Per Sun's Java documentation, a Java enum "is a type whose fields consist of a fixed set of constants ... you should use enum types any time you need to represent a fixed set of constants."

  • Prior to Java 1.5, there were 2 basic ways to define new types: classes and interfaces
  • In some cases neither one of the options was sufficient, especially for a finite set of a specific type of data
  • Example of some finite sets include grades, planets, compass directions, countries, genders, and ethnicity types
  • These types of construct were possible prior to 1.5 but required a lot of work and were prone to issues.
  • Enums remove the need for public static final constants.

Defining an Enum

Defining an enum is as simple as creating any other class in Java.

public enum Gender {
  • In this example, Gender is the enumeration type whereas MALE, FEMALE, and UNKNOWN are values for that type.
  • Note: The enumerated type identifiers are constants, therefore UPPERCASE lettering is the standard convention

Three basic components (at minimum) to create an enumerated type are

  1. The enum keyword
  2. A name for the enumerated type (Gender)
  3. A list of allowable values for the type (MALE, FEMALE, UKNNOWN)

In addition to the minimum requirements, an enumeration can also contain the following optional components

  1. An interface or set of interfaces that the enum implements
  2. Variable definitions
  3. Method definitions
  4. Value-specific class bodies

Referencing an Enum

Enumerations are referenced in the same manner as any other class because an enum is a class. As a result you get all the benefits of a class such as type-safety, compile time checking, and the ability to use them in variable definitions.

public class Person {
 private String firstName;
 private String lastName;
 private Date dtOfBirth;
 private Gender gender;
 public Person(String fName, String lName) {
 this.firstName = fName;
 this.lastName = lName;
 public void setFirstName(String firstName) {
 this.firstname = firstName;
 public String getFirstName() {
 return firstName;
 public void setGender(Gender gender) {
 this.gender = gender;
 public void getGender() {
 return gender;

As you can see, there is nothing complicated about this. The way of defining and referencing an enumeration in a class is like any other JAVA POJO type.

Using an Enum

Continuing with our Gender and Person example above, let's see an example of how this enumeration can be used in a JAVA program.

public class EnumTester {
 public static void main(String[] args) {
 Person lisa = new Person ("Lisa", "Simpson");
 Person homer = new Person ("Homer", "Simpson");
 System.out.println("Lisa's gender is: " + lisa.getGender());
 System.out.println("Homer's gender is: " + homer.getGender());

The output produced from the above call is

Lisa's gender is FEMALE
Homers's gender is MALE

Prior to Java 1.4

As mentioned, enums were introduced in the 1.5 version of Java. Prior to this release, the standard method to represent an enumerated type was using the int Enum pattern.

public class Gender {
 public static final int GENDER_MALE = 0;
 public static final int GENDER_FEMALE = 1;
 public static final int GENDER_UNKNOWN = 3;

At first glance the code seems simpler, but it is prone to many problems including the following:

  • Not Type Safe: The gender is just an primitive int, therefore it can be set to any acceptable int value. In addition, you can perform operations which make no sense such as performing mathematical calculations on the gender enum.
  • Namespace: To avoid namespace collisions, the prefixes of the enum int constant must be prepended with a string (GENDER_).
  • Brittle Code: int enums are compile time constants. The enums are compiled into classes which use them. If new constants are added or order is changed, the clients need to be recompiled. Although this will not produce a run time error, the behavior will be erratic and undefined.
  • Verbosity and/or useful information: Printing an int enum produces a number which gives no information pertaining to the type or what it represents.

Additional Notes

As previously noted, Java enumerations are classes therefore receive the benefits of a Java class (see above).

  • Enumerations implicitly extend java.lang.Enum.
  • Each declared values is an instance of that enum class.
  • Enums have no public constructor. This prevents the ability to modify enums at run-time.
  • Enums values cannot be subclassed. They are essentially final classes.
  • Enums can be compared using the == or equals() method.
  • Enums can be compared using the compareTo() method because they implement the java.lang.Comparable interface.
  • Enums override the toString() method. This method returns the name of the enumerated value. This method is not final> therefore can be overridden.
  • Enums provide a static valueOf() method which complements the toString() method.
  • Using the above example
    Gender.valueOf("MALE") returns Gender.MALE;
  • Although this shouldn't be used directly in your code, enums define a final instance method called ordinal() which returns the position (0 based) of the enumerated type.
  • Enums also provide a values() method used during the iteration of enumerations.


In future blogs, we'll dive a little deeper into enums to cover the following topics:

  1. Inline Enums
  2. Iterating Enums
  3. Switching Enums
  4. Maps of Enums
  5. Sets of Enums
  6. Adding Methods to Enums
  7. Implementing Interfaces with Enums
  8. Extending an Enum