The C fopen() function is used to open an existing file or create a new one. The C11 version of the fopen() and fopen_s() functions provides a mode flag, x, that provides the mechanism needed to determine if the file that is to be opened exists. Not using this mode flag can lead to a program overwriting or accessing an unintended file.

Noncompliant Code Example (fopen())

In this noncompliant code example, the file referenced by file_name is opened for writing. This example is noncompliant if the programmer's intent was to create a new file, but the referenced file already exists.

char *file_name;
FILE *fp;

/* Initialize file_name */

fp = fopen(file_name, "w");
if (!fp) {
  /* Handle error */

Noncompliant Code Example (fopen_s(), C11 Annex K)

The C11 Annex K fopen_s() function is designed to improve the security of the fopen() function. Like the fopen() function, fopen_s() provides a mechanism to determine whether the file exists. See below for use of the exclusive mode flag.

char *file_name;
FILE *fp;

/* Initialize file_name */
errno_t res = fopen_s(&fp, file_name, "w");
if (res != 0) {
  /* Handle error */

Compliant Solution (fopen_s(), C11 Annex K)

The C Standard provides a new flag to address this problem. Subclause, paragraph 5 [ISO/IEC 9899:2011], states:

Opening a file with exclusive mode ('x' as the last character in the mode argument) fails if the file already exists or cannot be created. Otherwise, the file is created with exclusive (also known as non-shared) access to the extent that the underlying system supports exclusive access.

This option is also provided by the GNU C library [Loosemore 2007].

This compliant solution uses the x mode character to instruct fopen_s() to fail rather than open an existing file:

char *file_name;

/* Initialize file_name */
FILE *fp;
errno_t res = fopen_s(&fp, file_name, "wx");
if (res != 0) {
  /* Handle error */

Use of this option allows for the easy remediation of legacy code. However, note that Microsoft Visual Studio 2012 and earlier do not support the x mode character [MSDN].

Compliant Solution (open(), POSIX)

The open() function, as defined in the Standard for Information Technology—Portable Operating System Interface (POSIX®), Base Specifications, Issue 7 [IEEE Std 1003.1:2013], is available on many platforms and provides finer control than fopen(). In particular, open() accepts the O_CREAT and O_EXCL flags. When used together, these flags instruct the open() function to fail if the file specified by file_name already exists.

char *file_name;
int new_file_mode;

/* Initialize file_name and new_file_mode */

int fd = open(file_name, O_CREAT | O_EXCL | O_WRONLY, new_file_mode);
if (fd == -1) {
  /* Handle error */

Care should be taken when using O_EXCL with remote file systems because it does not work with NFS version 2. NFS version 3 added support for O_EXCL mode in open(). IETF RFC 1813 [Callaghan 1995] defines the EXCLUSIVE value to the mode argument of CREATE:

EXCLUSIVE specifies that the server is to follow exclusive creation semantics, using the verifier to ensure exclusive creation of the target. No attributes may be provided in this case, since the server may use the target file metadata to store the createverf3 verifier.

For examples of how to check for the existence of a file without opening it, see recommendation FIO10-C. Take care when using the rename() function.

Compliant Solution (fdopen(), POSIX)

For code that operates on FILE pointers and not file descriptors, the POSIX fdopen() function can be used to associate an open stream with the file descriptor returned by open(), as shown in this compliant solution [IEEE Std 1003.1:2013]:

char *file_name;
int new_file_mode;
FILE *fp;
int fd;

/* Initialize file_name and new_file_mode */

fd = open(file_name, O_CREAT | O_EXCL | O_WRONLY, new_file_mode);
if (fd == -1) {
  /* Handle error */

fp = fdopen(fd, "w");
if (fp == NULL) {
  /* Handle error */

Compliant Solution (Windows)

The Win32 API CreateFile() allows a programmer to create or open a file depending on the flags passed in. Passing in the CREATE_NEW flag ensures the call fails if the file already exists. This compliant solution demonstrates how to open a file for reading and writing without sharing access to the file such that the call fails if the file already exists.

TCHAR *file_name;
HANDLE hFile = CreateFile(file_name, GENERIC_READ | GENERIC_WRITE, 0, 0, 
                          CREATE_NEW, FILE_ATTRIBUTE_NORMAL, 0);
  DWORD err = GetLastError();
  if (ERROR_FILE_EXISTS == err) {
    /* Handle file exists error */
  } else {
    /* Handle other error */

Risk Assessment

The ability to determine whether an existing file has been opened or a new file has been created provides greater assurance that a file other than the intended file is not acted upon.




Remediation Cost









Automated Detection





Coverity6.5OPEN_ARGSFully implemented
Helix QAC


LDRA tool suite
44 SEnhanced Enforcement

Related Vulnerabilities

Search for vulnerabilities resulting from the violation of this rule on the CERT website.

Related Guidelines


[Callaghan 1995]IETF RFC 1813 NFS Version 3 Protocol Specification
[IEEE Std 1003.1:2013]System Interfaces: open
[ISO/IEC 9899:2011]Subclause, "The fopen Function"
Subclause K., "The fopen_s Function"
[Loosemore 2007]Section 12.3, "Opening Streams"
[Seacord 2013]Chapter 8, "File I/O"


  1. Is it pedantry to argue that open() doesn't allow you to tell whether an existing file was opened or a new one created, but it does allow you to control whether an existing file must be opened or whether a new file must be created or whether you don't care?

  2. On systems that support file locking (including directory files), another approach is to treat this the same as other forms of concurrent access to shared objects and lock the directory through the critical region, so that no other process/task is able to alter the containing directory contents ("file names") between the test and the creation.

  3. This needs to be significantly updated because it doesn't reflect the 'x' option that has been added to the C1X fopen() and fopen_s() functions.

    1. My previous comment is still true. This sentence is incorrect:

      However, like fopen(), fopen_s() provides no mechanism to determine if an existing file has been opened for writing or a new file has been created.

      1. Adjusted rule. Refers to C1x for now. Will have to be updated with proper references when C1x is published RSN.

  4. I understand the idea that there is a security issue, such as a race condition with an `fopen(, "w")` conditional on a `stat()`. However, the reasons that not following this rule might result in insecure code may not be obvious to all readers. Could you add background and examples of pitfalls in failing to follow this rule?


    1. The background, examples, and pitfalls you seek are available in FIO45-C. Avoid TOCTOU race conditions while accessing files