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Visibility modifiers

This material was written by Aasmund Eldhuset; it is owned by Khan Academy and is licensed for use under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US. Please note that this is not a part of Khan Academy's official product offering.


Kotlin allows you to enforce symbol visibility (which Python only does via underscore conventions) via visibility modifiers, which can be placed on symbol declarations. If you don't supply a visibility modifier, you get the default visibility level, which is public.

The meaning of a visibility modifier depends on whether it's applied to a top-level declaration or to a declaration inside a class. For top-level declarations:

  • public (or omitted): this symbol is visible throughout the entire codebase
  • internal: this symbol is only visible inside files that belong to the same module (a source code grouping which is defined by your IDE or build tool) as the file where this symbol is declared
  • private: this symbol is only visible inside the file where this symbol is declared

For example, private could be used to define a property or helper function that is needed by several functions in one file, or a complex type returned by one of your private functions, without leaking them to the rest of the codebase:

private class ReturnType(val a: Int, val b: Double, val c: String)

private fun secretHelper(x: Int) = x * x

private const val secretValue = 3.14

For a symbol that is declared inside a class:

  • public (or omitted): this symbol is visible to any code that can see the containing class
  • internal: this symbol is only visible to code that exists inside a file that belongs to the same module as the file where this symbol is declared, and that can also see the containing class
  • protected: this symbol is only visible inside the containing class and all of its subclasses, no matter where they are declared (so if your class is public and open, anyone can subclass it and thus get to see and use the protected members). If you have used Java: this does not also grant access from the rest of the package.
  • private: this symbol is only visible inside the containing class

A constructor can also have a visibility modifier. If you want to place one on the primary constructor (which you might want to do if you have a number of secondary constructors which all invoke a complicated primary constructor that you don't want to expose), you need to include the constructor keyword: class Person private constructor(val name: String).

Visibility modifiers can't be placed on local variables, since their visibility is always limited to the containing block.

The type of a property, and the types that are used for the parameters and the return type of a function, must be "at least as visible" as the property/function itself. For example, a public function can't take a private type as a parameter.

The visibility level only affects the lexical visibility of the symbol - i.e., where the compiler allows you to type out the symbol. It does not affect where instances are used: for example, a public top-level function may well return an instance of a private class, as long as the return type doesn't mention the private class name but is instead a public base class of the private class (possibly Any) or a public interface that the private class implements. When you subclass a class, its private members are also inherited by the subclass, but are not directly accessible there - however, if you call an inherited public function that happens to access a private member, that's fine.


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