FOREIGN KEY Constraints in PostgreSQL

Understanding FOREIGN KEY Constraints in PostgreSQL: Your Comprehensive Guide


FOREIGN KEY constraints play a pivotal role in linking tables in relational databases like PostgreSQL. They are essential for maintaining data integrity across multiple tables and ensuring that relationships between them are logically sound. In this guide, you’ll get a thorough understanding of what FOREIGN KEY constraints are, how to use them, and how to handle common errors associated with them.

What is a FOREIGN KEY?

A FOREIGN KEY is a field or a set of fields in a table that is used to establish a link between the data in two tables. The table containing the FOREIGN KEY is called the "child table," and the table being referred to is called the "parent table."


Here’s how you define a FOREIGN KEY constraint:

CREATE TABLE child_table (
    column1 data_type,
    column2 data_type REFERENCES parent_table(parent_column),

For composite FOREIGN KEYS:

CREATE TABLE child_table (
    column1 data_type,
    column2 data_type,
    FOREIGN KEY (column1, column2) REFERENCES parent_table(parent_column1, parent_column2),

Example Using a producers Table

To give you a practical example, let’s create a new table called producers that relates to our existing tv_series table:

SQL Migration File for the producers table:

CREATE TABLE public.producers (
    producer_id serial4 NOT NULL,
    producer_name text NOT NULL,
    tv_series_id int4,
    CONSTRAINT producers_pkey PRIMARY KEY (producer_id),
    CONSTRAINT tv_series_fk FOREIGN KEY (tv_series_id) REFERENCES public.tv_series(id)

Here, the tv_series_id in the producers table is a FOREIGN KEY that refers to the id column in the tv_series table.

Common Errors and Solutions

Error Message:

ERROR: insert or update on table "producers" violates foreign key constraint "tv_series_fk"


This error occurs when you try to insert or update a record in the producers table with a tv_series_id that does not exist in the tv_series table.


To resolve this:

  • Make sure to insert a tv_series_id that exists in the tv_series table.
  • Or, insert the corresponding record in the tv_series table before inserting into the producers table.

Error Message:

ERROR: update or delete on table "tv_series" violates foreign key constraint "tv_series_fk" on table "producers"


This error happens when you attempt to delete or update a record in the tv_series table that is still being referenced by a record in the producers table.


  • Delete or update the corresponding record in the producers table before performing the operation in the tv_series table.

Best Practices and Tips

  • Always use meaningful names for FOREIGN KEY constraints for easier debugging.
  • Use ON DELETE and ON UPDATE clauses to define behavior when the referenced record in the parent table is deleted or updated.
  • Consider indexing FOREIGN KEY columns to improve performance.


FOREIGN KEY constraints are crucial in building strong relational database schemas. They not only enforce data integrity but also lay the foundation for complex queries involving multiple tables. Understanding their workings can significantly boost your PostgreSQL proficiency. So keep experimenting and apply these constraints effectively to make your database robust and reliable.

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