Kotlin Continuations

Continuations represent the rest of a program. They are a form of control flow.

🤖 Compile time

Each time Kotlin finds a suspend function, that represents a suspension point that the compiler will desugarize into a callback style. For example:

suspend fun doSomething() = "Done!"

suspend fun main() { doSomething() }

If we remove the boilerplate and metadata to stay simple, that gets decompiled to something like this in Java (using the tools -> Kotlin -> Show Kotlin Bytecode IntellIJ menu option):

// FileKt.java
public final class FileKt {
   public static final Object doSomething(@NotNull Continuation $completion) {
      return "Done!";

   public static final Object main(@NotNull Continuation $completion) {
      Object var10000 = doSomething($completion);
      return var10000 == IntrinsicsKt.getCOROUTINE_SUSPENDED() ? var10000 : Unit.INSTANCE;
   // ...

Obviating the need for an enclosing class given the lack of “package level” functions in Java, the key point here is how both suspend functions have been converted into static functions that get the Continuation passed as an explicit argument. This is formally called CPS (Continuation Passing Style).

You can see how the main function needs to forward the $completion continuation to the doSomething() call.

All that is hidden to us by the Kotlin compiler, that allows to call suspend functions synchronously, while everything stays asynchronous under the hood. That’s the magic and the point of all this.

⏩ Continuation

So, as explained above, every Continuation is associated with a suspension point. A continuation is the implicit parameter that the Kotlin compiler passes to any suspend function when compiling it. It is represented by a basic contract:

interface Continuation<in T> {
  abstract val context: CoroutineContext
  abstract fun resumeWith(result: Result<T>)

Under the hood, Kotlin will generate a ContinuationImpl for this contract for each suspended function, which we will dive into in further sections on this post.

As you can see, it looks like a callback, because that is essentially what it is. You can also find it in the official docs. It’s composed of:

  • A CoroutineContext that tells the coroutine how to suspend itself.
  • A callback to wire results in the end. It uses the Kotlin Result datatype for that purpose, so you can resume your program either with a success or a failure (exception) as a result. Following docs:

“It will resume the execution of the corresponding coroutine by passing the given value as the return value of the last suspension point.”

So, the continuation decides how the program continues after some work, and that makes it another form of control flow. It will be used to coordinate the work between all our suspend functions.

There are also a couple of extension functions as shortcuts, in case you need to deal with continuations manually at some point:

And a constructor function in the standard library to create a Continuation given a context and a callback function:

inline fun <T> Continuation(
    context: CoroutineContext,
    crossinline resumeWith: (Result<T>) -> Unit
): Continuation<T>

This is handy to have, but overall in Kotlin you’ll likely not need to write your own Continuations, unless you are building your own libraries like we do with Arrow, and only for some very specific use cases. There’s a little bit more on this topic below.

You will likely rely on the Kotlin suspend support instead, and let the Kotlin compiler desugar it under the hood for you.

⚙️ How does it work internally?

Recapping about suspend functions:

A suspend function is a function that can be suspended (paused) and resumed later on. They can execute long running operations in a non blocking way.

Keeping that in mind, Kotlin can suspend some work at arbitrary points within a Coroutine or a suspend function, as soon as it finds any suspend function calls. Those would be the afforementioned suspension points.

Like program, firstOp and secondOp in this example:

suspend fun firstOp() = true
suspend fun secondOp(firstRes: Boolean) = 1

suspend fun program(): Int {
  val firstRes = firstOp()
  return secondOp(firstRes)

From the Android docs:

Kotlin uses a stack frame to manage which function is running along with any local variables. When suspending a coroutine, the current stack frame is copied and saved for later. When resuming, the stack frame is copied back from where it was saved, and the function starts running again.

That is how the flow and the state of the program can be stored and lately resumed for each suspension point.

For coordinating the different suspend functions, Kotlin generates a finite state machine. It creates a label for each suspension point, so it has a way to jump from one to another. Then it’s able to call our suspend function recursively with different label values to jump between the different states as required.

The Continuation will keep track of the current label at any point in time, and will be updated accordingly.

For each suspension point reached, the Continuation is passed, and lately updated with the corresponding result of the computation (so the next one can have access to it) and the corresponding next label value for the following recursion.

All this is handled into a conveniently generated ContinuationImpl instance that implements the Continuation contract and is passed around the different states.

