The Definitive Guide To PHP's isset And empty

PHP has two very similar functions that are essential to writing good PHP applications, but whose purpose and exact function is rarely well explained: isset and empty. The PHP manual itself doesn't have a simple explanation that actually captures their essence and most posts written around the web seem to be missing some detail or other as well. This article attempts to fill that gap; and takes a broad sweep of related topics to do so.

About PHP's error reporting

To explain what these functions are needed for to begin with, it's necessary to talk about PHP's error reporting mechanism. PHP is an interpreted language that lacks a compilation step separate from the actual runtime.1 That is, you don't typically compile PHP source code into an executable, then run that executable. PHP code is simply executed straight from the source and it either works or dies halfway through. The PHP interpreter and runtime can only complain about errors while the code is in full motion. Since there is no separate compilation step, certain types of errors that could be caught by a compiler can only surface at runtime.

There is now the dilemma between letting programs crash completely for every little mistake, or silently letting non-critical errors slip through. PHP is choosing the middle ground: it triggers an error, which by default simply causes a message to be output wherever it occurred. These errors can have different types, ranging from a relatively harmless E_NOTICE to a program-halting fatal E_ERROR. How these errors are handled can be customized. For example, their output can be turned off entirely or they can be redirected into a log file. They could also be turned into full-blown exceptions, which in turn can be handled by other error handling mechanisms.2

The PHP error reporting mechanism is vital in developing applications. What kind of errors should be triggered and whether they should be displayed or not can be configured in the php.ini file with the error_reporting and display_errors directives, a setting that can also be changed during runtime. The error_reporting directive should be set to the highest possible value during development, but turned down or off on live production servers. Seeing errors as they are happening is important during development (unless one likes to take stabs into the dark). At the same time, errors in production can be a serious security leak (not to mention a nuisance) and must not be output for every visitor to see.

One of the things that triggers an error of the type E_NOTICE is the act of trying to use a variable that does not exist. This can happen due to simple typos or logic errors and error reporting helps to catch such errors quickly. But there's also the legitimate case of simply not knowing whether a variable exists or not and needing to find out. If this legitimate case would trigger an error every time, it'd be impossible to efficiently tell real errors from non-critical errors. Which is where isset and empty come into play.

Simple definition

Here are the two functions defined in a nutshell:

bool isset( mixed $var [, mixed ... ])

Returns true if the variable exists and is not null. Does not trigger an error if the variable does not exist.


$foo = 'bar';
var_dump(isset($foo));        -> true

$baz = null;
var_dump(isset($baz));        -> false

var_dump(isset($undefined));  -> false
bool empty( mixed $var )

Returns true if the variable does not exist or its value equals false in a loose comparison. Does not trigger an error if the variable does not exist.


$foo = 'bar';
var_dump(empty($foo));        -> false

$baz = null;
var_dump(empty($baz));        -> true

var_dump(empty($undefined));  -> true

The important and remarkable thing about this behavior is that when trying to pass non-existent variables to normal functions, an error is triggered. PHP first tries to get the value of the variable, then pass it into the function:

var_dump($foobar);   -> Notice: Undefined variable: foobar

isset and empty are not actually regular functions but language constructs. That means they're part of the PHP language itself, do not play by the normal rules of functions and can hence get away with not triggering an error for non-existent variables. This is important when trying to figure out whether a variable exists or not. A typical case is trying to find out whether a certain value is present in the URL's query part:

if ($_GET['var'] == 'foo')

If $_GET['var'] actually exists, that is, if the URL contains ?var=foo, this will work just fine, regardless of the value of var. The presence or absence of $_GET['var'] is entirely in the hand of the user though. If the user does not include ?var=foo in the URL, this program will trigger an error.

To avoid this, we need to use isset:

if (isset($_GET['var']) && $_GET['var'] == 'foo')

isset guards our naïve use of the non-existent variable. If it is not set, the code does not proceed to the actual comparison and no error is triggered. isset itself does not trigger an error. In a nutshell, isset performs a $var !== null check in a way that does not trigger an error.

isset can accept multiple arguments and only returns true if all of them are set:

if (isset($foo, $_GET['bar'], $array['baz'])) {
    // all needed values exist, do something with them


When talking about isset one inevitably must also talk about null. Let's come back for a second to the predicament of PHP trying to skip over trivial errors without crashing a program.

