I2C tutorial: All you need to know about I2C; Use this 10 minute guide to learn all about the 2 wire I2C serial protocol. Learn how easy it is to use, how it works and when to use it. Learn when you Really Should Not Use it.

The advantages of I2C are
  • Uses only 2 signal wires.

  • Allows multiple I2C chips on the same I2C bus.

  • Saves tons of wiring.

  • Makes projects easier (especially on breadboard e.g. 2 wires instead of 8!).

This I2C tutorial shows you how the I2C protocol or more correctly written I2C (sometimes written as IIC) stands for Inter IC Communication and is intended for very short distance communication between ICs on a single PCB. It gives you a fully defined protocol for data transfer between multiple devices over two wires.

TIP: You can save tons of wiring by using the 2 wire I2C bus.

In this I2C tutorial you will learn all about the 2 wire I2C serial protocol; How easy it is to use, how it works and when to use it.

The I2C protocol is used in a huge range of chips - just a few examples from this site include the DS1307 (RTC), SSD1306 (OLED Display), MCP23017 (Serial expander). The protocol allows you to connect many devices to a single set of two wires, and then communicate individually with each device.

Warning: The protocol is designed for single board communication it is not a long distance communication system. You can find instances (horror stories) of people designing a multi drop inter office communication system with I2C extenders - just don't do it - it ends in tears!

This I2C tutorial shows you how the I2C protocol works at the physical bit level discussing single master mode (a single controlling device) which is the most common use for I2C in a small system.

Note: You can find Master mode soft I2C routines in the DS1307 RTC project.

Note: Some manufacturers avoid paying royalties, or avoid patent problems, by calling it a 2 wire protocol but it's the same I2C protocol (when you examine the timing diagrams).

i2c tutorial master and slaves diagram


I2C is a serial protocol that can operate at different speeds 100kHz, 400kHz, and 3.4MHz. Not all chips support all speeds but 100kHz is commonly supported. Speed is important as the data is transmitted serially, so a faster clock allows a quicker update.

Two wires

The great strength of the protocol is that it only requires two wires, yet can have many connected devices and all of these can transmit and receive data at high speed. This saves a ton of pcb wiring.

Robust ACK signalling

Unlike the SPI protocol, the I2C protocol has an acknowledgement feature that means a sending device knows that a receiver has accepted the data. So I2C is more robust in a noisy environment.

Multi Master

Using I2C it is also possible to have multiple master devices making the system more flexible. For SPI there is also no concept of multiple master devices, but SPI is faster.

I2C Tutorial - How I2C works

Open drain connections.

I2C works by using open drain connections. This simply refers to an N-Channel MOSFET that has connections: Drain, Gate and Source. The top connection is the Drain (pulled up), the middle connection is the Gate (controller) and the Lower connection is the Source (connected to ground).

When active (Gate voltage - Source voltage >= Gate threshold voltage) then current flows from drain to source:

    MOSFET conducts and output is pulled to 0V.

When inactive (Gate voltage - Source voltage < Gate threshold voltage) then no current flows:

    Pullup resistor pulls output to Vcc.

The open drain system simply means that multiple I2C chips can be connected simply by wiring all I2C connections of the same name together (clock and data). The open drain signals allow bi-directional communication between any I2C devices.

Each open drain connection (in I2C there are two - SCL and SDA) requires a single pull-up resistor. When all devices are inactive then the "pull-ups" pull the signal wire to the supply voltage.

Warning: You must have one pull-up resistor per signal wire (SCL and SDA) and not more! More means stronger pull-up action (keep above 1k).

I2C Start and Address Signalling

At any time a master device can start a transaction by pulling SDA low while SCL is high (a unique specific condition that other I2C devices recognise as the start of a master transmission).

The slave device listens to the next 7 serial bits of the address to see if it matches its own address (each I2C must have a unique address). If it does recognise the next 7 bits as an address from the master device then it will consume the R/W bit that follows.

This is the Read/Write bit that tells the slave to accept data or generate data in subsequent transactions.

