Big Integer Arithmetic in C - Part 1

Let's learn how to add large numbers that cannot be stored in a standard integer type provided by the C language.

Big Integer Arithmetic in C - Part 1

By Sivaram D (@siv2r)
Summer of Bitcoin '21 l Mathematics and Computing IIT KGP'23

In cryptography, you typically work with large numbers to prevent the adversaries from brute-forcing a solution. If you are working with Python or Java, you are in luck. They can handle huge numbers by default.

Python supports a bignum data type that can work with arbitrarily large numbers, and Java has a BigInteger Class. For C, you have to implement a code that can handle arithmetic operations on big integers or use a library that provides this feature.

Note: This article references 256-bit integers for big numbers, but the concepts discussed here can be easily extended to 128-bit or 512-bit integers.

The problem with big integers

Before diving into implementation details, let's first understand why C does not support big integers by default.

According to C89 standard, there are five standard integer types:

  1. signed char (8-bit)
  2. short int (16-bit)
  3. int (16-bit or 32-bit)
  4. long int (32-bit)
  5. long long int (64-bit or 32-bit)

We can clearly see that there is no mention of a 256-bit integer data type.

C is a relatively "low-level" language so, the way it manipulates data is very similar to that of a computer processor. The processors manage data using the registers (tiny, high-speed storage units). These registers are typically 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, 64-bit, 128-bit, or 256-bit in size.

Wait a minute! There is a 256-bit register? Yes, the AVX register on Intel and AMD microprocessor is an excellent example of this. Then, why don't we use this register to store a 256-bit integer? Because the Arithmetic Logic Units (ALU) in a microprocessor cannot perform arithmetic operations on 256-bit registers (only on 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, 64-bit).

Hence, C can't leverage the AVX register to support big integers. Now that we established why C doesn't have big integers data types let's implement the code to overcome this issue.

Representing a 256-bit integer

We realized that we couldn't fit a 256-bit integer in a single data type provided by C. Therefore, the only option is to break it into chunks of smaller sizes that can fit into a single data type. These chunks are usually called limbs.

For example, we can split a 256-bit integer into four 64-bit limbs and store them using the uint64_t data type.

Note: If you want your code to be highly portable then, it is recommended to use eight 32-bit limbs to represent a 256-bit number since some microcontroller compilers will not support unit64_t.

Consider the following 256-bit unsigned integer (hexadecimal form):

79BE667 EF9DCBBAC 55A06295 CE870B07 029BFCDB 2DCE28D9 59F2815B 16F81798

Breaking this into 4 x 64-bit limbs will look like:

  • Limb 1: 59F2815B 16F81798 (least significant)
  • Limb 2: 029BFCDB 2DCE28D9
  • Limb 3: 55A06295 CE870B07
  • Limb 4: 79BE667E F9DCBBAC (most significant)
// C struct for storing 256-bit unsigned integer
typedef struct {
    uint64_t d[4];
} big_int256;

// macro to create a big_int256
#define GET_BIG_INT256(d7, d6, d5, d4, d3, d2, d1, d0) {{ \
    (d0) | (((uint64_t)(d1)) << 32), \
    (d2) | (((uint64_t)(d3)) << 32), \
    (d4) | (((uint64_t)(d5)) << 32), \
    (d6) | (((uint64_t)(d7)) << 32) \

This form of a 256-bit integer is called a \( 2^{64} \) radix representation (due to 64-bit limbs), and this is not the only way to represent a 256-bit integer.

Adding two 256-bit integers

Since we are implementing a custom integer representation, we also need to take care of the arithmetic operations, unlike a unit64_t where C takes care of all these operations by default.

For adding two big_int256 (our user-defined struct), we can add each limb separately from least significant to most significant while transferring the carry to the next limb (if generated).

big_int256* add (big_int256 *a, big_int256 *b) {
    big_int256 *r = malloc(4 * sizeof(big_int256)); //stores the result
    int carry = 0;

    // add least significant limb first
    r->d[0] = a->d[0] + b->d[0];
    carry = (r->d[0] < a->d[0]);

    // add remaining limbs + carry from prev limb
    for (int i = 1; i <= 3; i++) {
        r->d[i] = a->d[i] + b->d[i] + carry;
        carry = (r->d[i] < a->d[i]);

    /* can also store this result in an additional argument instead 
    of printing an error msg */
    if (carry) {
        fprintf(stderr, "overflow occurred!!");

    return r;

Is this the most optimal add function? This should be, right? since adding two numbers is a fundamental operation. Unfortunately, this is not the most optimal solution. Indeed, we can't optimize this function in terms of the algorithm, but we can cleverly modify the usage of carry to generate the most optimal code. We will see how to do this in part 2 of this blog series.


We have seen how to handle big integers in C and why C does not support it by default. You can also take a look at the source code of libgmp and libsecp256k1 (C libraries) to see how they handle big integers.

Before I finish this article, I will leave you with the following questions to ponder:

  • How carry = (r->d[i] < a->d[i]) calculates the carry? Is r->d[i] < b->d[i] or UNIT64_MAX - a->d[i] < b-> d[i] a valid alternative?
  • How will the optimal add function look like?

Hint: Think about the add and adc operations used when our code is converted to an assembly file (during compilation).