This article is mainly notes I have taken for CSCB09/CSC209 at UofT.


Signals is another form of IPC, signals can be sent at anytime, they are asynchronous events.

Events are called interrupts.

Signal Types

You can send signals from shell, for example:

  • SIGINT - Ctrl+C
  • SIGSTEP - Ctrl+Z

You can find a list of interrupts from sys/signal.h.

Signal Handlers

When C program receives a signal, control is passed to a function called a signal handler. It can execute some C statements, and can exit in 3 ways:

  • Return control to the point where signal is received.
  • Return control to some other point within the program.
  • Exit the program

Catching a Signal

#include <stdio.h>
#include <signal.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

void sig_handler(int signo) {
        if(signo == SIGINT)
                printf("Received SIGINT\n");
        if(signo == SIGFPE) {
                printf("You cannot divide by zero\n");

int main() {
        if(signal(SIGINT, sig_handler) == SIG_ERR)
                printf("Unable to catch SIGINT\n");
        if(signal(SIGFPE, sig_handler) == SIG_ERR)
                printf("Unable to catch SIGFPE\n");
        int i;
        for(i=-3; i <= 3; i++) {
                printf("%d\n", 12/i);
        return 0;

Ignore a Signal

To ignore a signal, use SIG_IGN

signal(SIGINT, SIG_IGN); // This will ignore all SIGINT.

Use Default Action

To use a default action for a signal, use SIG_DFL

signal(SIGINT, SIG_DFL); // Terminate upon SIGINT.

Signal Table

For each process, UNIX maintains a table of actions for each signal. Most of them you can change the action, exceptions are SIGKILL and SIGSTOP.


int sigaction(int sig, const struct sigaction *act, struct sigaction *oldact);

sigaction function will install a signal handler act.

It will also populate oldact with the old handler.

struct sigaction {
    void (*sa_handler)(int);
    sigset_t sa_mask;
    int sa_flags;

When a new signal is receeived when a handler is running, then the first signal handler is suspended and the newly invoked handler will run.

This only applies to different signals.

Block Signals

Signals can arrive at anytime, we can block signals using masks.

To block signals within act

newact.sa_handler = hand;
newact.sa_flags = 0;
// We block all SIGTERMS
sigaddset(&newact.sa_mask, SIGTERM);
if(sigaction(SIGINT, &newact, NULL) == -1) exit(1);
if(sigaction(SIGTERM, &newact, NULL) == -1) exit(1);

Above code will block SIGTERM when hand is running.

You can also use sigprocmask to directly block signals within the program

int sigprocmask(int how, const sigset_t *set, sigset_t *oset);

oset is the old set of blocked signals, you can use it to reset blocked signals later.

sigset_t newmask, oldmask;
sigaddset(&newmask, SIGINT);
//block SIGINT and save oldmask
sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, &newmask, &oldmask);
/*critical section of the code*/
//reset mask which unblocks SIGINT
sigprocmask(SIG_SETMASK, &oldmask, NULL); 

Sending Signals

You can send signals to different processes using kill function

kill(int pid, int sig);

Timer Signals

Three timers are maintained for each process:


You can use following functions to do stuff with timers

sleep(), usleep(), alarm(), pause(), setitimer(), getitimer()

sleep() and usleep() can be interrupted by other signals.