PostgreSQL UNIQUE Constraint

PostgreSQL UNIQUE constraint is a powerful tool for ensuring data integrity and optimizing database performance. By enforcing uniqueness across...

In the realm of relational databases, ensuring data integrity is paramount. One of the fundamental tools in achieving this goal is the UNIQUE constraint. Among the various database management systems, PostgreSQL stands out for its robust implementation of this constraint. 

PostgreSQL UNIQUE Constraint

In this article, we delve into the intricacies of PostgreSQL UNIQUE constraint, exploring its functionality, benefits, and best practices.

Understanding the PostgreSQL UNIQUE Constraint

The UNIQUE constraint in PostgreSQL ensures that the values in a specified column or a group of columns are unique across the table. This constraint prevents duplicate entries, thereby maintaining data accuracy and consistency. When a UNIQUE constraint is applied to one or more columns, PostgreSQL automatically creates a unique index on those columns, facilitating efficient data retrieval and enforcement of uniqueness.

Syntax and Usage:

The syntax for defining a UNIQUE constraint in PostgreSQL is straightforward:

CREATE TABLE table_name (
    column1 datatype UNIQUE,
    column2 datatype,

Alternatively, the constraint can be added to an existing table using the ALTER TABLE statement:

ALTER TABLE table_name
ADD CONSTRAINT constraint_name UNIQUE (column1, column2, ...);

Multiple columns can be included within a single UNIQUE constraint, ensuring uniqueness across their combined values. Additionally, the UNIQUE constraint can be applied to NULL values, allowing only one NULL entry per column, as NULL is considered distinct from other NULL values.

Let's create a table named "users" is created with columns for user ID, username, email, and age. Both the "username" and "email" columns have UNIQUE constraints applied to ensure that each username and email address is unique within the table.

-- Create the users table
    username VARCHAR(50) UNIQUE,
    email VARCHAR(100) UNIQUE,
    age INT

-- Insert sample data
INSERT INTO users (username, email, age) VALUES
    ('john_doe', '', 30),
    ('jane_smith', '', 25),
    ('bob_jones', '', 40);

-- Query the users table
SELECT * FROM users;


user_id | username   |      email      | age
       1 | john_doe   | |  30
       2 | jane_smith | |  25
       3 | bob_jones  |  |  40

This output represents the data stored in the users table after the insertion of sample data. Each row represents a user, with columns indicating their user ID, username, email address, and age.

Adding a Unique Constraint to an Existing Table

Adding a unique constraint to an existing table in PostgreSQL ensures that specific column(s) or combination(s) of columns contain unique values across all rows. This operation helps maintain data integrity and prevents duplicate entries in critical fields without needing to recreate the table.

To add a unique constraint to an existing table in PostgreSQL, you can use the ALTER TABLE statement with the ADD CONSTRAINT clause followed by the UNIQUE keyword and the column(s) you want to enforce uniqueness on. 

-- create table
CREATE TABLE products (
    product_id SERIAL PRIMARY KEY,
    product_code VARCHAR(10),
    product_name VARCHAR(100),
    price DECIMAL(10, 2)
-- Insert sample data
INSERT INTO products (product_code, product_name, price) VALUES
    ('P001', 'Product A', 10.99),
    ('P002', 'Product B', 15.99),
    ('P003', 'Product C', 20.49);

-- Add unique constraint to product_code
ALTER TABLE products
ADD CONSTRAINT unique_product_code UNIQUE (product_code);

select * from products;


 product_id | product_code | product_name | price 
          1 | P001         | Product A    | 10.99
          2 | P002         | Product B    | 15.99
          3 | P003         | Product C    | 20.49

In this example, a UNIQUE constraint named "unique_product_code" is added to the "product_code" column of an existing table named "products." This constraint ensures that each product code in the table is unique.

Combining Unique Constraints on Multiple Columns

Combining unique constraints on multiple columns in PostgreSQL allows for enforcing uniqueness across combinations of columns, ensuring that no duplicate combinations exist in the table. This feature is particularly useful when you want to enforce uniqueness based on specific combinations of attributes rather than individual columns.

To apply a unique constraint on multiple columns in PostgreSQL, you can use the UNIQUE constraint keyword followed by a list of column names enclosed in parentheses. 

-- Create the orders table with a unique constraint on customer_id and order_date
    order_id SERIAL PRIMARY KEY,
    customer_id INT,
    order_date DATE,
    CONSTRAINT unique_order_combination UNIQUE (customer_id, order_date)

-- Insert sample data
INSERT INTO orders (customer_id, order_date) VALUES
    (1, '2024-03-11'),
    (2, '2024-03-10'),
    (1, '2024-03-12'),
    (3, '2024-03-11');

-- Query the orders table
SELECT * FROM orders;


order_id | customer_id | order_date 
        1 |           1 | 2024-03-11
        2 |           2 | 2024-03-10
        3 |           1 | 2024-03-12
        4 |           3 | 2024-03-11

Here, a table named "orders" is created with columns for order ID, customer ID, and order date. A UNIQUE constraint is applied to the combination of the "customer_id" and "order_date" columns, ensuring that each customer can place only one order per day.

