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C# equality vs identity

October 05, 2020

C# Equality vs Identity


Microsoft: Guidelines for Overriding Equals() and Operator ==

Pay attention

  • Equality means the objects have the same value, but are not necessarily the same instance
  • Identity means the objects point to the one and same object: reference equality

Different equality functions

  • operator ==()
  • Equals() or static Object.Equals() use for equality checks
  • ReferenceEquals(), use for identity checks


public virtual bool Equals(Object obj);
public static  bool Equals(Object objA, Object objB);
public static  bool ReferenceEquals(Object objA, Object objB);
public static  bool operator ==(T objA, T objB);

They might all yield different results! Follow these rules for consistent behaviour.

Golden rules

  • If you want to know if two objects refer to the same instance USE ONLY ReferenceEquals
  • Only override operator ==() for immutable types, then you also have to override operator !=()
  • Otherwise prefer the static Object.Equals solution as it handles derivation and null pointers
  • Override Equals() if you implement IComparable

Implementing Equals

Let's say T is the type you are implementing Equals for and t1, t2, t3 objects, Equals shall ensure that

  • t1.Equals(t1) == true
  • t1.Equals(t2) == t2.Equals(t1)
  • t1.Equals(null) == false
  • if t1.Equals(t2) and t2.Equals(t3) then t1.Equals(t3)
  • Equals shall not throw exceptions


  • Also override GetHashCode()
  • Beside Equals(Object obj), implement Equals(YourType obj) for better performance
  • Call base class Equals() before going on with own member comparison

Implementing operator ==()

  • Gotcha: Do not use == inside the == operator implementation!
  • Only implement for immutable types (data contained in the instance cannot be changed)
  • Also implement operator !=()
  • Also provide the SAME functionality inside the implementation of Equals.

Main differences

  • The operator ==()

    • Means reference equality in general (except for value types)
    • Two instances are always different by default (you need to override operator ==() )
    • Is statically bound! Take care about which ==() is called if you have derived classes!
  • The Equals() method

    • Is dynamically resolved (virtual chain)
    • Might yield asymmetric results (x.Equals(y) different from y.Equals(x))
    • For structs a member comparison is made by default
    • throws an exception if the left side is null (that's why the static variant is better)


Once you clearly separate value types from object types in your mind you got it. That's all quite logical and easy in the end, but always remember that the base types are immutable by default. This means for example that once a string got created, it remains the same for its lifetime. A concatenation triggers the creation of a new string and never modifies the original object. The same occurs with the famous DateTime.AddDays() gotcha. AddDays() returns a new DateTime, does not modify the object it is called (the method name is quite misleading).