What is the cause?

Bottom Line

You are trying to use something that is null (or Nothing in VB.NET). This means you either set it to null, or you never set it to anything at all.

Like anything else, null gets passed around. If it is null in method “A”, it could be that method “B” passed a null to method “A”.

null can have different meanings:

  1. Object variables that are uninitialized and hence point to nothing. In this case, if you access members of such objects, it causes a NullReferenceException.
  2. The developer is using null intentionally to indicate there is no meaningful value available. Note that C# has the concept of nullable datatypes for variables (like database tables can have nullable fields) – you can assign null to them to indicate there is no value stored in it, for example int? a = null; (which is a shortcut for Nullable<int> a = null;) where the question mark indicates it is allowed to store null in variable a. You can check that either with if (a.HasValue) {...} or with if (a==null) {...}. Nullable variables, like a this example, allow to access the value via a.Value explicitly, or just as normal via a.
    Note that accessing it via a.Value throws an InvalidOperationException instead of a NullReferenceException if a is null – you should do the check beforehand, i.e. if you have another non-nullable variable int b; then you should do assignments like if (a.HasValue) { b = a.Value; } or shorter if (a != null) { b = a; }.

The rest of this article goes into more detail and shows mistakes that many programmers often make which can lead to a NullReferenceException.

More Specifically

The runtime throwing a NullReferenceException always means the same thing: you are trying to use a reference, and the reference is not initialized (or it was once initialized, but is no longer initialized).

This means the reference is null, and you cannot access members (such as methods) through a null reference. The simplest case:

string foo = null;
foo.ToUpper();

This will throw a NullReferenceException at the second line because you can’t call the instance method ToUpper() on a string reference pointing to null.

Debugging

How do you find the source of a NullReferenceException? Apart from looking at the exception itself, which will be thrown exactly at the location where it occurs, the general rules of debugging in Visual Studio apply: place strategic breakpoints and inspect your variables, either by hovering the mouse over their names, opening a (Quick)Watch window or using the various debugging panels like Locals and Autos.

If you want to find out where the reference is or isn’t set, right-click its name and select “Find All References”. You can then place a breakpoint at every found location and run your program with the debugger attached. Every time the debugger breaks on such a breakpoint, you need to determine whether you expect the reference to be non-null, inspect the variable, and verify that it points to an instance when you expect it to.

By following the program flow this way, you can find the location where the instance should not be null, and why it isn’t properly set.

Examples

Some common scenarios where the exception can be thrown:

Generic

ref1.ref2.ref3.member

If ref1 or ref2 or ref3 is null, then you’ll get a NullReferenceException. If you want to solve the problem, then find out which one is null by rewriting the expression to its simpler equivalent:

var r1 = ref1;
var r2 = r1.ref2;
var r3 = r2.ref3;
r3.member

Specifically, in HttpContext.Current.User.Identity.Name, the HttpContext.Current could be null, or the User property could be null, or the Identity property could be null.

Indirect

public class Person 
{
    public int Age { get; set; }
}
public class Book 
{
    public Person Author { get; set; }
}
public class Example 
{
    public void Foo() 
    {
        Book b1 = new Book();
        int authorAge = b1.Author.Age; // You never initialized the Author property.
                                       // there is no Person to get an Age from.
    }
}

If you want to avoid the child (Person) null reference, you could initialize it in the parent (Book) object’s constructor.

Nested Object Initializers

The same applies to nested object initializers:

Book b1 = new Book 
{ 
   Author = { Age = 45 } 
};

This translates to:

Book b1 = new Book();
b1.Author.Age = 45;

While the new keyword is used, it only creates a new instance of Book, but not a new instance of Person, so the Author the property is still null.

Nested Collection Initializers

public class Person 
{
    public ICollection<Book> Books { get; set; }
}
public class Book 
{
    public string Title { get; set; }
}

The nested collection Initializers behave the same:

Person p1 = new Person 
{
    Books = {
         new Book { Title = "Title1" },
         new Book { Title = "Title2" },
    }
};

This translates to:

Person p1 = new Person();
p1.Books.Add(new Book { Title = "Title1" });
p1.Books.Add(new Book { Title = "Title2" });

The new Person only creates an instance of Person, but the Books collection is still null. The collection Initializer syntax does not create a collection for p1.Books, it only translates to the p1.Books.Add(...) statements.

Array

int[] numbers = null;
int n = numbers[0]; // numbers is null. There is no array to index.

Array Elements

Person[] people = new Person[5];
people[0].Age = 20 // people[0] is null. The array was allocated but not
                   // initialized. There is no Person to set the Age for.

Jagged Arrays

long[][] array = new long[1][];
array[0][0] = 3; // is null because only the first dimension is yet initialized.
                 // Use array[0] = new long[2]; first.

Collection/List/Dictionary

Dictionary<string, int> agesForNames = null;
int age = agesForNames["Bob"]; // agesForNames is null.
                               // There is no Dictionary to perform the lookup.

Range Variable (Indirect/Deferred)

public class Person 
{
    public string Name { get; set; }
}
var people = new List<Person>();
people.Add(null);
var names = from p in people select p.Name;
string firstName = names.First(); // Exception is thrown here, but actually occurs
                                  // on the line above.  "p" is null because the
                                  // first element we added to the list is null.

Events (C#)

public class Demo
{
    public event EventHandler StateChanged;
    
    protected virtual void OnStateChanged(EventArgs e)
    {        
        StateChanged(this, e); // Exception is thrown here 
                               // if no event handlers have been attached
                               // to StateChanged event
    }
}

(Note: The VB.NET compiler inserts null checks for event usage, so it’s not necessary to check events for Nothing in VB.NET.)

Bad Naming Conventions:

If you named fields differently from locals, you might have realized that you never initialized the field.

public class Form1
{
    private Customer customer;
    
    private void Form1_Load(object sender, EventArgs e) 
    {
        Customer customer = new Customer();
        customer.Name = "John";
    }
    
    private void Button_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
    {
        MessageBox.Show(customer.Name);
    }
}

This can be solved by following the convention to prefix fields with an underscore:

    private Customer _customer;

ASP.NET Page Life cycle:

public partial class Issues_Edit : System.Web.UI.Page
{
    protected TestIssue myIssue;

    protected void Page_Load(object sender, EventArgs e)
    {
        if (!IsPostBack)
        {
             // Only called on first load, not when button clicked
             myIssue = new TestIssue(); 
        }
    }
        
    protected void SaveButton_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
    {
        myIssue.Entry = "NullReferenceException here!";
    }
}

ASP.NET Session Values

// if the "FirstName" session value has not yet been set,
// then this line will throw a NullReferenceException
string firstName = Session["FirstName"].ToString();

ASP.NET MVC empty view models

If the exception occurs when referencing a property of @Model in an ASP.NET MVC View, you need to understand that the Model gets set in your action method, when you return a view. When you return an empty model (or model property) from your controller, the exception occurs when the views access it:

// Controller
public class Restaurant:Controller
{
    public ActionResult Search()
    {
        return View();  // Forgot the provide a Model here.
    }
}

// Razor view 
@foreach (var restaurantSearch in Model.RestaurantSearch)  // Throws.
{
}
    
<p>@Model.somePropertyName</p> <!-- Also throws -->