I’m intentionally staying a bit high level here, because there is this awesome post by Ashish Kumar for in depth details 👌

About storing and restoring state before and after suspension points, there are also some interesting gotchas on this post by Luciano Almeida 🙏

🕵️‍♀️ Java interoperability

As you probably imagine already, the Kotlin compiler plays a big role for making the suspend magic work. That means you will get the most out of this feature if you call suspended functions from Kotlin, not meaning they are not supported at all from Java.

Since our suspend functions are translated into static functions within a class, we should be able to call them from java using a non sugarized standard callback style, by passing an explicit instance of a Continuation:

public class Main {

  public static void main(String[] args) {
    FileKt.doSomething(new Continuation<String>() {
      public void resumeWith(@NotNull Result<String> o) {
        // process result `o`

      public CoroutineContext getContext() {
        return EmptyCoroutineContext.INSTANCE;

One issue here is that starting on Kotlin 1.3, Continuation uses the Kotlin Result inline class for the resumeWith method, and inline classes are not supported by Java. If you want to use them you must provide explicit wrappers from Kotlin. More details on this issue.

So, if you try to compile the above Java snippet with the anonymous Continuation implementation, it will not compile because of the Result type.

One thing you could do to overcome this issue would be to provide your own Continuation implementation that maps the Kotlin result to something else, to get rid of it and open the usage from Java. We actually do that in the Arrow library, but with a different ultimate purpose.

But if you really want to call your suspend functions from Java because you might be facing a gradual migration, there are simpler ways.

One approach would be to translate the suspend call to a JDK 8 CompletableFuture, so the bridging allows you to keep the asynchronous use case covered:

fun doSomethingFromJava() =
  GlobalScope.future { doSomething() }

// Or with explicit CoroutineContext
fun doSomethingFromJava() =
  GlobalScope.future(Dispatchers.IO) { doSomething() }

That will require the jdk8 coroutines integration module though:

dependencies {
  implementation 'org.jetbrains.kotlinx:kotlinx-coroutines-jdk8'

And you’ll be able to call it from Java:

CompletableFuture<String> future = FileKt.doSomethingFromJava();
String result = future.get();

This is possible because the bridging is done on the Kotlin side, hence the Result type is not visible from Java anymore.

Note that here we’re using GlobalScope for the sake of the example, but you should likely use a narrower CoroutineScope that fits your requirements in case you are using KotlinX Coroutines library. Since that logic is on the Kotlin side, you’re free to apply any design you want in that sense.

Another alternative would be to use the KotlinX Coroutines builders from Java:

Deferred<String> deferred = BuildersKt.async(
  CoroutineStart.DEFAULT, // CoroutineStart.LAZY, or other strategies
  (Function2<CoroutineScope, Continuation<? super String>, String>) (coroutineScope, continuation) -> {
    // do your stuff
    return "Some result";

Job job = BuildersKt.launch(
  CoroutineStart.DEFAULT, // CoroutineStart.LAZY, or other strategies
  (Function2<CoroutineScope, Continuation<? super Unit>, Unit>) (coroutineScope, continuation) -> {
    // do your stuff
    return Unit.INSTANCE;

try {
  // Usually used to bridge regular blocking code to libraries using suspend, 
  // to be used in main functions like from tests or similar.
  String result = BuildersKt.runBlocking(
    (Function2<CoroutineScope, Continuation<? super String>, String>) (coroutineScope, continuation) -> {
      // do your stuff
      return "Some result";
} catch (InterruptedException e) {
  // If this blocked thread is interrupted, then the coroutine job is cancelled and
  // * this runBlocking invocation throws InterruptedException.
  // *
  // Do something with the interruption error

These are the standard KotlinX coroutines launchers, but called from Java, so it obviously doesn’t look that idiomatic. Just another interesting option to share.

Finally, you can make it even easier, and simply provide Kotlin functions that launch the required coroutines and call those from Java.

😯 Explicit usages of the Continuation in Kotlin

As we said you’ll likely not use continuations explicitly in Kotlin, except when you do. There are some use cases where you want control over when the continuation is used to resume the state of your program on a given suspension point. We can see this when we are wrapping callback style apis with suspendCoroutine:

suspend fun syncClick(): Unit = suspendCoroutine<Unit> { cont ->
  emptyStateIcon.setOnClickListener { 

Here we get a cont parameter that’s our Continuation that we can use to resume our program with the required result. These wrappers are often used in Android to wrap system listeners to capture user interaction, for example.