At the time that the ACK signal is to be generated the master device releases the SDA line and the open drain output is pulled high. This allows the slave device to generate the ACK signal by pulling it low (only for that specific bit period). The master device monitors the I2C bus for this signal from the slave.

The slave  generates the acknowledge bit in reply to the master device. This indicates that it understood the address. The diagram further down shows this in graphical form.

Note: Another protocol that uses the open - drain concept is the Dallas 1-wire protocol - but that is far slower. The advantage o the 1-wire protocol is that it allows powering of the device through the signal wire! The 1-wire protocol also allows transmission over very large distances unlike the I2C protocol. On this site this project (DS18B20 ) uses the 1-wire protocol.

Master and slave

The Phillips I2C protocol defines the concept of master and slave devices. A master device is simply the device that is in charge of the bus at the present time and this device controls the clock and generates START and STOP signals. Slaves simply listen to the bus and act on controls and data that they are sent.

The master can send data to a slave or receive data from a slave - slaves do not transfer data between themselves.

Multi Master

Multi master operation is a more complex use of I2C that lets you have different controlling devices on the same bus. You only need to use this mode if you have more than one microcontroller on the bus (and you want either of them to be the bus master).

Multi master operation involves arbitration of the bus (where a master has to fight to get control of the bus) and clock synchronisation (each may a use a different clock e.g. because of separate crystal clocks for each micro).

Note: Multi master is not covered in this I2C tutorial as the more common use of I2C is to use a single bus master to control peripheral devices e.g. serial memory, ADC, RTC etc.

Data and Clock

The I2C interface uses two bi-directional lines meaning that any device could drive either line. In a single master system the master device drives the clock most of the time - the master is in charge of the clock but slaves can influence it to slow it down (See Slow Peripherals below).

The two wires must be driven as open collector/drain outputs and must be pulled high using one resistor each (that is one resistor per I2C line i.e.for data and clock) - this implements a 'wired NOR function' - any device pulling the wire low causes all devices to see a low logic value - for high logic value all devices must stop driving the wire.

Note : If you use I2C you can not put any other (non I2C) devices on the bus as both lines are used as clock at some point (generation of START and STOP bits toggles the data line). So you can not do something clever such as keeping the clock line inactive and use the data line as a button press detector (to save pins).

You will often will find devices that you realise are I2C compatible but they are labelled as using a '2 wire interface'. The manufacturer is avoiding paying royalties by not using the words 'I2C'!

There are two wires (three if you include ground!, and four if you also include power!) - but power and ground are taken as given i.e. they are available on a PCB as needed so don't really count.

I2C Tutorial: Signals

SDA : Serial Data
SCL : Serial Clock

I2C Tutorial: Typical signalling transaction

I2C Tutorial : Typical SDA and SCL signals

typical i2c signals

Note: R/W (0=write, 1=read). ACK = 0 (pulled low by slave).


Standard clock speeds are 100kHz and 10kHz but the standard lets you use clock speeds from zero to 100kHz and a fast mode is also available (400kHz - Fast-mode). An even higher speed (3.4MHz - High-speed mode) for more demanding applications - The mid range PIC won't be up this mode yet!

Note: The low-speed mode has been omitted (10kHz) as the standard now specifies the basic system operating from 0 to 100kHz.

Note: Even if you run an I2C peripheral at a high speed the overall data rate depends on how fast you can push data into the internal I2C module and that depends on the processor speed.

A slow slave device may need to stop the bus while it gathers data or services an interrupt etc. It can do this while holding the clock line (SCL) low forcing the master into the wait state. The master must then wait until SCL is released before proceeding.

Data transfer sequence

A basic Master to slave read or write sequence for I2C follows the following order:

  • 1. Send the START bit (S).
  • 2. Send the slave address (ADDR). Usually 7 bits.
  • 3. Send the Read(R)-1 / Write(W)-0 bit.
  • 4. Wait for/Send an acknowledge bit (A).
  • 5. Send/Receive the data byte (8 bits) (DATA).
  • 6. Expect/Send acknowledge bit (A).
  • 7. Send the STOP bit (P).

