ELI5: uint256 in Solidity

October 16, 2021

uint256 is perhaps the most used value type in Solidity. And yet you might not be familiar with it if you’ve been writing a high-level language like JavaScript or Python. In this post, I explain what uint256 is in plain English. I will break uint256 down into two parts(uint and 256) and explain each of them.

uint

In Solidity and other languages like C#, int is a signed integer and uint is an unsigned integer.

A numeric variable is signed if it can represent both positive and negative numbers:

-2
+2

Whereas, a numeric variable is unsigned if it can only represent non-negative numbers(zero or positive numbers):

2
2

Thus, uint256 means this value type can handle only non-negative numbers.

256

Next, let’s think about the 256 part. In short, 256 means the size of the value stored in this value type should be less than 256 bits. 256 bits means that you can store 256 digits in the base 2 number. Let me explain what the base 2 number is and how big 256 digits are.

The Base 2 Number

What is the base 2 number? Normally, we count in the base ten number(aka. decimal), which means we represent every number using ten symbols(0 ~ 9). In this counting system, once we get over the symbol 9, we combine the symbols to create new numbers:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

The “base” of a counting system is the number of symbols used to represent all the numbers in the world. We, humans, primarily use the base 10 probably because we have ten fingers.

In the computer age, the base 2 number system(aka. binary or bits) is the basic building block of information. When counting in the base 2, a computer uses only two symbols(0 and 1). Once a computer gets over the symbol 1, it combines the symbols to create new numbers:

0 1
10 11

Why does a computer uses the base 2 system at all? The short answer is because every number in a computer is an electrical signal. It is reliable when you distinguish only between the “on” state and the “off” state as opposed to setting a specific voltage for each symbol with the base 10.

The Size of 256 Bits

Now, as I said earlier, 256 bits number can store 256 digits in the base 2 number. But how big is this? To get a sense of its size, we will convert 256 bits number into decimals.

But let’s start from an easy example. 8-bit numbers have eight digits in the base 2 number. The max value in 8-bit binary number is 11111111.

Here is how much uint8 can store in decimals:

2^7 * 1 + 2^6 * 1 + 2^5 * 1 + 2^4 * 1 + 2^3 * 1 + 2^2 * 1 + 2^1 * 1 + 2^0 * 1
= 2^8 - 1
= 255

By the same token, uint256 can store in decimals:

2^256 - 1
= 115792089237316195423570985008687907853269984665640564039457584007913129639935

You can see that uint256 is a pretty big number.

Wrapping Up

uint256 is non-negative integers which can store up to 115792089237316195423570985008687907853269984665640564039457584007913129639935 in decimal. Japanese samurai on a mission to fix the brokenness in the financial industry. Member at South Park Commons. Writer at freeCodeCamp. Follow me on Twitter.