$foo = $_GET['var'];
$bar = 'bar';
if ($foo == $bar) {
    // do something

How should PHP behave in the above program if $_GET['var'] did not exist? Sure, it will throw a tantrum and trigger a notice, and that's good and fine. But how should it treat $foo afterwards? As some sort of special outcast that doesn't have a value? Should it trigger an error every time $foo is used hence? The answer is simple: PHP assigns the value null in place of the non-existent variable. null is a type unto its own. null is not a boolean, not an integer, not a string, not an object. null is of type null which can only have one value: null. null is used to mean the absence of a value, but null is just a regular value in itself. null loosely compares to false (null == false, but null !== false).

PHP has a weird relationship to the value null. I am not clear about the historical development of it, but apparently it was exclusively supposed to be used for "non-existent" variables. Somehow it got promoted to a proper type of its own though. At the time of writing the manual even states:

Casting a variable to null will remove the variable and unset its value.

Unfortunately that's not entirely correct. I may even go so far as to call it nonsense (which in fact I did in a bug report). Interestingly, the "cast" of a value to null is done with the syntax (unset)$var. There's no (null)$var, like there is for all other primitive types. This kind of casting is also rather nonsensical. The following two expressions are equivalent:

$foo = (unset)$bar;
$foo = null;

Using the (unset) cast neither changes the value of $bar nor does it unset $bar. The only effect it has is the assignment of the value null to $foo. $foo is not unset in any way either, it continues to exist with the value null. To actually remove a variable, the function unset() needs to be used:


The $foo variable now indeed ceased to exist. Its value is gone, any further attempt to work with it will trigger an error:

$foo = 'bar';

This outputs:

Notice: Undefined variable: foo on line 3

PHP rightly complains that the variable $foo does not exist and the value of this non-existent variable is given as null. On the other hand:

$foo = null;

simply outputs:


The value null is used as the default value if there is no value, but a variable that holds the value null is still a perfectly fine variable. PHP itself is somewhat schizophrenic about null and still has what I assume to be historical references to null having the same effect as unset and connotation of a variable not existing.

This hopefully explains why isset is checking for null. This has the side effect of making it impossible to distinguish between a variable that does not exist and a variable that has the value null.


The empty construct doesn't really have any caveats like isset does. It's straight forward the same as $var == false, without triggering an error if the variable doesn't exist. As the manual says, the following things are considered "empty":

And again, it really is simply the same as a loose comparison to false. That makes empty nothing more and nothing less than a convenient shortcut for !isset($var) || $var == false. It's most often used in its negated form !empty($var), which is equivalent to isset($var) && $var == true. It's a great function to use if you expect a truthy value but are not sure if the variable exists at all:

if (empty($_GET['foo'])) {
    echo 'Error: please supply a valid value';

if (!empty($array['foo'])) {
    // array key exists and has a useful value, do something with it

if (!empty($foo) && is_array($foo)) {
    // $foo exists and is a non-empty array, do something with it

Function return values

Something that may cause some irritation is the fact that you can't use isset and empty with functions:


-> Fatal error: Can't use function return value in write context

This would be a valid expression with any other function, like is_numeric(myFunction()), since it simply passes the return value of myFunction to the input of is_numeric. isset and empty are language constructs though and are meant to be used on variables only. Trying to test whether the output of a function isset or is empty results in the above error. But it is never necessary to use the facilities of isset or empty for this purpose anyway. A function must exist, otherwise the program will crash with this message:

Fatal error: Call to undefined function

This is the type of error PHP does not silently forgive and forget. Furthermore, all functions always have a return value, at least an implicit return value of null (again, the value for "no value"). Hence, the following is the correct way of checking function return values:

if (myFunction() !== null)  -> equivalent of isset($var)

if (myFunction() == true)   -> equivalent of !empty($var)
if (myFunction())           -> concise equivalent of !empty($var)

if (myFunction() == false)  -> equivalent of empty($var)
if (!myFunction())          -> concise equivalent of empty($var)

To check whether a function exists, i.e. is declared, there's function_exists.

Update: As of PHP 5.5 expressions are valid arguments for empty and isset. I.e. empty(foo() == 'bar') and such are working without error now. As explained above though, it hardly makes any sense to use it, because you're just looking for a regular comparison operation which doesn't require the special facilities of isset or empty.


The correct place to use isset and empty is in one and only one situation: To test whether a variable that may or may not exist exists (isset) and optionally whether it's also falsey (empty). The number one use case is with GET or POST values:

if (isset($_POST['username'], $_POST['password'])) {
    // login form was submitted correctly,
    // try to log the user in

// show login form

Any external user input is entirely beyond the control of the programmer, hence these values may legitimately not exist and need to be treated as such. By the way, GET and POST values can never be null, isset's behavior regarding null values is therefore of no concern.

