How Mock Can Improve Your Unit Tests

Mocking is a little tricky to learn to use, but it’s really handy to have in your testing toolbox.

The purpose of mocking is to focus each unit test by faking execution of all code other than the small piece that unit test is trying to verify.

Let’s start with a small example. Suppose you have a utility function that calls an API with some parameters, does a little manipulation of the return value, and returns part of it. You don’t want to call the API every time you run the test of this function — it might be expensive to run, or slow, or difficult to set up.

Instead, you mock the call to the API, and make it look to the function being tested as if the API had returned whatever value you want. You can verify both that the function returns the value it should, and that the function passed the expected parameters to the API call, without ever calling the API.

You can also make the API appear to fail, even raise an exception, something you could not test by actually calling the API.

This post will teach you how to use Python’s unittest.mock module to add mocking to your unit tests.

The mock methods and mock objects

There are usually two different aspects of mocking going on at the same time, and it’s helpful to understand the difference.

First, we can temporarily change the value of something using mock.patch or mock.patch.object, then restore its original value.

Second, we can use mock objects, which are Python objects that can be used to simulate another object, and control the behavior of the simulated object.

Often when we use mocking, we’re using the mock methods to temporarily replace something with a mock object. But sometimes we can use the methods or a mock object independently.

Mock a function being called in another module

It’s common to test a function that is calling another function that it has imported. Example:

# package1/
from package2.subpackage import foobar

def function_to_test(a, b):
    return foobar(a, b + 2) + "xyz"

Here’s the pattern we use to test function_to_test, while mocking the call to foobar:

 1 from django.test import TestCase
 2 from unittest import mock
 3 from package1.code import function_to_test
 5 class TestClass(TestCase):
 6     def test_normal_call(self):
 7         with mock.patch("package1.code.foobar") as mock_foobar:
 8             mock_foobar.return_value = "something"
 9             retval = function_to_test(1, 2)
11         self.assertEqual("somethingxyz", retval)
12         mock_foobar.assert_called_with(1, 4)

Let’s break this down.

On line 9, we call the function with some arguments, and save the return value. Then on line 11, we check that we got back the return value we expected.

On line 7, mock.patch("package1.code.foobar") indicates that we want to mock the symbol foobar in the module package1.code. In other words, while this mock is in effect, we’re going to change the value of foobar within package1.code, and afterward we will restore its original value.


Notice that while foobar is in package2.subpackage, we do the mock on package1.code.foobar, which is the reference that is being called by our function under test! It wouldn’t do any good to change things in package2.subpackage anyway, since package1.code got a reference to the original foobar when it was imported, and that’s what will be called unless we change that reference.

By default, mock.patch() will create a new mock object and use that as the replacement value. You can pass a different object using mock.patch(new=other_object) if want it to be used in place of a newly created mock object.

By using the mock as a context manager, we limit its scope to the short time we need it to be in effect. as mock_foobar saves the mock object itself to the mock_foobar variable so we can manipulate it. We’re going to want to do two things with that mock object.

First, we control the return value when the mock object is called by assigning to its return_value attribute. While this mock is in effect, any call to foobar from within package1.code will immediately return the value "something".

Second, we’re going to verify that foobar was called with the arguments we expect — in this case, (1, 4). mock_object.assert_called_with(*args, **kwargs) asserts that the last call to the mock object was passed (*args, **kwargs).

Mock an attribute

Another common case is mocking an attribute of an object or class. We can use mock.patch.object for this.

Suppose we have a function that will try to read from a file handle it has been passed, and we want to test what it does if the read fails.

def read_from_handle(fh):
        return len(
    except IOError:
        return None
 1 from django.test import TestCase
 2 from unittest import mock
 3 from ... import read_from_handle
 5 class TestClass(TestCase):
 6     def test_read_error(self):
 7         fh = open("testfile", "r")
 8         with mock.patch.object(fh, "read") as mock_read:
 9             mock_read.side_effect = IOError("fake error for test")
10             retval = read_from_handle(fh)
12         self.assertIsNone(retval)

On line 8, mock.patch.object(fh, "read") means that while the mock is in effect, we’re going to replace the value of the read attribute of the object fh with our mock object. Again, by default, mock.patch.object just creates a new mock object to use.

On line 9, by assigning an exception to the side_effect attribute of the mock object, we indicate that when called, instead of returning a value, the exception should be raised. Our function is supposed to catch the exception and return None, so we check in the usual way that its return value is None.


I try to use mock.patch.object instead of mock.object when I can, because it makes more sense to me when I try to figure out where to apply the mock. But both methods have their uses.

