What is the difference between private and protected variable in Java

Exploring the Distinction Between Private and Protected Variables in Java

In the world of Java programming, understanding the nuances of access modifiers is crucial for writing efficient, secure, and maintainable code. Among the various types of variables in Java, private and protected variables play significant roles in determining how data can be accessed and manipulated within a program. This article delves deep into the differences between private and protected variables, exploring their characteristics, use cases, and impact on object-oriented design.

The Fundamentals of Access Modifiers in Java

What are Access Modifiers?

Access modifiers in Java are keywords used to set the accessibility of classes, methods, and variables. They control how these elements can be accessed from different parts of a program, forming a crucial aspect of encapsulation in object-oriented programming.

Types of Access Modifiers

Java provides four types of access modifiers:

  1. Public
  2. Private
  3. Protected
  4. Default (no modifier)

Each of these modifiers serves a specific purpose in controlling access to class members, including variables.

Private Variables: Encapsulation at Its Core

Definition and Syntax

Private variables are declared using the private keyword. They are accessible only within the class in which they are declared.



public class ExampleClass {

    private int privateVariable;


Characteristics of Private Variables

  1. Restricted Access: Only accessible within the declaring class.
  2. Enhanced Encapsulation: Provides the highest level of encapsulation.
  3. Data Hiding: Prevents direct access from outside the class.

Use Cases for Private Variables

Private variables are typically used for:

  1. Storing sensitive data that shouldn’t be directly accessible.
  2. Implementing getter and setter methods for controlled access.
  3. Maintaining class invariants and internal state.

Protected Variables: Balancing Access and Inheritance

Definition and Syntax

Protected variables are declared using the protected keyword. They are accessible within the same package and by subclasses in other packages.



public class ParentClass {

    protected int protectedVariable;


Characteristics of Protected Variables

  1. Package-level Access: Accessible within the same package.
  2. Inheritance Support: Accessible by subclasses, even in different packages.
  3. Moderate Encapsulation: Provides a balance between encapsulation and inheritance.

Use Cases for Protected Variables

Protected variables are commonly used for:

  1. Sharing data between related classes in a package.
  2. Allowing subclasses to access and modify inherited data.
  3. Implementing framework-level functionality.

Comparing Private and Protected Variables

Access Levels

  • Private: Accessible only within the declaring class.
  • Protected: Accessible within the same package and by subclasses.

Inheritance Behavior

  • Private: Not inherited by subclasses.
  • Protected: Inherited by subclasses, maintaining their protected status.

Encapsulation Strength

  • Private: Provides the strongest encapsulation.
  • Protected: Offers a moderate level of encapsulation.

Code Example: Illustrating the Difference



public class ParentClass {

    private int privateVar = 1;

    protected int protectedVar = 2;


    public void printVars() {

        System.out.println(“Private: “ + privateVar);

        System.out.println(“Protected: “ + protectedVar);




public class ChildClass extends ParentClass {

    public void accessVars() {

        // System.out.println(privateVar); // This would cause a compilation error

        System.out.println(protectedVar); // This is allowed



In this example, ChildClass can access protectedVar but not privateVar.

Impact on Object-Oriented Design

Encapsulation and Data Hiding

Private variables are crucial for implementing strong encapsulation, hiding the internal details of a class and providing controlled access through methods. Protected variables, while less restrictive, still offer a degree of encapsulation while supporting inheritance.

Inheritance and Polymorphism

Protected variables play a significant role in inheritance hierarchies, allowing subclasses to access and modify inherited data. This can be particularly useful when designing frameworks or extensible class structures.

Design Patterns and Private Variables

Many design patterns, such as the Singleton pattern, rely heavily on private variables to control object creation and access.



public class Singleton {

    private static Singleton instance;


    private Singleton() {}


    public static Singleton getInstance() {

        if (instance == null) {

            instance = new Singleton();


        return instance;



Protected Variables in Abstract Classes

Protected variables are often used in abstract classes to provide a common state that can be accessed and modified by concrete implementations.



public abstract class Shape {

    protected double area;


    public abstract void calculateArea();



public class Circle extends Shape {

    private double radius;



    public void calculateArea() {

        area = Math.PI * radius * radius;



Best Practices and Common Pitfalls

When to Use Private Variables

  1. For sensitive data that should never be directly accessed outside the class.
  2. When implementing getter and setter methods for controlled access.
  3. For variables that are only used internally within a class.

