What is an undefined reference/unresolved external symbol error and how do I fix it?

The specified errors occur during this last stage of compilation, most commonly referred to as linking. It basically means that you compiled a bunch of implementation files into object files or libraries and now you want to get them to work together.

Say you defined symbol a in a.cpp. Now, b.cpp declared that symbol and used it. Before linking, it simply assumes that that symbol was defined somewhere, but it doesn’t yet care where. The linking phase is responsible for finding the symbol and correctly linking it to b.cpp (well, actually to the object or library that uses it).

If you’re using MSVS, you’ll see that projects generate .lib files. These contain a table of exported symbols, and a table of imported symbols. The imported symbols are resolved against the libraries you link against, and the exported symbols are provided for the libraries that use that .lib (if any).

Similar mechanism exist for other compilers/platforms.

Common error messages are error LNK2001, error LNK1120, error LNK2019 for MSVS and undefined reference to symbolName for gcc.

The code:

struct X
{
   virtual void foo();
};
struct Y : X
{
   void foo() {}
};
struct A
{
   virtual ~A() = 0;
};
struct B: A
{
   virtual ~B(){}
};
extern int x;
void foo();
int main()
{
   x = 0;
   foo();
   Y y;
   B b;
}

would generate the following errors with gcc:

/home/AbiSfw/ccvvuHoX.o: In function `main':
prog.cpp:(.text+0x10): undefined reference to `x'
prog.cpp:(.text+0x19): undefined reference to `foo()'
prog.cpp:(.text+0x2d): undefined reference to `A::~A()'
/home/AbiSfw/ccvvuHoX.o: In function `B::~B()':
prog.cpp:(.text._ZN1BD1Ev[B::~B()]+0xb): undefined reference to `A::~A()'
/home/AbiSfw/ccvvuHoX.o: In function `B::~B()':
prog.cpp:(.text._ZN1BD0Ev[B::~B()]+0x12): undefined reference to `A::~A()'
/home/AbiSfw/ccvvuHoX.o:(.rodata._ZTI1Y[typeinfo for Y]+0x8): undefined reference to `typeinfo for X'
/home/AbiSfw/ccvvuHoX.o:(.rodata._ZTI1B[typeinfo for B]+0x8): undefined reference to `typeinfo for A'
collect2: ld returned 1 exit status

and similar errors with MSVS:

1>test2.obj : error LNK2001: unresolved external symbol "void __cdecl foo(void)" (?foo@@YAXXZ)
1>test2.obj : error LNK2001: unresolved external symbol "int x" (?x@@3HA)
1>test2.obj : error LNK2001: unresolved external symbol "public: virtual __thiscall A::~A(void)" (??1A@@UAE@XZ)
1>test2.obj : error LNK2001: unresolved external symbol "public: virtual void __thiscall X::foo(void)" (?foo@X@@UAEXXZ)
1>...\test2.exe : fatal error LNK1120: 4 unresolved externals

Common causes include:

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