Mock something on a class

If we don’t have access to an object to mock something on it, perhaps because it doesn’t exist yet, we may instead apply a mock to the class that will be used to create the object. We just need to be sure the mock is in effect when the object is created.

class SomeClass:
    def some_function(self):
        return 1

def function_to_test():
    obj = SomeClass()
    return obj.some_function()
1from django.test import TestCase
2from unittest import mock
3from ... import function_to_test, SomeClass
5class TestClass(TestCase):
6    def test_object_all(self):
7        with mock.patch.object(SomeClass, "some_function") as mock_function:
8            mock_function.return_value = 3
9            self.assertEqual(3, function_to_test())

By mocking some_function on the class object, we arrange that the instance created from it will also have some_function be our mock object.

Where to mock

It can be confusing figuring out what to pass to mock.patch to get the mocking behavior we need.

In the most common case, we have a module that imports some object and then calls or otherwise accesses it, and we want the code in the module to see a mocked version of that object instead of the real one. This is the module containing the code that we are testing.

In that case, we want to identify the module with its full package name, e.g. “ourpackage.ourmodule”, and combine it with the name of the object to be mocked as it appears in that module.

So if the module has from urllib.urlparse import urlparse as parse_method, then we need to pass ourpackage.ourmodule.parse_method to mock.patch.

If instead of importing an object, we define a function or variable in the same module, we can mock it the same way as if it was imported into our module.

When we can’t mock

There are some common cases where we can’t use mocking. It’s okay to rewrite the code being tested a little bit in order to make it possible to use mocking when testing it. I’ll usually add a comment to explain why the code is maybe a little less straightforward than a reader might expect.

In the first case, something is being imported from a C module and we can’t mock that. For example, if we have from datetime import timedelta, we can’t mock timedelta in that module because datetime is a C module, not a Python module.

If we need to, we can wrap that in a Python function and mock our function. E.g.:

from datetime import timedelta

def daydelta(days):
    return timedelta(days=days)

then we can mock daydelta.

In the second case, the thing we want to mock isn’t at the top level of the module, maybe because we’re importing it inside a function or class. mock.patch can only mock objects at the top level of modules.

Again, we might write a little Python function that uses the thing we’d otherwise mock, and mock the Python function instead.

I recently ran into another case. A mocked object method was supposed to be called from a Django template, but the Django template code didn’t recognize the mock object as callable and tried to just use the mock object directly.

How mock.patch and mock.patch.object work

I have a mental model of how mock.patch works that is useful for me. I’m sure in reality it’s a lot more complicated, but I imagine it does something like this:

with mock.patch('') as xyz:
    run code

# which is implemented something like
import sys.modules

module = sys.modules["pkg"]["module"]
saved_value = module["name"]
mock_object = mock.MagicMock()
module["name"] = mock_object
xyz = mock_object
[ run code ]
module["name"] = saved_value

It finds the reference by name in the appropriate module, saves its value, changes it to the mock object, and when done, restores the value.

And I imagine something similar for mock.patch.object:

with mock.patch.object(some_object, "attrname") as xyz:
    run code

# does

saved_value = getattr(some_object, "attrname")
mock_object = mock.MagicMock()
setattr(some_object, "attrname", mock_object)
xyz = mock_object
[ run code ]
setattr(some_object, "attrname", saved_value)

This is even simpler.

Controlling the mock object’s behavior

We’ve already seen that we can assign to .return_value on a mock object and whenever the mock object is called, the value we set will be returned.

For more complex behaviors, we can assign to .side_effect:

  • Assign a list of values, and each time the mock object is called, the next value in the list will be returned.

  • Assign an exception instance or class, and calling the mock object will raise that exception.

  • Assign a callable, and anytime the mock object is called, the arguments will be passed to the callable, and the callable’s return value will be returned from the mock object.

Most of the arguments that can be passed when contructing a mock object can also be assigned as attributes later, so reading the documentation for the mock class should give you more ideas.

Determining what was done with a mock object

You can assert that a mock object has been called with mock_object.assert_called(). It’s more useful to assert that its last call had the arguments you expect by using mock_object.assert_called_with(*args, **kwargs). Or that the mock was not called, using mock_object.assert_not_called().

If you don’t care about some of the arguments, you can pass mock.ANY to assert_called... methods in place of those arguments, and the assertion will pass regardless of what value that argument had:

mock_object.assert_called_with(1, 2, mock.ANY, x=3, y=mock.ANY)

See the mock class documentation for more variations on the same theme.

And if you want to check something that there’s no built-in method to check, you can always access mock_object.call_args_list, which is a list of (args, kwargs) pairs, one for each time the mock object was called.

For more information

I’ve never found the mock documentation particularly clear, but once you know some of the basics from this post, I hope you’ll be able to approach them more usefully. They’re at