UPDATE Wed 24th, 2024: This article was originally called “Nominal Types”. A few people on lobste.rs and r/programming pointed out that naming this Nominal Types is incorrect. A better description would be Phantom Types or maybe Tagged Types.

Quick overview of using nominal types to encode semantic differences between types in an efficient and elegant way

The Problem

Let’s say we’re writing a program with various types of IDs: user IDs, group IDs and document IDs. These can be represented as unsigned 64-bit integers. However, semantically, they’re different. A user ID shouldn’t be interchangeable with a group ID or a document ID. The most common approach is to differentiate them through naming conventions:

fn ping_user(user_id: u64) {

This method works but is prone to errors. Nothing stops us from mistakenly doing:

let group_id = new_group_id(); 
ping_user(group_id); // This compiles!

This is far from ideal. If we were to accidentally pass a group_id into a function expecting a user_id, nothing would stop us and we would be faced with a difficult to debug production issue. This method, while very common, relies on engineers get it right 100% of the time. Can we do better? Of course we can!

In rust, we have a powerful type system at our disposal. We can use this to prevent these errors at compile time.

A Potential Solution

One approach is to create unique types for each ID:

struct GroupId(u64);
struct UserId(u64);

fn ping_user(id: UserId) {

ping_user(GroupId(12345)); // This triggers an error!

This method works. The compile will stop us to from passing a GroupId where a UserId is expected. There are, however, some drawbacks to this specific method:

  • We need to implement any methods operating on these types for each type separately. This leads to code-bloat.
  • We end up generating separate code for all these types, despite them having the same underlying data.
  • We might also create inconsistencies if we forget to add a method to GroupId that exists for UserId and would apply similarly to both (let’s say for example a generate_next_id method).

An Arguably Better Solution

There’s arguably a more elegant way to do this. The idea is to implement a generic type that holds our value and tag it with a type to semantically differentiate them. These types are called Phantom Types or Tagged Types. Here’s how:

struct Id<T> {
    inner: u64,
    _marker: std::marker::PhantomData<T>,
impl<T> Id<T> {
    pub fn new(inner: u64) -> Self { 
       Self {
           _marker: std::marker::PhantomData
struct UserIdMarker;
struct GroupIdMarker;

pub type UserId = Id<UserIdMarker>;
pub type GroupId = Id<GroupIdMarker>;

fn ping_user(id: UserId) {
ping_user(GroupId::new(12345)); // This triggers an error

What is happening here? We define a generic type Id<T> to hold our value. Every method we implement on Id<T> will be available to all the instantiated types. We have less code-bloat and a more consistent view. But how do we semantically distinguish instantiated types? This is where std::marker::PhantomData comes into play.


At the heart of this approach is the use of std::marker::PhantomData to tag our generic structure. PhantomData enables us to associate one type with another at compile time, effectively creating distinct, instantiated types from the same generic template. For instance, Id<UserIdMarker> and Id<GroupIdMarker> are treated as separate, distinct types by the Rust compiler, preventing any mix-ups between the two. Despite this, in the compiled binary, they are identical in terms of code and size.

The beauty of PhantomData lies in its non-impact on runtime performance and memory. It doesn’t require any runtime allocation, nor does it add any size to the structure. Therefore, a structure like Id<SomeTypeMarker> will have the same memory footprint as a simple SomeId(u64). PhantomData’s role is purely to maintain type information, enabling the creation of unique, type-safe identifiers. It’s akin to a compile-time tag on the structure, ensuring type safety without runtime cost.

This method, while perhaps a bit more verbose initially, offers significant advantages:

  • Methods defined on Id<T> are applicable to all our ID types, providing a unified interface.
  • It eliminates the need for duplicating code for each ID type.
  • It still allows for the implementation of specific methods for particular ID types, such as impl Id<GroupIdMarker> { ...}.

However, it’s worth noting that working with phantom types can be more complex, especially for those new to the concept. They require a deeper understanding of Rust’s type system but offer robust type safety in return.


This approach is versatile. We can apply it virtually to any type, such as String, Uuid, and more. Imagine you need to separate passwords from usernames in your code? By creating phantom types such as type Username = Input<UsernameMarker> and type Password = Input<PasswordMarker> over a generic type Input<T> holding a PhantomData, you can clearly enforce the separation in your code.


Rust’s type system is powerful. We can use it to enforce semantic correctness right at the type level. PhantomData is a neat little trick in our Rust toolbox, that allow us to create rich phantom types in our code. They are an effective strategy to write more robust and error-resistant code.