access an instance field via the null reference.

Objects instantiated from RuntimeException or one of its subclasses are unchecked exceptions.

The Error class

Throwable's other direct subclass is Error, which describes a serious (even abnormal) problem that a reasonable application should not try to handle--such as running out of memory, overflowing the JVM's stack, or attempting to load a class that cannot be found. Like Exception, Error declares identical constructors to Throwable, inherits Throwable's methods, and doesn't declare any of its own methods.

You can identify Error subclasses from the convention that their class names end with Error. Examples include OutOfMemoryError, LinkageError, and StackOverflowError. All three types belong to the java.lang package.

Throwing exceptions

A C library function notifies calling code of an exception by setting the global errno variable to an error code and returning a failure code. In contrast, a Java method throws an object. Knowing how and when to throw exceptions is an essential aspect of effective Java programming. Throwing an exception involves two basic steps:

  1. Use the throw statement to throw an exception object.
  2. Use the throws clause to inform the compiler.

Later sections will focus on catching exceptions and cleaning up after them, but first let's learn more about throwables.

The throw statement

Java provides the throw statement to throw an object that describes an exception. Here's the syntax of the throw statement :

throw throwable;

The object identified by throwable is an instance of Throwable or any of its subclasses. However, you usually only throw objects instantiated from subclasses of Exception or RuntimeException. Here are a couple of examples:

throw new FileNotFoundException("unable to find file " + filename);

throw new IllegalArgumentException("argument passed to count is less than zero");

The throwable is thrown from the current method to the JVM, which checks this method for a suitable handler. If not found, the JVM unwinds the method-call stack, looking for the closest calling method that can handle the exception described by the throwable. If it finds this method, it passes the throwable to the method's handler, whose code is executed to handle the exception. If no method is found to handle the exception, the JVM terminates with a suitable message.

The throws clause

You need to inform the compiler when you throw a checked exception out of a method. Do this by appending a throws clause to the method's header. This clause has the following syntax:

throws checkedExceptionClassName (, checkedExceptionClassName)*

A throws clause consists of keyword throws followed by a comma-separated list of the class names of checked exceptions thrown out of the method. Here is an example:

public static void main(String[] args) throws ClassNotFoundException
   if (args.length != 1)
      System.err.println("usage: java ... classfile");

This example attempts to load a classfile identified by a command-line argument. If Class.forName() cannot find the classfile, it throws a java.lang.ClassNotFoundException object, which is a checked exception.

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