The Concept of an unordered_map in C++

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The C++ Standard Template Library (STL) provides a wide range of data structures and algorithms that make it easier for developers to work with complex data efficiently. One of the most commonly used data structures is the unordered_map. In this article, we will explore the concept of an unordered_map in C++. We will discuss what it is, how it works, and provide relevant code examples to illustrate its usage.

What is an unordered_map?

An unordered_map is an associative container provided by the C++ Standard Library that stores key-value pairs. It is part of the C++11 standard and later, making it a modern and efficient choice for handling data mappings. Unlike the traditional std::map, which is implemented as a binary search tree, the unordered_map is implemented as a hash table.

Key Features of unordered_map

1. Hash-Based Data Structure

The primary feature that distinguishes an unordered_map from other associative containers like std::map is its underlying data structure: a hash table. Hash tables offer constant-time average complexity for key lookup, insertion, and deletion, making unordered_map an excellent choice for scenarios where these operations need to be fast.

2. No Particular Order

Unlike std::map, the elements in an unordered_map are not stored in any particular order. They are arranged based on their hash values, which means that the order in which elements are stored and retrieved may vary. This property is useful in situations where the order of elements doesn’t matter, but you need fast access by key.

3. Unique Keys

unordered_map enforces that each key is unique within the container. If you attempt to insert a duplicate key, it will replace the existing value associated with that key.

4. Flexible Key and Value Types

unordered_map is quite flexible in terms of the types it can store. You can use custom types as keys and values, as long as they meet certain requirements. For keys, a hash function and equality operator must be defined.

Basic Usage

Let’s take a look at some basic usage of unordered_map in C++.

1. Including the Necessary Header

Before you can use unordered_map, you need to include the appropriate header:

#include <unordered_map>

2. Declaring an unordered_map

You can declare an unordered_map with the following syntax:

std::unordered_map<KeyType, ValueType> myMap;

Replace KeyType and ValueType with the types you want to use for keys and values, respectively.

3. Inserting Key-Value Pairs

To insert key-value pairs into an unordered_map, you can use the insert method:

std::unordered_map<std::string, int> ageMap;
ageMap.insert(std::make_pair("Alice", 30));
ageMap.insert(std::make_pair("Bob", 25));

Alternatively, you can use the [] operator:

ageMap["Charlie"] = 35;

4. Accessing Values

You can access the values associated with keys using the [] operator:

int aliceAge = ageMap["Alice"]; // aliceAge will be 30

5. Checking for Key Existence

To check if a key exists in the unordered_map, you can use the find method:

auto it = ageMap.find("Alice");
if (it != ageMap.end()) {
    // Key found, you can access the associated value using it->second
    int aliceAge = it->second;
} else {
    // Key not found

6. Iterating Through the unordered_map

You can iterate through the key-value pairs in an unordered_map using iterators:

for (const auto& pair : ageMap) {
    std::cout << "Name: " << pair.first << ", Age: " << pair.second << std::endl;

Hashing Custom Types

If you want to use custom types as keys in your unordered_map, you need to provide a hash function and an equality operator for those types. Here’s an example of how to do this:

struct Person {
    std::string name;
    int age;

    bool operator==(const Person& other) const {
        return name == && age == other.age;

namespace std {
    template <>
    struct hash<Person> {
        size_t operator()(const Person& p) const {
            return hash<string>()( ^ hash<int>()(p.age);

With these custom hash and equality functions defined, you can use Person objects as keys in your unordered_map.

Advanced Usage of unordered_map

Handling Collisions

In hash tables, collisions occur when two different keys produce the same hash value. The C++ Standard Library’s unordered_map handles collisions using a technique called chaining. In chaining, each bucket in the hash table is actually a linked list of key-value pairs. When a collision occurs, the new key-value pair is simply added to the linked list.

std::unordered_map<int, std::string> studentMap;
studentMap[101] = "Alice";
studentMap[102] = "Bob";
studentMap[103] = "Charlie";
studentMap[104] = "David";
studentMap[105] = "Eve";
studentMap[106] = "Frank";

In the above code, even though the hash values for some keys may be the same, chaining ensures that each key-value pair is stored separately within the linked lists of the corresponding buckets.

Performance Considerations

unordered_map provides fast average-case performance for most operations, but it’s essential to understand its performance characteristics to make the most of it:

  • Insertion, Deletion, and Lookup: These operations generally have constant-time complexity on average (O(1)). However, in rare cases where hash collisions are frequent, the performance can degrade to O(n), where n is the number of elements in the container. To minimize collisions, choose a good hash function and consider using custom types that provide better hash distribution.
  • Memory Usage: unordered_map may use more memory than other containers because it needs to allocate buckets and maintain linked lists for collision resolution. Keep this in mind when working with large datasets.
  • Iteration: Iterating through an unordered_map is generally less efficient than iterating through a vector or array because the order of elements is not guaranteed. If you need elements in a specific order, consider using a std::vector or std::array.

Real-World Use Cases

unordered_map can be handy in various real-world scenarios:

1. Caching

When you need to store frequently accessed data, such as the results of expensive computations or database queries, unordered_map can be used to cache the data. This can significantly reduce the time and resources required to fetch the same data repeatedly.

std::unordered_map<std::string, Data> cache;
if (cache.find(query) != cache.end()) {
    // Data is in the cache, use it
    return cache[query];
} else {
    // Compute and store the data in the cache
    Data result = computeData(query);
    cache[query] = result;
    return result;

2. Counting and Frequency Analysis

You can use unordered_map to count occurrences of elements in a collection. For example, counting the frequency of words in a text document:

std::unordered_map<std::string, int> wordFrequency;
// Populate wordFrequency from the text document

3. Graph Algorithms

In graph algorithms like Dijkstra’s or A* search, unordered_map can be used to keep track of distances or costs associated with nodes in the graph efficiently.

std::unordered_map<Node, double> distance;


The unordered_map in C++ is a versatile and efficient associative container that can simplify many programming tasks. It offers constant-time average complexity for key lookup, insertion, and deletion, making it a valuable tool for various applications. By understanding how to use unordered_map, handling collisions, considering performance, and exploring real-world use cases, you can make the most of this powerful data structure in your C++ projects.

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