If you’re studying trig or calculus—or getting ready to—you’ll need to get familiar with the unit circle. The unit circle is an essential tool used to solve for the sine, cosine, and tangent of an angle. But how does it work? And what information do you need to know in order to use it?
In this article, we explain what the unit circle is and why you should know it. We also give you three tips to help you remember how to use the unit circle.
The Unit Circle: A Basic Introduction
The unit circle is a circle with a radius of 1. This means that for any straight line drawn from the center point of the circle to any point along the edge of the circle, the length of that line will always equal 1. (This also means that the diameter of the circle will equal 2, since the diameter is equal to twice the length of the radius.)
Typically, the center point of the unit circle is where the xaxis and yaxis intersect, or at the coordinates (0, 0):
If you’re studying trig or calculus—or getting ready to—you’ll need to get familiar with the unit circle. The unit circle is an essential tool used to solve for the sine, cosine, and tangent of an angle. But how does it work? And what information do you need to know in order to use it?
In this article, we explain what the unit circle is and why you should know it. We also give you three tips to help you remember how to use the unit circle.
The Unit Circle: A Basic Introduction
The unit circle is a circle with a radius of 1. This means that for any straight line drawn from the center point of the circle to any point along the edge of the circle, the length of that line will always equal 1. (This also means that the diameter of the circle will equal 2, since the diameter is equal to twice the length of the radius.)
Typically, the center point of the unit circle is where the xaxis and yaxis intersect, or at the coordinates (0, 0):
The unit circle, or trig circle as it’s also known, is useful to know because it lets us easily calculate the cosine, sine, and tangent of any angle between 0° and 360° (or 0 and 2π radians).
As you can see in the above diagram, by drawing a radius at any angle (marked by ∝ in the image), you will be creating a right triangle. On this triangle, the cosine is the horizontal line, and the sine is the vertical line. In other words, cosine = xcoordinate, and sine = ycoordinate. (The triangle’s longest line, or hypotenuse, is the radius and therefore equals 1.)
Why is all of this important? Remember that you can solve for the lengths of the sides of a triangle using the Pythagorean theorem, or a2+b2=c2 (in which a and b are the lengths of the sides of the triangle, and c is the length of the hypotenuse).
We know that the cosine of an angle is equal to the length of the horizontal line, the sine is equal to the length of the vertical line, and the hypotenuse is equal to 1. Therefore, we can say that the formula for any right triangle in the unit circle is as follows:
cos2θ+sin2θ=12
Since 12=1, we can simplify this equation like this:
cos2θ+sin2θ=1
Be aware that these values can be negative depending on the angle formed and what quadrant the x and ycoordinates fall in (I’ll explain this in more detail later).
Here is an overview of all major angles in degrees and radians on the unit circle:
But what if there’s no triangle formed? Let’s look at what happens when the angle is 0°, creating a horizontal straight line along the xaxis:
On this line, the xcoordinate equals 1 and the ycoordinate equals 0. We know that the cosine is equal to the xcoordinate, and the sine is equal to the ycoordinate, so we can write this:
 cos0°=1
 sin0°=0
What if the angle is 90° and makes a perfectly vertical line along the yaxis?
Here, we can see that the xcoordinate equals 0 and the ycoordinate equals 1. This gives us the following values for sine and cosine:
 cos90°=0
 sin90°=1

Why You Should Know the Unit Circle
As stated above, the unit circle is helpful because it allows us to easily solve for the sine, cosine, or tangent of any degree or radian. It’s especially useful to know the unit circle chart if you need to solve for certain trig values for math homework or if you’re preparing to study calculus.
But how exactly can knowing the unit circle help you? Let’s say you’re given the following problem on a math test—and are not allowed to use a calculator to solve it:
sin30°
Where do you start? Let’s take a look at the unit circle chart again—this time with all major angles (in both degrees and radians) and their corresponding coordinates:
 Don’t get overwhelmed! Remember, all you’re solving for is sin30°. By looking at this chart, we can see that the ycoordinate is equal to 12 at 30°. And since the ycoordinate equals sine, our answer is as follows:
sin30°=12
But what if you get a problem that uses radians instead of degrees? The process for solving it is still the same. Say, for example, you get a problem that looks like this:
cos3π4
Again, using the chart above, we can see that the xcoordinate (or cosine) for 3π4 (which is equal to 135°) is −22. Here’s what our answer to this problem would look like then:
cos(3π4)=−22
All of this is pretty easy if you have the unit circle chart above to use as a reference. But most (if not all) of the time, this won’t be the case, and you’ll be expected to answer these types of math questions using your brain only.
