Understanding React Hook useRef

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useRef is used to store value that can be persisted between rendering. It has important characteristics:

useRef accepts initial value and returns a reference object with a single current property.

const ref = useRef(0);

// read the value
const value = ref.current;

// mutate the value
ref.current = 3;

One of the best way to understand this hook is by comparing it with useState

useRef vs useState

Examine the code below

import { useRef, useState } from 'react';

export default function Counter() {
const countRef = useRef(0);
const [count, setCount] = useState(0);

function handleRefClick() {
countRef.current = countRef.current + 1;
console.log("useRef: Button is clicked " + countRef.current + " times");

function handleStateClick() {
setCount(count + 1);
console.log("useState: Button is clicked " + count + " times");
console.log("rendering triggered");

return (
<button onClick={handleRefClick}>Click me: useRef</button>
<p>countRef value: {countRef.current}</p>
<br />
<button onClick={handleStateClick}>Click me: useState</button>
<p>count state value: {count}</p>

If we click the useRef button, notice that:

  1. It never triggers rendering. Message Rendering triggered is never logged again after the initial rendering. The countRef value: {countRef.current} in the template keeps showing 0, although the button is clicked multiple times. The value will be updated in the template once rendering happens again i.e when useState button is clicked.
  2. See the message useRef: Button is clicked.... The countRef value is incremented overtime, so the value is persisted between rendering.

If we click the useState button, notice that:

  1. The message Rendering triggered is logged again
  2. The count state value: {count} shows correct count result

Based on this experiment, if you need to display a value for rendering (in the template), then use useState. Otherwise, use useRef.

Use Cases

Below are some use cases we could use for useRef

Manipulating DOM

It's a quite common scenario to manipulate DOM element. Below is a use case how to set focus for an input field

export default function App() {
const inputRef = useRef(null);

useEffect(() => {
}, [])

return (
<div className="App">
<input ref={inputRef} type="text" value="hi" />

Set Interval

export default function App() {
const intervalRef = useRef(null);

const handleStart = () => {
intervalRef.current = setInterval(() => {
console.log("interval start");
}, 100);

const handleStop = () => {
console.log("interval stop");

return (
<div className="App">
<button onClick={handleStart}>Start Interval</button>
<button onClick={handleStop}>Stop Interval</button>