Recursive Queries in PostgreSQL

Mastering Recursive Queries in PostgreSQL: The SELECT WITH RECURSIVE Clause


If you’ve ever dealt with hierarchical or tree-structured data, you know how challenging it can be to handle such queries. But what if I told you that PostgreSQL has a feature to make this easier? Welcome to the world of recursive queries using the SELECT WITH RECURSIVE clause. This guide will offer more context, seed data, and a clearer explanation of the recursive query concept.

What Are Recursive Queries?

Recursive queries allow you to query hierarchical data structures by executing a base SQL statement, then repeatedly executing a recursive SQL statement that refers back to itself. These are facilitated in PostgreSQL through the use of the WITH RECURSIVE clause.

Basic Syntax

The general form of a recursive CTE is as follows:

  -- Base query
  SELECT ...
  -- Recursive query
  SELECT ...
  FROM cte_name ...
-- Main SQL query
SELECT ... FROM cte_name;

Example: Hierarchical Relationships in tv_series

In order to gain practical with Recursive Queries, let’s create another table tv_series_episodes linked to tv_series. The tv_series_episodes table stores episodes for each TV series and has a self-referencing parent_episode_id column to indicate episode sequencing.

Here’s a simplified SQL schema:

CREATE TABLE public.tv_series_episodes (
  id serial PRIMARY KEY,
  tv_series_id int REFERENCES public.tv_series(id),
  parent_episode_id int REFERENCES public.tv_series_episodes(id),
  episode_name text

Seed Data for tv_series and tv_series_episodes

Before diving into examples, let’s add some seed data.

For tv_series:

INSERT INTO public.tv_series (name, genre, seasons)
VALUES ('Show1', 'Drama', 5), ('Show2', 'Comedy', 3);

For tv_series_episodes:

INSERT INTO public.tv_series_episodes (tv_series_id, parent_episode_id, episode_name)
VALUES (1, NULL, 'S1E1'),
    (1, 1, 'S1E2'),
    (1, 2, 'S1E3'),
    (2, NULL, 'S1E1'),
    (2, 4, 'S1E2');

Run the Query

Now, let’s use a recursive query to fetch all episodes along with their hierarchy level for a specific TV series.

WITH RECURSIVE episode_hierarchy AS (
  SELECT id, episode_name, parent_episode_id, 1 as level
  FROM public.tv_series_episodes
  WHERE parent_episode_id IS NULL AND tv_series_id = 1
  SELECT, e.episode_name, e.parent_episode_id, eh.level + 1
  FROM public.tv_series_episodes e
  INNER JOIN episode_hierarchy eh ON e.parent_episode_id =
  WHERE e.tv_series_id = 1
SELECT * FROM episode_hierarchy;

Expected Output

The expected output will show each episode for the TV series with tv_series_id=1, along with its hierarchical level. For example:

id episode_name parent_episode_id level
1 S1E1 NULL 1
2 S1E2 1 2
3 S1E3 2 3


The UNION ALL operator is crucial in recursive CTEs for concatenating the base result set with the recursive result set. It’s mandatory for a query to be considered recursive. If it’s not present, you essentially have a regular, non-recursive CTE.

Common Errors and Solutions

Error Message:

ERROR: recursive reference to query "cte_name" must not appear within a subquery


The recursive CTE cannot be part of a subquery.


  • Make sure the recursive CTE isn’t nested within another query.

Best Practices and Tips

  • Use recursion cautiously. An overly broad recursive query can affect performance.
  • Always include a termination condition to prevent infinite loops.


Recursive queries are a robust tool for working with hierarchical data structures. With this guide, you’ve learned the syntax, seen a practical example using tv_series and tv_series_episodes, and understood how to tackle common errors. Now you’re equipped to manage complex, hierarchical queries in PostgreSQL with ease. Happy querying!

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