So how can you remember the unit circle? Read on for our top tips!
How to Remember the Unit Circle: 3 Essential Tips
In this section, we give you our top tips for remembering the trig circle so you can use it with ease for any math problem that requires it.

#1: Memorize Common Angles and Coordinates
In order to use the unit circle effectively, you’ll need to memorize the most common angles (in both degrees and radians) as well as their corresponding x and ycoordinates.
The diagram above is a helpful unit circle chart to look at, since it includes all major angles in both degrees and radians, in addition to their corresponding coordinate points along the x and yaxes.
Here is a chart listing this same information in table form:
Angle (Degrees)Angle (Radians)Coordinates of Point on Circle0° / 360°0 / 2π(1, 0)30°π6(32,12)45°π4(22,22)60°π3(12,32)90°π2(0, 1)120°2π3(−12,32)135°3π4(−22,22)150°5π6(−32,12)180°π(1, 0)210°76(−32,−12)225°5π4(−22,−22)240°4π3(−12,−32)270°3π2(0, 1)300°5π3(12,−32)315°7π4(22,−22)330°11π6(32,−12)Now, while you’re more than welcome to try to memorize all these coordinates and angles, this is a lot of stuff to remember.
Fortunately, there’s a trick you can use to help you remember the most important parts of the unit circle.
Look at the coordinates above and you’ll notice a clear pattern: all points (excluding those at 0°, 90°, 270°, and 360°) alternate between just three values (whether positive or negative):
 12
 22
 32
Each value corresponds to a short, medium, or long line for both cosine and sine:
Here’s what these lengths mean:
 Short horizontal or vertical line = 12
 Medium horizontal or vertical line = 22
 Long horizontal or vertical line = 32
For example, if you’re trying to solve cosπ3, you should know right away that this angle (which is equal to 60°) indicates a short horizontal line on the unit circle. Therefore, its corresponding xcoordinate must equal 12 (a positive value, since π3 creates a point in the first quadrant of the coordinate system).
Finally, while it’s helpful to memorize all the angles in the table above, note that by far the most important angles to remember are the following:
 30° / π6
 45° / π4
 60° / π3
#2: Learn What’s Negative and What’s Positive
It’s critical to be able to distinguish positive and negative x and ycoordinates so that you’re finding the correct value for a trig problem. As a reminder, whether a coordinate on the unit circle will be positive or negative depends on which quadrant (I, II, III, or IV) the point falls under:
 Here’s a chart showing whether a coordinate will be positive or negative based on the quadrant a particular angle (in degrees or radians) is in:
QuadrantXCoordinate (Cosine)YCoordinate (Sine)I++II−+III−−IV+−For example, say you’re given the following problem on a math test:
cos210°
Before you even try to solve it, you should be able to recognize that the answer will be a negative number since the angle 210° falls in quadrant III (where xcoordinates are always negative).
Now, using the trick we learned in tip 1, you can figure out that an angle of 210° creates a long horizontal line. Therefore, our answer is as follows:
cos210°=−32
#3: Know How to Solve for Tangent
Lastly, it’s essential to know how to use all of this information about the trig circle and sine and cosine in order to be able to solve for the tangent of an angle.
In trig, to find the tangent of an angle θ (in either degrees or radians), you simply divide the sine by the cosine:
tanθ=sinθcosθ
For instance, say you’re trying to answer this problem:
tan300°
The first step is to set up an equation in terms of sine and cosine:
tan300°=sin300°cos300°
Now, to solve for the tangent, we need to find the sine and cosine of 300°. You should be able to quickly recognize that the angle 300° falls in the fourth quadrant, meaning that the cosine, or xcoordinate, will be positive, and the sine, or ycoordinate, will be negative.
You should also know right away that the angle 300° creates a short horizontal line and a long vertical line. Therefore, the cosine (the horizontal line) will equal 12, and the sine (the vertical line) will equal −32 (a negative yvalue, since this point is in quadrant IV).
Now, to find the tangent, all you do is plug in and solve:
tan300°=−3212
tan300°=−3