You know how you ask someone to call you back in a phone conversation? That’s what callback functions are. They are functions to be called later; after something has happened.

In order to grasp this in practice, one needs to understand two things

  1. that there is a difference between a function name fn and a function call fn(),
  2. that functions can be passed into functions as arguments, the same way that numbers, strings and arrays are passed into functions as arguments

The difference between a function name and a function call

Let’s consider the code snippet below

function fn() {
  console.log("I am a sweet simple function");

We have defined a function fn. That means that we have created a function and stored it under the identifier fn. If we log fn to the console with console.log(fn), we’ll see the code that we created. It makes sense to say that we have gotten fuel and we have given it to fn.

Fuel has the ability to burn, but it will not burn unless it is ignited. The function that we have given to fn is like fuel. It can be executed but it would not be executed unless we ignite it. How do we ignite it? By simply adding parentheses to the name of the function in our code.

fn(); // [Console] "I am a sweet simple function"

fn is the name of the function. fn() is its execution.

Functions as arguments

Let us consider the code snippet below

function acceptArgumentAndLogIt(arg) {

acceptArgumentAndLogIt("an argument"); // [Console] "an argument"

acceptArgumentAndLogIt simply accepts an argument under the identifier arg and logs it. In the last line of the snippet, “an argument” is passed to acceptArgumentAndLogIt and arg then represents “an argument”. What happens if instead of accepting an argument and logging it, we accept a function as an argument, and run it. Let’s see!

function acceptFunctionAndRunIt(fn) {

function logSomething() {

acceptFunctionAndRunIt(logSomething); // [Console] "something"

We defined two functions. acceptFunctionAndRunIt accepts a function and runs it (as in our fuel analogy, it ignites it by appending parentheses to it). The other logSomething holds the ability to log “something” to the console.

In the last line of the snippet, we call acceptFunctionAndRunIt and pass in logSomething to it. logSomething will to be represented as fn within it and because of this, fn will be a reference to logSomething. When acceptFunctionAndRunIt runs, it sees fn and asks what does fn refer to? The JavaScript runtime rightly tells it that it refers to the the function assigned to the label logSomething. That function is retrieved and executed, and then “something” appears on the console.

So what is a callback function?

Any function A, that is passed into another function B to be executed within function B is a callback function. The reason why it is called by that name is because function A is usually passed into function B so that function B can call it after running some operations. It will be easier to grasp if instead of saying “callback”, one says “call later”, as in the phone conversation analogy.

Imagine that you have a phone conversation with a friend, and you need information from them, but they don’t have it at hand, so you say ‘call me back when you have it’. Your friend goes on to get the information and then calls you or ignites you afterwards. Let’s make a code snippet out of this.

function useInfo(info) {

function getInfo(giveInfoToFriend) {
  // getInfoFromBagOfSecrets() returns ["secret one","secret two"],
  // takes about 2 mins, hypothetically
  const info = getInfoFromBagOfSecrets();


When the JavaScript runtime runs, it stores the two functions defined under their respective identifiers. In the last line of the snippet, we call getInfo and pass in useInfo as an argument. When getInfo runs, it accepts the reference to the function assigned to useInfo as giveInfoToFriend, thus within getInfo, useInfo is the same as giveInfoToFriend. Information is gotten from the bag of secrets and is passed to giveInfoToFriend.

In order to execute useInfo, we add the parentheses and pass info to it. The execution causes what info represents to be logged to the console. The function passed in as giveInfoToFriend is a callback function because it was passed in to be called at a later time, that is, when the information has been retrieved.

Real life examples

Callback functions exist in many places and you’ve seen them, you probably didn’t see them that way.

window.addEventListener("eventname", callbackFn)

Remember, a callback function is one that is passed into another function to be called at a later time. If we have window.addEventListener("click", callbackFn) in our code, we do not know when the user will click on the window, so we say whenever the user clicks, pass in the necessary arguments to callbackFn and run it. callbackFn will be executed at a later time, specifically when the user clicks on the window., [options,] callbackFn)

In Node.js, we have the ability to read files present on the computer. The function is an asynchronous one, in otherwords, it may or may not be completely run before the code that is written after it. Since we do not know when it will be completely run, we pass in callbackFn when we execute it and say look, we don’t know when you’ll be done running, but whenever you’re done, whatever result that you get, pass it into callbackFn and then run callbackFn.

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