In C++, as in C, the C++ compiler and compilation process makes use of the C preprocessor. As specified by the GNU C Preprocessor manual, a header file is defined as the following:

A header file is a file containing C declarations and macro definitions (see Macros) to be shared between several source files. You request the use of a header file in your program by including it, with the C preprocessing directive ‘#include’.

Header files serve two purposes.

However, to the C preprocessor itself, a header file is no different than a source file.

The header/source file organization scheme is simply a strongly-held and standard convention set by various software projects in order to provide separation between interface and implementation.

Although it is not formally enforced by the C++ Standard itself, following the header/source file convention is highly recommended, and, in practice, is already almost ubiquitous.

Note that header files may be replaced as a project file structure convention by the upcoming feature of modules, which is still to be considered for inclusion in a future C++ Standard as of the time of writing (e.g. C++20).