When to Use Protected Variables

  1. When creating a class that’s intended to be subclassed.
  2. For variables that need to be accessed by related classes within a package.
  3. When designing extensible frameworks or libraries.

Avoiding Overuse of Protected Variables

While protected variables can be useful, overusing them can lead to tighter coupling between classes and reduced encapsulation. Always consider if a private variable with public methods might be a better alternative.

The Danger of Public Variables

Public variables should be used sparingly, if at all. They offer no encapsulation and can lead to unpredictable behavior and difficult-to-maintain code.

Advanced Concepts and Considerations

Nested Classes and Access Modifiers

Inner classes in Java have unique access rules. A nested class can access private members of its enclosing class, even if the nested class itself is declared as private.



public class OuterClass {

    private int outerPrivate = 1;


    private class InnerClass {

        void accessOuterPrivate() {

            System.out.println(outerPrivate); // This is allowed




Reflection and Access Modifiers

Java’s Reflection API can be used to access private and protected variables at runtime, bypassing normal access controls. This is generally considered bad practice and should be avoided in most cases.



import java.lang.reflect.Field;


public class ReflectionExample {

    public static void main(String[] args) throws Exception {

        PrivateClass obj = new PrivateClass();

        Field privateField = PrivateClass.class.getDeclaredField(“privateVar”);






class PrivateClass {

    private int privateVar = 42;


Package-Private Access

When no access modifier is specified, Java uses the default “package-private” access level. This allows access within the same package but not from outside the package.



class PackagePrivateExample {

    int packagePrivateVar = 10; // Accessible within the same package


The Role of Access Modifiers in Large-Scale Applications

Modularity and Encapsulation

In large applications, proper use of access modifiers, especially private variables, is crucial for maintaining modularity. It allows different parts of the application to be developed and maintained independently.

API Design and Protected Variables

When designing APIs, protected variables can be useful for allowing users to extend and customize functionality while still maintaining some level of encapsulation.

Security Considerations

Proper use of private variables is essential for maintaining security in applications, especially when dealing with sensitive data or critical system components.

Future Trends and Language Evolution

Sealed Classes and Access Modifiers

Java 17 introduced sealed classes, which interact with access modifiers in interesting ways, potentially changing how we think about class hierarchies and access control.



public sealed class Shape permits Circle, Square {

    protected double area;

    // …


Project Loom and Concurrency

As Java evolves to handle concurrency more efficiently with Project Loom, the importance of properly encapsulated state (using private variables) may become even more critical.


Understanding the distinction between private and protected variables in Java is crucial for writing robust, maintainable, and secure code. Private variables offer the strongest form of encapsulation, ensuring that data can only be accessed and modified within its own class. This level of control is invaluable for maintaining the integrity of an object’s internal state and implementing clean, modular designs.

Protected variables, on the other hand, strike a balance between encapsulation and accessibility. They allow for more flexible designs, particularly when dealing with inheritance hierarchies or package-level implementations. However, this flexibility comes with the responsibility of careful design to prevent unintended access or modification of data.

As you continue to develop your Java programming skills, remember that the choice between private and protected variables (and indeed, all access modifiers) should be made thoughtfully, considering the specific requirements of your application, the principles of object-oriented design, and the potential for future maintenance and extension of your code.

Ultimately, mastering the use of access modifiers, including the nuanced differences between private and protected variables, is a key step in becoming a proficient Java developer. It enables you to create more secure, efficient, and well-structured applications. As Java continues to evolve, staying informed about new language features and best practices related to access control will be crucial for leveraging the full power of the language in your software development endeavors.


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