PostgreSQL Tutorial: Primary Key Constraint

August 1, 2023

Summary: in this tutorial, we will show you what the primary key is and how to manage PostgreSQL primary key constraints through SQL statements.

A primary key is a column or a group of columns used to identify a row uniquely in a table.

You define primary keys through primary key constraints. Technically, a primary key constraint is the combination of a not-null constraint and a UNIQUE constraint.

A table can have one and only one primary key. It is a good practice to add a primary key to every table. When you add a primary key to a table, PostgreSQL creates a unique B-tree index on the column or a group of columns used to define the primary key.

Define primary key when creating the table

Normally, we add the primary key to a table when we define the table’s structure using CREATE TABLE statement.

	column_1 data_type PRIMARY KEY,
	column_2 data_type,

The following statement creates a purchase order (PO) header table with the name po_headers.

CREATE TABLE po_headers (
	vendor_no INTEGER,
	description TEXT,
	shipping_address TEXT

The po_no is the primary key of the po_headers table, which uniquely identifies purchase order in the po_headers table.

In case the primary key consists of two or more columns, you define the primary key constraint as follows:

	column_1 data_type,
	column_2 data_type,
        PRIMARY KEY (column_1, column_2)

For example, the following statement creates the purchase order line items table whose primary key is a combination of purchase order number ( po_no) and line item number ( item_no).

CREATE TABLE po_items (
	po_no INTEGER,
	item_no INTEGER,
	product_no INTEGER,
	net_price NUMERIC,
	PRIMARY KEY (po_no, item_no)

If you don’t specify explicitly the name for primary key constraint, PostgreSQL will assign a default name to the primary key constraint. By default, PostgreSQL uses table-name_pkey as the default name for the primary key constraint. In this example, PostgreSQL creates the primary key constraint with the name po_items_pkey for the po_items table.

In case you want to specify the name of the primary key constraint, you use CONSTRAINT clause as follows:

CONSTRAINT constraint_name PRIMARY KEY(column_1, column_2,...);

Define primary key when changing the existing table structure

It is rare to define a primary key for existing table. In case you have to do it, you can use the ALTER TABLE statement to add a primary key constraint.

ALTER TABLE table_name ADD PRIMARY KEY (column_1, column_2);

The following statement creates a table named products without defining any primary key.

CREATE TABLE products (
	product_no INTEGER,
	description TEXT,
	product_cost NUMERIC

Suppose you want to add a primary key constraint to the products table, you can execute the following statement:

ALTER TABLE products 
ADD PRIMARY KEY (product_no);

How to add an auto-incremented primary key to an existing table

Suppose, we have a vendors table that does not have any primary key.

CREATE TABLE vendors (name VARCHAR(255));

And we add few rows to the vendors table using INSERT statement:


To verify the insert operation, we query data from the vendors table using the following SELECT statement:

SELECT * FROM vendors;

vendors table

Now, if we want to add a primary key named id into the vendors table and the id field is auto-incremented by one, we use the following statement:


Let’s check the vendors table again.

SELECT id, name FROM vendors;

vendors table with primary key

Remove primary key

To remove an existing primary key constraint, you also use the ALTER TABLE statement with the following syntax:

ALTER TABLE table_name DROP CONSTRAINT primary_key_constraint;

For example, to remove the primary key constraint of the products table, you use the following statement:

ALTER TABLE products
DROP CONSTRAINT products_pkey;

In this tutorial, you have learned how to add and remove primary key constraints using CREATE TABLE and ALTER TABLE statements.