Fraser Hamilton

Var, let and const

March 22, 2020

In this article we’ll discuss the three ways to create variables in JavaScript as well as the differences between them and touch on some background topics needed to understand them.

Var

Variables declared using var are either globally scoped or function scoped. Scope determines where variables and functions are accessible in your program. If a variables is declared with var outside of a function block in the below example then it is available to the whole window. However when declared inside a function block with var then the variable can only be accessed within that function. Let’s look at an example.

var foo = 'foo'

function exampleFunction() {
  var bar = 'bar'
}

In this example the variable foo is globally scoped and the variable bar is function scoped. So we wouldn’t be able to access the bar variable outside of the function.

The function scoping of var paired with the ability to redeclare a variable using the same identifier can cause major issues in your code as in this example.

var foo = 'foo'

if (1 < 3) {
  var foo = 'bar'
}

console.log(foo)

When we run this code you may be surprised to learn that the output in the console would actually be ‘bar’ because the variable within the conditional statement replaces the original delcaration.

Hoisting in JavaScript is when variables and function declarations are moved to to the top of their scope before code execution. So for example:

console.log(foo)
var foo = 'foo'

Before execution this will be converted to the following:

var foo
console.log(foo)
foo = 'foo'

This means that when we try to output the value of foo to the console the variable hasn’t been initialized with a value yet and will instead show undefined.

Let

The introduction of let replaced var as the preferred variable declaration method. It improves upon and solves some of the problems we’ve seen with var. Before touching on the differences it’s worth explaining that in JavaScript a block is defined as anything between two curly braces i.e {}. A variable declared with let is blocked scoped meaning that it won’t be available outside of the block it’s declared within. Let’s look at another example.

var foo = 'foo'

function exampleFunction() {
  if (1 < 3) {
    var bar = 'bar'
    let qux = 'test'
  }

  console.log(bar)
  console.log(qux)
}

This example builds off our previous example and can illustrate the scope difference between let & var. Due to var being function scoped we can successfully print to console the value of bar however due to the block scoped nature of let the variable we declared as qux won’t be accessible because it’s scoped is restricted to the block created by the if statement.

Hoisting with let works differently as well. Instead of being initialized as undefined, variables are instead not initialized at all. Trying to access these variables will result in a ReferenceError.

Const

const plays a slightly different role to the other variable declaration methods. Variables declared using const are block scoped much like those declared using let however they cannot be updated. So we wouldn’t be able to do the following.

const myConst = 'foo'
myConst = 'bar'

Hoisting in const behaves exactly the same as with let, declarations are hoisted to the top but not initialized.

Conclusion

So now you’ve got to grips with the three different methods of variable declaration in JavaScript the natural question is well which one should I use? When declaring variables it is good practice to avoid using var, keeping our code in the right scope makes it a lot easier to manage. You can decide between when to use let or const by using the following rules:

  1. Use const when you are sure that the variable won’t change.
  2. Use let when you will be changing the value of the variable.

Written by Fraser Hamilton a full stack developer based out of Edinburgh, Scotland.

© 2020, Fraser Hamilton