If a variable should exist at some specific point in an application, the use of isset and empty is not recommended.

$foo = someComplicatedLogic();

if (empty($foo)) {
    // someComplicatedLogic() returned something falsy

The above is a bad use of empty. It may seem very expressive, since it reads like "if $foo is empty...", but this is foregoing the advantages of PHP's error reporting. Consider this:

$somePrettyLongVariableName = someComplicatedLogic();

if (empty($somePretyLongVariableName)) {
    // someComplicatedLogic() returned something falsy

It's very easy to waste half a day and a lot of hair on the above code, suspecting some logic error in the someComplicatedLogic() function, debugging everything line by line, wondering why oh why the code reports that someComplicatedLogic() returned something falsy when in fact everything seems to be working fine. This should have been written as:

$somePrettyLongVariableName = someComplicatedLogic();

if (!$somePretyLongVariableName) {
    // someComplicatedLogic() returned something falsy

The result would be the same, but here PHP would helpfully complain with Notice: Undefined variable: somePretyLongVariableName on line 3. The programmer would slap his forehead, fix the typo and move on with life. Which serves as a good summary for this whole article:

The point of PHP's error reporting is to help the developer spot easy mistakes which other languages would complain about at compile time. The point of isset and empty is to specifically suppress Notice: Undefined variable errors when the programmer couldn't otherwise avoid it. empty is a shortcut for isset + boolean comparison.

And that's the whole story.


Edge cases

If a page requires that, say, the query parameter foo is supplied in the URL and all links to that page should include this parameter, I'd err on the side of not using isset or empty. There's no way to make sure the parameter is set in the URL, but if the application is designed in a way that it should be set, it's not incorrect behavior to trigger an error. It can help to quickly catch problems with invalid links during development and since error reporting will be silenced in production, it will not inconvenience any user. This is highly dependent on how errors are handled in the application and how the rest of the application flow goes though.


$record = fetchRecordFromDatabase($_GET['id']);
if (!$record) {

echo $record;

This very succinctly handles any form of invalid URL with a 404 page and even outputs helpful debug errors during development. Of course it makes some assumptions of how the example fetchRecordFromDatabase and errorPage functions work. To handle the case of a non-existing $_GET['id'] separately would require a lot more code. Whether that's necessary needs to be judged for every case individually.

Array keys

Specifically for arrays, there's an alternative to isset($array['key']) called array_key_exists. This function specifically does what it says: it returns true if an array key exists, regardless of the value of that key. That makes it possible to detect null values in arrays:

$array = array('key' => null);

var_dump(isset($array['key']));              -> false
var_dump(array_key_exists('key', $array));   -> true

This may be useful in some cases, but is in my opinion rarely necessary. null means "no value". Variables are just the things that give the programmer a handle on values. A non-existent variable and no value are essentially the same thing, hence the behavior of isset should be sufficient in most cases. A legitimate exception is when you're explictly working with language primitives, for example working on a JSON encoder that needs to translate the PHP null value into a 'null' JSON value. Most business logic code though won't need this.

Initializing variables

After all this talk about isset and empty, it's time to mention that it's really not necessary to use them often. Any proper application should initialize its variables, which makes checking for the existence of variables a rare occurrence.

Regular code blocks

Any logical block of code should initialize the variables it's going to work on beforehand:

$foo = 'bar';
$baz = null;

// do complicated things

There's no need to check whether $foo or $baz exist after this point, because they do. This serves as self-documentation, makes sure variables always have a known default value and most of all helps to catch typos, because PHP can now properly complain about non-existent variables.


Any arguments defined in a function declaration exist as variables inside the function.

function foo($bar, $baz = null) { ... }

There's no need to check whether $bar or $baz exist inside the function body, because they do. Even if no value was passed for the second $baz parameter, the variable $baz does in fact exist and has the default value null.


Arrays can be initialized to hold default values easily using the array union operator + or array_merge:

function foo(array $options) {
    $options += array('bar' => true, 'baz' => false);

There's no need to check whether $options contains the keys 'bar' or 'baz', because it does. And they even have known, good default values.

  1. To be exact, there are compilers for PHP, but by far the majority of PHP applications are not separately compiled. 

  2. Please note that errors are not exceptions. These are two independent error reporting mechanisms. 

About the author

David C. Zentgraf is a web developer working partly in Japan and Europe and is a regular on Stack Overflow. If you have feedback, criticism or additions, please feel free to try @deceze on Twitter, take an educated guess at his email address or look it up using time-honored methods. This article was published on And no, there is no dirty word in "Kunststube".