How to Power Up the React Context API with TypeScript

By Cameron McHenry on

SummaryContext is a simple, but powerful feature that can be used in any React project. Using Context we can solve issues with prop drilling, and then by adding TypeScript, we can dramatically improve safety when using a context.


What is the React Context API?

React Context is one of the core React APIs that can be used anytime you are developing with React. Context allows us to create a piece of state that is globally shared among many different components. For example, an application might have a context for the current locale, language, or theme, because that data will be used by many different components. Context is ideal for globally shared values.

In this article the terms "Context" (uppercase) and "context" (lowercase) will be used interchangeably. Generally speaking, these refer to the same thing. However, "Context" more often refers to the React Context feature, while "context" refers to the general concept, or a specific instance of context (for example, an "authentication context" may use Context).

What problems does React Context solve?

At its core, Context helps to solve one main issue: "prop drilling." Prop drilling is the name for when a property must be passed down through an entire component tree in order to render the application.

For example, suppose that we store information about a user's application preferences (language, timezone, privacy, etc.) and need to use that to render the application correctly. To render the application, we must write something like:

<App preferences={preferences} />
// Inside App:
<Profile preferences={preferences} />
// Inside Profile:
<Settings preferences={preferences} />
// ... and so on

Ultimately, we end up writing the same code repeatedly in order to pass that state down. Now, if we ever have to rename preferences or change its type, we have to change it for every component that passes that state down.

That's a huge pain, especially for large applications, where it's not unheard of to have components that are nested dozens of layers deep inside of other components.

In addition to the increased effort, this sort of behavior also makes components less flexible, because they are expected to take certain properties, and be nested in certain ways. So, restructuring and moving components around becomes more difficult.

So, how can we solve the prop drilling problem?

Enter React Context.

How Context solves the problems with prop drilling

Context solves the problems that come from prop drilling by allowing components to "skip" an arbitrary number of layers in the component tree. In this way, components can access directly shared state directly.

In a context, there are two main pieces: the provider and the consumer.

  • The provider is the component where the shared state is defined. All components under a provider will be rerendered when the state changes.
  • A consumer is the component where the state from the provider is accessed and used. As long as it is a descendent of the provider, it can access the provider's state. A consumer always reads the value of the nearest provider.

An Analogy for Context

Imagine that a context is like a wireless network, where the provider is a 🌐 wireless network, and the consumer is a device like a 💻 laptop.

Summary of comparison between wireless network and context
🌐 Wireless Network 💡 Context
When a laptop is connected to the network, can send and receive data from anywhere, regardless of physical location When a consumer is nested under a provider, the consumer can send and receive state from anywhere, regardless of how it is nested (or how deeply nested).
A laptop will try to find the closest access point in the network to get the best wireless signal. A consumer will try to find the closest provider (nearest ancestor) to get the current state.
If there is no wireless access point, devices will not work. If there is no context provider, then consumers will only get the default value.

A laptop that is connected to the network is like a consumer component that is nested under the provider. As long as the laptop is connected, it can communicate and receive data regardless of where it is physically located. In the same way, as long as a consumer is under the provider, it can exist anywhere in the component tree and access state directly.

Similarly, a laptop always tries to find the closest access point in order to get the best signal possible. This is like the behavior of the consumer, which always reads the value of the nearest (least nested) provider. If there's no network (i.e., there is no context provider), then our laptop (consumer) can't work!

How do we define a context?

Now that we understand what a context is and the problems that it solves, how do we actually create a context? The React API offers two functions to create and use contexts, which are aptly named createContext and useContext, respectively.

For a simple example, we will create a theme context which tells all consumers whether the current theme is 🌚 dark or 🌞 light.

import React from "react";

const ThemeContext = React.createContext("light");

We create a context called ThemeContext, which has a default value of light. The first argument of createContext is a default value which will be used if there are no providers. We will cover how to create a context without a default value later.

