A Simple Example of Calling a C Library from Zig

Zig is a new, independently developed low-level programming language. It’s a modern reimagining of C that attempts to retain all of C’s performance benefits while also taking advantage of improvements in tooling and language design from the last 30 years.

Because Zig is designed to replace C, one of the first-class features is that you can call into C libraries from a Zig application. I couldn’t find any simple examples demonstrating Zig’s C interop functionality, so I decided to write my own.

Existing resources about calling C from Zig πŸ”—︎

I found a few articles that described how to call C code from Zig. They all had useful information, but they were either too abstract or described scenarios that were more complex than what I was trying to accomplish:

  • “C/C++/Zig” by Loris Cro
    • This is a great tutorial, but it’s complex. It’s not just calling into a C library β€” it’s figuring out how to build a huge C application with Zig and then writing a new function that both calls the original C code and receives calls from the C code.
    • I learned a lot from the tutorial, but I had a hard time figuring out from this series how to call C from Zig in a simpler scenario.
    • This tutorial was also written for Zig 0.8.1, and the code no longer compiles with Zig 0.11.0.
  • “Extending a C Project with Zig” (2023)
    • This is a recent article, so it still compiles with the current version of Zig.
    • Similar to the above tutorial, this article tackles how to compile a large, complex C application, so I had a hard time understanding how to apply the lessons to a simpler scenario.
  • ziglearn Chapter 4 - Working with C
    • This article describes low-level mechanisms for Zig-C interop, but doesn’t show any complete examples.

One of the major limitations of the two “extend a C project” tutorials above is that they assume you know how to port complex Makefiles into the Zig build system. Both of them say, “Hey, look at this confusing 100-line Makefile. Voila, now it’s a confusing 100-line build.zig file!” and they don’t really explain how (unless you watch this 90-minute video).

As a complete Zig novice, I didn’t want to learn how to convert large Makefiles to the Zig build system. Instead, I wanted to try a simple example where I only used Zig to build a portion of a C application rather than porting the entire application to Zig’s native build system.

Create a simple C application πŸ”—︎

The thing that tripped me up in other Zig + C examples was that the C code was so complicated that it obscured the basic mechanics of calling into C code from Zig.

To make Zig’s C interop functionality simpler, I decided to create a simple C application and library.

Here’s my first C header file:

// arithmetic.h

int add(int x, int y);

And here’s the implementation:

// arithmetic.c

#include "arithmetic.h"

int add(int x, int y) {
  return x + y;

I’m not doing anything fancy. The goal is to keep things as simple as possible.

Finally, I’ll create a test application to exercise the add function:

// main.c

#include <stdio.h>

#include "arithmetic.h"

int main(void)
  int x = 5;
  int y = 16;
  int z = add(x, y);
  printf("%d + %d = %d\n", x, y, z);
  return 0;

Okay, if everything works correctly, I should be able to compile this application with gcc, a standard C compiler:

$ gcc arithmetic.c main.c -o ./bin/example
$ ./bin/example
5 + 16 = 21

Great, everything works!

The complete example at this stage is on Github.

Switching the compiler to Zig πŸ”—︎

So far, this is a pure C project, and I haven’t used Zig at all.

Now, I’ll install Zig. There are a few ways to install Zig, but I’m using Nix, as it’s my new favorite package manager. I only use Nix for the installation, so feel free to install Zig 0.11.0 another way if you’re not yet in the cult of Nix.

I added the following flake.nix file to my project, which pulls Zig 0.11.0 into my environment:

  description = "Dev environment for zig-c-simple";

  inputs = {
    flake-utils.url = "github:numtide/flake-utils";

    # 0.11.0
    zig_dep.url = "github:NixOS/nixpkgs/46688f8eb5cd6f1298d873d4d2b9cf245e09e88e";

  outputs = { self, flake-utils, zig_dep }@inputs :
    flake-utils.lib.eachDefaultSystem (system:
      zig_dep = inputs.zig_dep.legacyPackages.${system};
      devShells.default = zig_dep.mkShell {
        packages = [

        shellHook = ''
          echo "zig" "$(zig version)"

From here, I can run nix develop, and I see that Nix 0.11.0 is available in my project environment:

$ nix develop
zig 0.11.0

Zig has a built-in C compiler that can act as a drop-in replacement for gcc. I’ll retry the previous compilation, but instead of calling gcc, I call zig cc:

$ zig cc arithmetic.c main.c -o ./bin/example
$ ./bin/example
5 + 16 = 21

Cool, everything is still working, and now I’m using Zig for compilation. I’m not using any Zig code yet, so that’s next.

The complete example at this stage is on Github.

Creating an equivalent Zig app πŸ”—︎

To create my Zig application, I’ll use zig init-exe, which creates a boilerplate Zig executable:

$ zig init-exe
info: Created build.zig
info: Created src/main.zig

I replace src/main.zig with the following contents, which creates a Zig application that’s equivalent to my main.c above.

