CopyOnWriteArrayList in Java

CopyOnWriteArrayList in Java implements the List interface just like its other well known counterpart ArrayList and is part of java.util.concurrent package. How CopyOnWriteArrayList differs from ArrayList is that it is a thread-safe variant of ArrayList.

How is Java CopyOnWriteArrayList thread-safe

CopyOnWriteArrayList in Java, just like ArrayList, uses an array of type Object to store its elements. For thread safety implementation of CopyOnWriteArrayList in Java, as its name suggests, creates a new copy of the underlying array for any modification operation like add, set, replace etc.

That makes CopyOnWriteArrayList a good choice when there are more traversal operations than the mutations, as the List can be iterated along with concurrent modifications with out any inference as the iteration will be done on a separate copy of the List.

Java CopyOnWriteArrayList constructors

  • CopyOnWriteArrayList()– Creates an empty list.
  • CopyOnWriteArrayList(Collection<? extends E> c)– Creates a list containing the elements of the specified collection, in the order they are returned by the collection’s iterator.
  • CopyOnWriteArrayList(E[] toCopyIn)– Creates a list holding a copy of the given array.

Java example creating a CopyOnWriteArrayList

Here is a simple example showing how to create CopyOnWriteArrayList and add elements to it.


CopyOnWriteArrayList returns a fail-safe iterator

Iterator returned by CopyOnWriteArrayList in Java is fail-safe which means iterator is guaranteed not to throw ConcurrentModificationException even if the List is structurally modified at any time after the iterator is created.
When an iterator is created for the CopyOnWriteArrayList it gets an immutable copy of the underlying array which is iterated. This array never changes during the lifetime of the iterator, so interference is impossible.
But note that since iteration is done on a separate copy so any modification in the CopyOnWriteArrayList won’t be reflected while iteration.

CopyOnWriteArrayList iteration example

Let’s see an example of iteration in CopyOnwriteList. To make it clearer first we’ll iterate an ArrayList while it is also modified concurrently by another thread to see what happens in the case of ArrayList then we’ll see the same example using CopyOnWriteArrayList.


As you can see with ArrayList if list is modified while it is being iterated then the ConcurrentModificationException is thrown.

Using CopyOnWriteArrayList

Now we can change the ArrayList to CopyOnWriteArrayList in the same example.

With that output is

As you can see now ConcurrentModificationException is not thrown but the iterator doesn’t display the newly added element as it is iterating on a separate copy.

Iterator’s add, remove method not permitted in CopyOnWriteArrayList

Making a new copy gives you the convenience to iterate the List without the fear of ConcurrentModificationException but at the same time iterator’s element-changing operations like remove, set, and add are not supported in CopyOnWriteArrayList. These methods throw UnsupportedOperationException.


As you can see using iterator’s remove method here results in UnsupportedOperationException being thrown.

Advantages and disadvantages of using CopyOnWriteArrayList in Java

CopyOnWriteArrayList performs well when there are more traversal operations than the mutations, since you don’t need to explicitly synchronize the CopyOnWriteArrayList to iterate it in a multi-threaded environment.

In general using CopyOnWriteArrayList is costly because of the added task of creating copies in case of mutative operations and keep changing the underlying array.

CopyOnWriteArrayList is guaranteed to not throw ConcurrentModificationException even if there are concurrent modifications to the list while iteration. At the same time iterator’s element-changing operations are not supported.

That’s all for the topic CopyOnWriteArrayList in Java. If something is missing or you have something to share about the topic please write a comment.

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