Jakob Jenkov
Last update: 2014-06-23

The java.util.concurrent.Semaphore class is a counting semaphore. That means that it has two main methods:

  • acquire()
  • release()

The counting semaphore is initialized with a given number of "permits". For each call to acquire() a permit is taken by the calling thread. For each call to release() a permit is returned to the semaphore. Thus, at most N threads can pass the acquire() method without any release() calls, where N is the number of permits the semaphore was initialized with. The permits are just a simple counter. Nothing fancy here.

Semaphore Usage

As semaphore typically has two uses:

  1. To guard a critical section against entry by more than N threads at a time.
  2. To send signals between two threads.

Guarding Critical Sections

If you use a semaphore to guard a critical section, the thread trying to enter the critical section will typically first try to acquire a permit, enter the critical section, and then release the permit again after. Like this:

Semaphore semaphore = new Semaphore(1);

//critical section



Sending Signals Between Threads

If you use a semaphore to send signals between threads, then you would typically have one thread call the acquire() method, and the other thread to call the release() method.

If no permits are available, the acquire() call will block until a permit is released by another thread. Similarly, a release() calls is blocked if no more permits can be released into this semaphore.

Thus it is possible to coordinate threads. For instance, if acquire was called after Thread 1 had inserted an object in a shared list, and Thread 2 had called release() just before taking an object from that list, you had essentially created a blocking queue. The number of permits available in the semaphore would correspond to the maximum number of elements the blocking queue could hold.


No guarantees are made about fairness of the threads acquiring permits from the Semaphore. That is, there is no guarantee that the first thread to call acquire() is also the first thread to obtain a permit. If the first thread is blocked waiting for a permit, then a second thread checking for a permit just as a permit is released, may actually obtain the permit ahead of thread 1.

If you want to enforce fairness, the Semaphore class has a constructor that takes a boolean telling if the semaphore should enforce fairness. Enforcing fairness comes at a performance / concurrency penalty, so don't enable it unless you need it.

Here is how to create a Semaphore in fair mode:

Semaphore semaphore = new Semaphore(1, true);

More Methods

The java.util.concurrent.Semaphore class has lots more methods. For instance:

  • availablePermits()
  • acquireUninterruptibly()
  • drainPermits()
  • hasQueuedThreads()
  • getQueuedThreads()
  • tryAcquire()
  • etc.

Check out the JavaDoc for more details on these methods.

Jakob Jenkov

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