Note: You can use 7 bit or 10 bit addresses.

The sequence 5 and 6 can be repeated so that a multibyte block can be read or written.

Data Transfer from master to slave

I2C Tutorial : Instruction sequence data from master to slave

i2c tutorial master to slave

A master device sends the sequence S ADDR W and then waits for an acknowledge bit (A) from the slave which the slave will only generate if its internal address matches the value sent by the master. If this happens then the master sends DATA and waits for acknowledge (A) from the slave. The master completes the byte transfer by generating a stop bit (P) (or repeated start).

Data transfer from slave to master

I2C Tutorial : Instruction sequence data from slave to master

i2c tutorial slave to master

A similar process happens when a master reads from the slave but in this case, instead of W, R is sent. After the data is transmitted from the slave to the master the master sends the acknowledge (A). If instead the master does not want any more data it must send a not-acknowledge which indicates to the slave that it should release the bus. This lets the master send the STOP or repeated START signal.

Device addresses

Each device you use on the I2C bus must have a unique address. For some devices e.g. serial memory you can set the lower address bits using input pins on the device others have a fixed internal address setting e.g. a real time clock DS1307. You can put several memory devices on the same IC bus by using a different address for each.

Each device manufacturer is assigned a set of addresses so devices should not conflict with each other.

Note: The maximum number of devices is limited by the number of available addresses (and you need non-conflicting addresses) and by the total bus capacitance (maximum 400pF).

General call

The general call address is a reserved address which when output by the bus master should address all devices which should respond with an acknowledge.Its value is 0000000 (7 bits) and written by the master 0000000W. If a device does not need data from the general call it does not need to respond to it.

Reserved addresses

0000 000 1 START byte - for slow micros without I2C h/w
0000 001 X CBUS address - a different bus protocol
0000 010 X Reserved for different bus format
0000 011 X Reserved for future purposes
0000 1XX X Hs-mode master code
1111 1XX X Reserved for future purposes
1111 0XX X 10-bit slave addressing

Most of these are not that useful for PIC microcontrollers except perhaps the START byte and 10 bit addressing.

START (S) and STOP (P) bits

START (S) and STOP (P) bits are unique signals that can be generated on the bus but only by a bus master.

Reception of a START bit by an I2C slave device resets its internal bus logic. This can be done at any time so you can force a restart if anything goes wrong even in the middle of communication.

START and STOP bits are defined as rising or falling edges on the data line while the clock line is kept high.

I2C Tutorial :  START and STOP Signal Definition

START condition (S) SCL = 1, SDA falling edge
STOP condition (P) SCL = 1, SDA rising edge

The following diagram shows the above information graphically - these are the signals you would see on the I2C bus.

I2C Tutorial : START (S) and STOP (P) bits.

i2c tutorial START and STOP

Note : In a single master system the only difference between a slave and a master is the master's ability to generate START and STOP bits. Both slave and master can control SDA and SCL.

Repeated START (Sr)

This seems like a confusing term at first as you ask yourself why bother with it as it is functionally identical to the sequence :


The only difference is that for a repeated start you can repeat the sequence starting from the stop bit (replacing the stop bit with another start bit).


and you can do this indefinitely.

Note: Reception of both S or Sr force any I2C device reset its internal bus logic so sending S or Sr is really resetting all the bus devices. This can be done at any time - it is a forced reset.

The main reason that the Sr bit exists is in a multi master configuration where the current bus master does not want to release its mastership. Using the repeated start keeps the bus busy so that no other master can grab the bus.

Because of this when used in a Single master configuration it is just a curiosity.


All data blocks are composed of 8 bits. The initial block has 7 address bits followed by a direction bit (Read or Write). Following blocks have 8 data bits. Acknowledge bits are squeezed in between each block.

Each data byte is transmitted MSB first including the address byte.

To allow START and STOP bit generation by the master the data line (SDA) must not be changed while the clock (SCL) is high - it can only be changed when the clock is low.


The acknowledge bit (generated by the receiving device) indicates to the transmitter that the the data transfer was ok. Note that the clock pulse for the acknowledge bit is always created by the bus master.