The ThemeContext variable is uppercase because createContext returns an object which contains components. The JSX convention is that components always start with an uppercase letter. So, that means we should uppercase ThemeContext

Then, in our application we would render the context just like any other component. In this case, we don't render ThemeContext directly (because it is an object), but instead we render ThemeContext.Provider.

const App = () => (
  <ThemeContext.Provider value="light">
    {/* ... rest of the application code here ... */}
  </ThemeContext.Provider>
);

Then, our consumer is a component that calls useContext to access the state.

const CurrentThemeDisplay = () => {
  const theme = React.useContext(ThemeContext); // this will be "light"
  return <div>{theme}</div>;
};

Now, we can place CurrentThemeDisplay anywhere underneath the ThemeContext.Provider and it will always get the current theme:

const App = () => (
  <ThemeContext.Provider value="light">
    <CurrentThemeDisplay />
  </ThemeContext.Provider>
);

Ultimately, this example will end up rendering:

<div>light</div>

A note about class-based Context

There is a class-based version of React Context that uses "render props" and the ThemeContext.Consumer component. However, if you are just starting a new React application, I would recommend that you do not use these APIs. While working on a large React application, I've never had any need to use the old class API or render props.

React Hooks completely revolutionized the way that we can interact with a context and makes it much easier to reuse contexts and compose them together. In my opinion, the newer, functional API is easier to understand and scales very well to large applications.


How TypeScript helps us work with contexts

So far, we've covered the basics of how to use the Context API, but how does TypeScript help us use context more effectively?

To answer that, let's look at some of the issues that we might experience when using JavaScript and contexts:

  • Accessing a non-existent property in the context could cause an error
  • Renaming a property in the context, or change its type (e.g., from string to object) means we have to check every instance where that context is used
  • May be possible to put context into invalid states (misspelled string literals, wrong types, etc.)
  • Have to reference where the context is defined originally to figure out what properties it contains

Most or all of these issues are typical with any JavaScript application, not just ones that use Context. However, TypeScript can solve or mitigate all of these issues:

  • Accessing a non-existent property in a context will cause a compile error, preventing any misuse of the context
  • Renaming a property or changing the type of a property in the context will cause a compile error, if any code relied on the old name or type
  • All types are checked, so invalid context states will not compile, preventing many classes of bugs
  • A typed context enables IDEs (like Visual Studio Code) to autocomplete what properties are available in a context

Furthermore, we don't incur any run-time cost for these benefits. That is, using TypeScript doesn't make our bundle size any larger because all of the types will be removed when compiled.

How to use the React Context API with TypeScript

Let's revisit how we defined the theme context example earlier. Now we are going to add explicit types for the context.

type ThemeState = "light" | "dark";

const ThemeContext = React.createContext<ThemeState>("light");

Now if we try to provide an invalid value to the context, the application will not compile.

// ❌ This will NOT compile:
const App = () => (
  // ERROR: Type '"tomato"' is not assignable to type 'ThemeState'
  //                     ⬇️
  <ThemeContext.Provider value="tomato">
    <CurrentThemeDisplay />
  </ThemeContext.Provider>
);

In addition, we are also prevented from misusing the value provided from the context. Here is a modified example of the CurrentThemeDisplay:

// ❌ This will NOT compile:
const CurrentThemeDisplay = () => {
  const theme = React.useContext(ThemeContext);
  if (theme === "peach") {
    // ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    // ERROR: This condition will always return 'false' since the
    // types 'ThemeState' and '"peach"' have no overlap.
    return "🍑 Peach";
  }
  return <div>{theme}</div>;
};

How to provide default values to a React Context

As mentioned earlier, the createContext function requires that we pass a default value as the first argument. So, if we want to provide a default default, then we can just say:

const defaultValue = { user: null };
const Context = React.createContext(defaultValue);

What if we don't want to provide a default value though? This may come up if we want to require that a provider is defined somewhere in our application. For example, maybe we want to fetch information from an API and use that as a default value.

To do this, we still have to provide a default value to createContext, but we can throw an error if there was no value in the context (which means that no provider was rendered).

Theme context example with "no default value"

As an example, let's create a new version of the theme context which tells the application about the current theme. In this case, it's perhaps a bit contrived for a theme provider why you might want to have "no default value," but there are good reasons to do so for something like an authentication context or other context that might make API calls.

To keep things simple though, we will build from our previous theme example.