But this is dangerous usage actually, because coroutines are not multishot. Meaning second time you click on the button, it’ll try to resume an already resumed coroutine using the same continuation, and therefore crash 💥. So you should always detach your listener after the first time:

override fun onCreate(savedInstanceState: Bundle?) {
  // ...
  lifecycleScope.launchWhenStarted {
    val result = syncClick()
    result // "Clicked"

suspend fun syncClick(): String = suspendCoroutine { cont ->
  emptyStateIcon.setOnClickListener {
    emptyStateIcon.setOnClickListener(null) // detach!

This will ensure you get your result as “Clicked” only once.

As mentioned, this is probably not the best example in the world, since an event like button clicks would be better represented as a Stream of events you can observe, not a single one, but it’s a starting point to understand how this works.

You’ll likely use this wrapping style to convert one time triggered async logics, like waiting for a View Layout, for example. Those one time calls that you proactively want to call and ensure they are done before stepping into something else. There’s a good example of that in this detailed post by Chris Banes.

This is also widely used to wrap things like network, database, file read requests or the like, where third party apis might impose a callback based style, so by wrapping them like this you can interoperate with them synchronously instead.

That said, it is highly recommendable to use the cancellable alternative instead: suspendCancellableCoroutine.

It provides a CancellableContinuation instead we can use to wire up cancellation. We could use that in Android to release a listener if the caller coroutine gets cancelled in the scope, for example.

(I’ll copy Chris Banes example here since it’s pretty self explanatory 🙏)

suspend fun View.awaitNextLayout() = suspendCancellableCoroutine<Unit> { cont ->
    // This lambda is invoked immediately, allowing us to create
    // a callback/listener

    val listener = object : View.OnLayoutChangeListener {
        override fun onLayoutChange(...) {
            // The next layout has happened!
            // First remove the listener to not leak the coroutine
            // Finally resume the continuation, and
            // wake the coroutine up
    // If the coroutine is cancelled, remove the listener
    cont.invokeOnCancellation { removeOnLayoutChangeListener(listener) }
    // And finally add the listener to view

    // The coroutine will now be suspended. It will only be resumed
    // when calling cont.resume() in the listener above

Then you can use it like:

viewLifecycleOwner.lifecycleScope.launch {
  // do some stuff...
  // Wait for the next layout pass to know height of the view

  // Do some other stuff that depends on the view measures...

Here, he makes sure that the listener is detached whenever the parent coroutine gets cancelled. In the other hand, if the asynchronous api you are wrapping provides cancellation capabilities, you might want to perform bidirectional cancellation and cancel the parent coroutine in return, also. There is also an example of that in the mentioned blogpost.

Note that the cancellable variant is provided by KotlinX Coroutines, not the standard library. Kotlin stdlib doesn’t provide cancellation support, that is provided by runtime libraries built on top of it like KotlinX Coroutines or Arrow Fx Coroutines. Both libraries provide support for collaborative cancellation.

For cases like user interactions you’d likely prefer a Stream based solution, so for wrapping those you can use either callbackFlow {} from KotlinX Coroutines or Stream.cancellable {} from Arrow Fx Coroutines.

Here is an example of how it would look like using the Functional Streams implementation by the upcoming Arrow Fx Coroutines, only as a sneak peek.

fun SwipeRefreshLayout.refreshes(): Stream<Unit> = Stream.cancellable {
  val listener = SwipeRefreshLayout.OnRefreshListener {
  CancelToken { this@refreshes.setOnRefreshListener(null) }

I’m not getting deeper into this topic on this post since it’s out of scope, but you can expect some posts about this idea in the future 👍

💡 Extra bullets

Continuations or Continuation Passing Style is a concept that you can find in Kotlin for encoding control flow, but it’s essentially a generic programming concept not only tied to Kotlin. You could take it further and implement “delimited continuations” based on a similar but a bit more advanced idea. When a continuation represents the rest of a program, a delimited continuations captures only some part of it. This is a wide topic with a lot of papers published since quite long ago that could start shining soon in Kotlin 😉

Here you have some links of interest:

You might be interested in other posts I wrote about Kotlin, like:

I share thoughts and ideas on Twitter quite regularly. You can also find me on Instagram. See you there!

Stay tunned for Kotlin posts 🙌