What is the HINSTANCE passed to CreateWindow and RegisterClass used for?

Raymond Chen


One of the less-understood parameters to

the CreateWindow function


the RegisterClass function

is the HINSTANCE (either passed as a parameter
or as part of

the WNDCLASS structure

The window class name is not sufficient to identify the class uniquely.
Each process has its own window class list,
and each entry in the window class list consists of an instance handle
and a class name.
For example, here’s what the window class list might look like if a
program has two DLLs, both of which register a class name “MyClass”,
passing the DLL’s handle as the HINSTANCE.


When it comes time to create a window, each module then passes
its own HINSTANCE when creating the window,
and the window manager uses the combination of the instance handle
and the class name to look up the class.

CreateWindow("MyClass", ..., hinstA, ...); // creates class 6
CreateWindow("MyClass", ..., hinstB, ...); // creates class 7
CreateWindow("MyClass", ..., hinstC, ...); // fails

This is why it is okay if multiple DLLs all register a class
called “MyClass”; the instance handle is used to tell them apart.

There is an exception to the above rule, however.
If you pass the CS_GLOBALCLASS flag when registering
the class, then the window manager will ignore the instance handle
when looking for your class. All of the USER32 classes are registered
as global. Consequently, all of the following calls create the
USER32 edit control:

CreateWindow("edit", ..., hinstA, ...);
CreateWindow("edit", ..., hinstB, ...);
CreateWindow("edit", ..., hinstC, ...);

If you are registering a class for other modules to use in
dialog boxes, you need to register as CS_GLOBALCLASS,
because as we saw earlier

the internal CreateWindow call performed during dialog
box creation to create the controls

passes the dialog’s HINSTANCE as the
HINSTANCE parameter.
Since the dialog instance handle is typically the DLL that is
creating the dialog

that same HINSTANCE is used to look up the template
failing to register with the CS_GLOBALCLASS flag
means that the window class lookup will not find the class
since it’s registered under the instance handle of the DLL that
provided the class, not the one that is using it.

In 16-bit Windows, the instance handle did other things, too,
but they are no longer relevant to Win32.

A common mistake
is to pass the
HINSTANCE of some other module
(typically, the primary executable)
when registering a window class.
Now that you understand what the
HINSTANCE is used for,
you should be able to
explain the consequences of registering a class with the wrong

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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