// src/main.zig

const std = @import("std");

fn add(x: i32, y: i32) i32 {
    // TODO: Instead of reimplementing this in Zig, call the C version.
    return x + y;

pub fn main() !void {
    const x: i32 = 5;
    const y: i32 = 16;
    var z: i32 = add(x, y);

    const stdout_file = std.io.getStdOut().writer();
    var bw = std.io.bufferedWriter(stdout_file);
    const stdout = bw.writer();

    try stdout.print("{d} + {d} = {d}\n", .{ x, y, z });
    try bw.flush();

test "test add" {
    try std.testing.expectEqual(@as(i32, 21), add(5, 16));

And if I run it, I get the same output as the C version:

$ zig build run
5 + 16 = 21

Cool, but my goal is to call into C code from Zig, not just rewrite everything in Zig. Next, I’ll figure out how to replace my Zig implementation of add with the native C implementation.

The complete example at this stage is on Github.

Linking a Zig application against a native C library πŸ”—︎

Okay, everything so far has been basic “hello, world!” kind of stuff. Now, we’re at the part that has been my stumbling block previously: calling into native C code from Zig.

First, I’ll reorganize my files to separate my Zig code from my C code. Here’s my new folder layout:


Next, I adjust my build.zig so that my Zig application has access to my C source files:

    const exe = b.addExecutable(.{
        .name = "zig-c-simple",
        .root_source_file = .{ .path = "src/main.zig" },
        .target = target,
        .optimize = optimize,
    exe.addIncludePath(.{ .path = "c-src" });   // Look for C source files

And I do the same thing for Zig’s unit test build target:

    const unit_tests = b.addTest(.{
        .root_source_file = .{ .path = "src/main.zig" },
        .target = target,
        .optimize = optimize,
    unit_tests.addIncludePath(.{ .path = "c-src" }); // Look for C source files

I’ve now adjusted my Zig build so that it has access to my C arithmetic library, but I haven’t called the library yet. To complete this example, I need to make the following change to my src/main.zig file:

// src/main.zig

const arithmetic = @cImport({

fn add(x: i32, y: i32) i32 {
    return arithmetic.add(x, y);

The above change replaces my Zig-native implementation of the add function with a wrapper to call the native C add function in my arithmetic.c file.

Now is the moment of truth. Does everything compile and run as expected?

$ zig build run
5 + 16 = 21

Cool, it works!

And I’ll try my unit test as well:

$ zig build test --summary all
Build Summary: 3/3 steps succeeded; 1/1 tests passed
test success
└─ run test 1 passed 1ms MaxRSS:1M
   └─ zig test Debug native success 2s MaxRSS:201M

Unit tests are passing as well. Everything looks great!

Is Zig really calling C? πŸ”—︎

I’ve tried calling C code from other programming languages, and it’s never been this easy. I worried that I was somehow tricking myself, and Zig wasn’t really calling my C code, so I deliberately introduced a bug into my C code:

// arithemtic.c

int add(int x, int y) {
  return x + y - 1; // Intentionally return incorrect results.

If my Zig application is really calling into C, then my Zig unit test should fail because the underlying C code is now incorrect.

I ran my unit tests to see what would happen:

$ zig build test --summary all
run test: error: 'test.simple test' failed: expected 21, found 20
/nix/store/bg6hyfzr1wzk795ii48mc1v15bswcvp3-zig-0.11.0/lib/zig/std/testing.zig:84:17: 0x2244b3 in expectEqual__anon_1014 (test)
                return error.TestExpectedEqual;
/home/mike/zig-c-simple/src/main.zig:27:5: 0x2245fb in test.simple test (test)
    try std.testing.expectEqual(@as(i32, 21), add(x, y));
run test: error: while executing test 'test.simple test', the following test command failed:
/home/mike/zig-c-simple/zig-cache/o/60df9dade81f9ba62609a6cbf833478c/test --listen=-

Great! That test failed as expected with the error expected 21, found 20. The unit test correctly identified the bug I introduced into my C add function.

Is Zig following header references? πŸ”—︎

The other piece of this solution that works surprisingly well is that I can reference the function through the .h file. I haven’t done C/C++ programming in a long time, but my memory is that importing by a .c file isn’t possible, so it’s surprising how easy it is in Zig.

To test whether Zig is cheating somehow, I added a new function and preprocessor macro to my arithmetic.h header:

// arithmetic.h

int increment(int x);

And I add this new function definition to arithmetic.c:

// arithemtic.c

int increment(int x) {
  return x + INCREMENT_AMOUNT;

Finally, I add a quick unit test for this new function in my src/main.zig file:

test "test increment" {
    try std.testing.expectEqual(@as(i32, 6), arithmetic.increment(5));

If Zig is ignoring the C header #include directives, this should either cause a compilation error or my tests should stop passing. Time to run the new test:

$ zig build test --summary all
Build Summary: 3/3 steps succeeded; 2/2 tests passed
test success
└─ run test 2 passed 830us MaxRSS:1M
   └─ zig test Debug native success 2s MaxRSS:201M

It passed! This shows that Zig has a convenient feature of following #include references in my C sources, which makes calling into C code easier than any other language I’ve used.

Summary πŸ”—︎

This article showed the simplest example I could think of for showing how to call C code from Zig.

Using this technique, it’s possible to port a piece of a C library to the Zig build system and then use Zig to call into that library.

Source code πŸ”—︎

The full source code is available on Github. I split it up into the different stages of the project:

Thanks to StΓ©phane Bortzmeyer and IntegratedQuantum for offering suggestions that helped me simplify this solution.