Should I use ArrayList or List?

This is an article for new Java developers.  New Java developers have a tendency to write methods that take  ArrayList  as a parameter, return it as a type, and use them on the left hand side of assignments.  Doing this violates Java best practices and I’m going to teach you what you should do instead and why.

Your method signature should not have ArrayList as a parameter

Here’s an example of what you shouldn’t do:

The problem is that the input parameter is an ArrayList .  There is no point in using an ArrayList  here.  You should use a List  instead:

This method is better because it is more flexible.  The bad method says, “you must pass me in an ArrayList “.  The good method says, “you can pass in anything that is a List  type”.  Let me elaborate with a specific example:

If you decided that you wanted to call the bad method on a LinkedList  object, you would not be able to pass it in because a LinkedList  is not an ArrayList .  But, you could pass it into the good method.  In fact, you can pass in an ArrayList  and a  LinkedList  because they are both  List s.

If you use the good method, you get the benefit of flexible code with no downside.  So, you should get into the habit of doing this every time.

The only time you would want a method to take an ArrayList  is if you are using a method that exists in  ArrayList  and doesn’t exist in the List  type.  As a specific example, if you had code that called input.trimToSize() , you would need to pass in an ArrayList : The List  class does not have a trimToSize()  method.  So, this wouldn’t even compile:

Your method signature should not return ArrayList

Here’s an example of what you should not do:

Instead, you should do this:

The reason you don’t want to do this is it makes the logic in your method less flexible.  What if you realize later that you want this method to return a LinkedList  instead of an ArrayList ?  What you’ll have to do is change all the places that call this method from this:

To this:

You could have prevented all this work if your method returned a List  from the beginning.  If it did that from the start, your code would call it like this:

That brings us to the next topic…

Your variable assignments should not have ArrayList on the left hand side

Here’s an example of what you should not do:

Instead, you should do this:

One of the reasons you should do this is addressed at the end of the previous section.  If returnAList()  returned an ArrayList  (a bad practice), you wouldn’t be effected if someone fixes it later and decides to return a List  like they should have from the beginning.

It also makes your code subtly easier to read.  If you’re using an ArrayList  instead of a List , I’m going to think you have a very specific reason for doing that and I’m going to wonder what that reason is.  Are you using an ArrayList  specific method somewhere in this code? For example, do you call  trimToSize() somewhere?  If you use a List , I know that’s not the case.

Another reason is that it helps complex tools like your IDE in extracting methods.  Watch what happens if you follow the bad practice:


The  getStrings()  method follows the bad practice we talked about above.  It returns an ArrayList  instead of a List .  It would be better if we could automate our IDE to extract methods in a way that we should be writing them.  If you use a List  on the left hand side of the assignment, it will do just that:


As you can see, the getStrings()  method returns a List  here instead of an ArrayList .

This doesn’t just apply to  ArrayList

I am using an ArrayList  as an example for this article because it is a very common Collection , but this best practice applies to all of the Collection  types.  See this table for more info:

Instead of this Use This
ArrayList List
LinkedList List
Vector List
HashMap Map
TreeMap Map
HashSet Set
SortedSet Set


I hope this article helps you improve your code in the future.  Considering going back to your old code and updating it.  If you follow the best practices laid out in this article, the quality of your code will improve by being more flexible.

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