We will use null as a sentinel value that indicates that no provider provided a value and consumers should consider this default value as invalid. So, if the value is null, we will throw an error. This will then allow TypeScript to infer that the value from the context is definitely defined.

type ThemeState = "light" | "dark";

const ThemeContext = React.createContext<ThemeState | null>(null);

The context value can either be our expected set of values for the context, or null (if no provider is created). Then, where we consume the context, we can check if the value is null, and throw an error.

const CurrentThemeDisplay = () => {
  const theme = React.useContext(ThemeContext); // this will be "light"
  if (theme === null) {
    throw new Error(
      "Theme state not found. Try wrapping a parent component with <ThemeContext.Provider>."
    );
  }
  return <div>{theme}</div>;
};

Now, we ensure that anywhere we use the theme context, that a theme provider must be rendered before the application works. In this way, we surface potential usage issues with our context much sooner than if we didn't throw an error.

We also retain the type safety of TypeScript, because throwing an error when theme === null gives the compiler enough information to narrow the type of ThemeState | null to just ThemeState, which makes it safe to render theme.

The error message also includes what went wrong, explains how to fix the error: wrap a parent component with `ThemeContext.Provider`.

Providing descriptive error messages that indicate clearly went wrong, and some possible ways to fix the issue is immensely valuable. You and future developers will thank you many times over.

How to write a TypeScript custom hook for a React Context

Now that we've explored how to add a type to the context, and enforce that a provider is used, it has become a bit cumbersome to actually use the context. We can fix that by creating a custom hook that calls useContext for us.

const useTheme = (): ThemeState => {
  const themeState = React.useContext(ThemeContext);
  if (themeState === null) {
    throw new Error(
      "Theme state not found. Try wrapping a parent component with <ThemeContext.Provider>."
    );
  }
  return themeState;
};

Now, we have a reusable hook called useTheme that lets us access the current theme from anywhere. It guarantees that we consistently check if there is a theme provider, and it also removes the dependency on the ThemeContext variable, which makes the code a bit shorter and easier to change if we want to switch how the theme state is accessed. Context is now an implementation detail of getting the theme.

So, our CurrentThemeDisplay component from before is much simpler:

function CurrentThemeDisplay() {
  const { theme } = useTheme();
  return <div>{theme}</div>;
}

How to update state in a context

So far, we've only covered read-only contexts that don't allow consumers to update the state of the context. But it is also possible to provide functions in the context that actually allow the state of the context to change. Using the theme example, let's add a function to change the current theme.

First, we need to add an additional type for the theme state, plus a callback to change the state. Why do we need to declare it separately? Because we are going to define the state and the callback separately before combining them into the context value.

type ThemeState = "light" | "dark";
type ThemeStateWithCallbacks = {
  // The current theme state
  theme: ThemeState;
  // Callback for any consumer to change the current theme state
  setTheme: (newTheme: ThemeState) => void;
};
const ThemeContext = React.createContext<ThemeStateWithCallbacks | null>(null);

Then, to actually store the state and create a callback to change it, we will use React.useState which conveniently does exactly that for us. To use a hook though, we need to create a component for the provider.

const ThemeProvider = ({ children }: React.PropsWithChildren<unknown>) => {
  const [theme, setTheme] = useState<ThemeState>("light");
  return (
    <ThemeContext.Provider value={{ theme, setTheme }}>
      {children}
    </ThemeContext.Provider>
  );
};

We use the separate theme state type with useState to define both the current state and create a callback to change it. Then, our theme context simply expects an object that has both a theme property and setTheme property.

Now, because we are using useState, if any consumer changes the current theme, ThemeProvider will rerender and broadcast the change to all context consumers of the theme state.

For this simple case, useState is sufficient to meet our needs. However, in larger applications, I would strongly recommend taking a look at useReducer to make complex state changes simpler and easier to test.

Conclusion

Context is a simple, but powerful feature that can be used in any React project. In this post, we looked at the problems that Context solves, and how to use the React Context API to solve those problems. By adding TypeScript types, we can dramatically improve the type safety when using a context. Furthermore, we can also write a custom hook to ensure that we use the context consistently and safely, as well as make it easier to use.

If this guide helped you understand how to use React Context and TypeScript better, let me know and tweet me at @cammchenry!