Improve Your TypeScript With Union Types!

| 6 minutes read

TypeScript's unions are a powerful feature. Let's dive into what they are and how you can use them to your advantage!

What is union type?

Union type is a set of types that are mutually exclusive. The name union (or sum type) comes from type theory. According to Wikipedia definition:

The sum type is a “tagged union”. That is, for types “A” and “B”, the type “A + B” holds either a term of type “A” or a term of type “B” and it knows which one it holds.

And in TypeScript it's similar to type theory (as programming has a lot in common with set, type, and category theory). Let's look how official documentation defines union type:

A union type is a type formed from two or more other types, representing values that may be any one of those types. We refer to each of these types as the union’s members.

The most basic union type consists of two primitive types:

type Union = number | string;

// defined as inline type
function getUserById(id: number | string) {
  // ...

This allows to handle value which can be either number or a string. This is great to prove code is type safe for all possible cases!

When to use union type?

Union types are perfect to express a finite number of known options, either primitive literals or objects (as discriminated union which we'll discuss those later), where single logic has to handle all the possible cases. A few great examples where union types shine are:

You shouldn't use union types where the amount of possible options is too large, for example, a person's name as there is basically infinite number of options. Also keep in mind, they exist only at type level. They are striped out during compilation.

How to narrow union type?

If your function logic can work most of the time on union type, it's great. But sooner or later you'll need to narrow it down to a specific union member. There are few common patterns when narrowing union type.

Using typeof keyword

typeof Keyword is the most basic TypeScript tool. Unfortunately, it will work only with string, number or function

function getDateFullYear(date: number | Date) {
  if (typeof date === "number") {
    return new Date(date).getFullYear();

  return date.getFullYear();

Using instanceof keyword

While typeof works great with primitives, instanceof is great for the OOP feature of TypeScript — classes.

class Developer {
  public develop() {
    // ...

class Manager {
  public manage() {
    // ...

function work(person: Developer | Manager) {
  if (person instanceof Developer) {
  } else if (person instanceof Manager) {

There is more OOP way of implementing work function, but above example should do the job as well.

Using if or switch statement

Because union types can also consist of literal type members, not generic types but specific values, it's easy to use switch or if statements on them.

function getTextColor(theme: "dark" | "light") {
  switch (theme) {
    case "dark":
      return "#ffffff";
    case "light":
      return "#000000";

const textColor = getTextColor("darkk");
// 🛑 Argument of type '"darkk"' is not assignable to parameter of type '"dark" | "light"'.(2345)

String literals are really helpful for specifying a limited set of possible options, similar to enum being a great replacement for them, as there is not that much of added complexity as in enum's case. Using union type of string literals will help not make typos or passing generic string.

Using “pattern match” object

When talking about string or number literals, there is great trick allowing to achieve "pattern matching" in TypeScript:

function getTextColor(theme: "dark" | "light") {
  return {
    dark: "#fff",
    light: "#000",

At first, it may look noisy, but the advantage of this solution is the fact it's an expression not statement, which may be sometimes required in places like in JSX.

Using type guard function

One nice but advanced feature TypeScript provides us is the ability to define a custom type guard function. By default, TypeScript provides us with built-in type guards like typeof, instanceof keywords we discussed earlier. There is also Array.isArray() which is really handy when we need to handle either a single value or multiple values of the same type.

But sometimes it's required to write something more specific to our business logic. Let's take a look at a simple function that narrows any string to either dark or light:

type Theme = "dark" | "light";

function isTheme(value: string): value is Theme {
  return value === "dark" || value === "light";

function getTheme(value: string): Theme {
  if (isTheme(value)) {
    return value;

  // default case
  return "dark";

This is helpful when your value is coming from outside world (API or used provided) and you cannot be sure it will be always within your expected range.

Not only primitive types

Union types are not limited to primitive types or type literals. They can as well be objects. I'm using the following pattern all the time as a TypeScript's equivalent of algebraic data type (ADT). It's a great pattern to express values which may contains different payload or same payload interpreted in different way.

type Event = Credit | Debit;
type Credit = { type: "credit"; amount: number };
type Debit = { type: "debit"; amount: number };

let account = 0;
function handleAccountEvent(event: Event) {
  switch (event.type) {
    case "credit":
      account += event.amount;
    case "debit":
      account -= event.amount;

handleAccountEvent({ type: "credit", amount: "10" }); // account == 10
handleAccountEvent({ type: "debit", amount: "5" }); // account == 5


I hope you understand union types better! With all that knowledge and all the TypeScript features now under your belt, you can take advantage of them when working on the next great feature!


List of resources I used when researching this blog post:

Tomasz Cichociński
Written by Tomasz Cichociński

I'm a Software Engineer with over 7 years of experience. I wrote frontend, backend and mobile applications. During that time, I managed and mentored teams of software developers at different levels of experience, helping them grow in their software engineering careers.

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