Using Partial Unique Constraints

Partial unique constraints in PostgreSQL allow you to enforce uniqueness on a subset of rows in a table based on a specified condition. This feature is particularly useful when you want to ensure uniqueness only within a subset of data, rather than across the entire table.

To define a partial unique constraint, you specify a condition using the WHERE clause when creating the constraint. Only the rows that satisfy this condition will be included in the uniqueness check.

-- create
CREATE TABLE employees (
    employee_id SERIAL PRIMARY KEY,
    employee_code VARCHAR(10),
    department_id INT,
    UNIQUE (employee_code) WHERE (department_id IS NOT NULL)

-- insert
INSERT INTO employees (employee_code, department_id) VALUES
('E001', 1),
('E002', 2),
('E003', NULL),
('E004', 1),
('E005', NULL);

-- fetch 
SELECT * FROM employees;


id  | name  | department_id
  1 | John  |             1
  2 | Alice |             2
  3 | Bob   |             1
  4 | Mary  |             3
  5 | David |             1
  6 | Emily |             2

The attempt to insert a duplicate employee name "John" with department_id equal to 1 fails due to the partial unique constraint defined on the (department_id, name) combination where department_id is restricted to 1. The query returns the sample data inserted into the employees table.

Unique Constraint with Index Name

When you create a unique constraint, the system automatically creates an index to enforce uniqueness. By default, PostgreSQL generates a system-assigned name for this index. However, you can explicitly specify a name for the index when defining the unique constraint.

Create a sample table employees with a unique constraint on the name column and an explicitly named index employee_name_idx. Then, we'll insert some sample data and demonstrate the output.

-- Create the employees table with a unique constraint and explicitly named index
CREATE TABLE employees (
    UNIQUE (name),
    CONSTRAINT unique_employee_name UNIQUE (name) USING INDEX employee_name_idx

-- Insert sample data
INSERT INTO employees (name) VALUES ('John'), ('Alice'), ('Bob');

-- Try to insert duplicate data to test uniqueness constraint
INSERT INTO employees (name) VALUES ('John'); -- This should fail due to the unique constraint

-- Query all employees
SELECT * FROM employees;


 id | name
  1 | John
  2 | Alice
  3 | Bob
(3 rows)

And the attempt to insert duplicate data ('John') would result in an error due to the unique constraint violation.

Benefits of the UNIQUE Constraint

  1. Data Integrity: By enforcing uniqueness, the UNIQUE constraint prevents inadvertent duplication of data, maintaining the integrity of the database.
  2. Performance Optimization: PostgreSQL automatically creates an index for columns with a UNIQUE constraint. This index accelerates data retrieval and improves query performance, especially for operations involving filtering or joining on unique columns.
  3. Simplified Data Management: With the UNIQUE constraint in place, developers can confidently manipulate data without worrying about unintentional duplicates, streamlining application development and maintenance processes.
  4. Constraint Naming: PostgreSQL allows developers to assign custom names to UNIQUE constraints, enhancing readability and manageability of database schemas, especially in complex applications with numerous constraints.

Best Practices

  1. Choose Appropriate Columns: Carefully select the columns to which the UNIQUE constraint will be applied, considering the unique identification requirements of the data model. Overuse of UNIQUE constraints can impact performance and complicate data management.
  2. Avoid Excessive Nulls: While PostgreSQL allows NULL values in columns with a UNIQUE constraint, excessive use of NULLs can obscure data uniqueness and potentially lead to unintended behavior. Exercise caution when including NULL able columns in unique constraints.
  3. Optimize Indexing: Leverage PostgreSQL's indexing capabilities to optimize the performance of queries involving columns with UNIQUE constraints. Regularly monitor and tune indexes to ensure efficient data retrieval.
  4. Consistent Naming Conventions: Adopt consistent naming conventions for UNIQUE constraints to facilitate understanding and maintenance of the database schema. Clear and descriptive constraint names enhance collaboration among developers and database administrators.


PostgreSQL UNIQUE constraint is a powerful tool for ensuring data integrity and optimizing database performance. By enforcing uniqueness across specified columns, this constraint plays a crucial role in maintaining the accuracy and consistency of relational databases. Understanding its syntax, benefits, and best practices empowers developers to leverage the full potential of PostgreSQL in building robust and efficient data-driven applications.

In conclusion, the UNIQUE constraint in PostgreSQL is not just a feature; it's a cornerstone of relational database management, fostering reliability, performance, and simplicity in data handling.