The acknowledge data bit is generated by either the master or slave depending on the data direction. For the master writing to a slave (W) the acknowledge is generated by the slave. For the master receiving (R) data from a slave the master generates the acknowledge bit.

Acknowledge 0 volts
Not acknowledge High volts

ACK data master --> slave

In this case the slave generates the acknowledge signal.

When a not-acknowledge is received by the bus master the transfer has failed and the master must generate a STOP or repeated START to abort the sequence.

ACK data slave --> master

In this case the master generates the acknowledge signal.

Normally the master will generate an acknowledge after it has received data but to indicate to the slave that no more data is required on the last byte transfer the master must generate a 'not-acknowledge'. This indicates to the slave that it should stop sending data. The master can then generate the STOP bit (or repeated START).

General Call

The general call function is a specialised command that must be accepted by all devices on the bus. It allows a master device to communicate to all devices at the same time - giving them some data. Perhaps you would use this to command a software reset in the case of a watchdog timeout in the processor.

I2C Tutorial : Specifics for the 16F88

Pin configuration

To use the I2C mode in the 16F88 the SDA and SCL pins must be initialised as inputs (TRIS bit = 1) so that an open drain effect is created. By setting them as inputs they are not driving the wires and an external pull up resistor will pull the signals high.

16F88 Slave mode

The 16F88 fully implements all slave functions except general call.

  • Full slave mode

The general call function does not really matter as it is quite specialised commanding all devices on the bus to use some data.

A low output is generated by driving the signal line low and changing the pin direction to an output. A high output is generated by changing the pin direction to an input so that the external resistor pulls the signal high.

In slave mode this action is done for you by the SSP module (the outputs of the register at SDA and SCL are driven low automatically - regardless of the state of the register value).

16F88 Master mode

Basically there is very limited master mode functionality.

There are two elements that are provided:

  • Interrupts
  • Pin control

16F88 Interrupts

There are two interrupts that activate on reception of either a START or STOP condition. These two interrupts are only useful in a multi master mode system where it is necessary for the non-master device to detect the start and stop conditions. So for a single master system they are of no use at all!

16F88 Pin control

Note When the SSP module is active SDA and SCL output are always set at zero regardless of the state of the register values. So all you have to do is control the port direction.

In master mode (16F88) SDA and SCL must be controlled using software.

I2C Tutorial : Specifics for 16F877A

It does it all for you!

  • Full master mode.
  • Full slave mode.
  • Full general call.

Note: If you want a chip with full master and slave mode operation look for the MSSP module in a PIC chip e.g. 16F877A - then you won't need more software - just enough to drive the module.

PIC Project Example

DS1307 Real time clock (bit banged I2C).

Arduino Examples

BMP280 Pressure sensor

MCP23017 IO expander.

ADS1115 16 bit ADC.

AXD345 Accelerometer.

MCP4725 DAC with memory.

SSD1306 OLED Display.


This tutorial has shown you an  overview of the I2C protocol and how it works.
Some key points covered include:

  • The advantages of I2C such as using only 2 wires to connect multiple devices and save wiring on projects.

  • How I2C communication works at a basic level using open drain connections and the master/slave architecture.

  • The typical signalling sequence for data transfers between a master and slave device using start, address, read/write, data, and acknowledge bits.

  • When I2C is suitable versus other protocols like SPI. While I2C uses fewer pins, SPI can transfer data faster.

Note: Here's when you should Really Not Use I2C: I2C is only design for communication on a single PCB - do not use it as a Local Area Network - some have tried - all have failed! For long distance use RS422 etc.

With this background on the I2C protocol fundamentals, you should now have a good understanding of how to useI2C in your own projects to connect multiple devices over a simple 2-wire interface. I2C provides an efficient solution for short-distance communication within small embedded systems i.e. its ideal for Arduino and PIC microcontrollers as these (often) have I2C modules built in.

Written by John Main who has a degree in Electronic Engineering.

Note: Parts of this page were written using claude-instant as a research assistant.


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