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ALTER TABLE -- change the definition of a table


ALTER TABLE [ ONLY ] name [ * ]
    action [, ... ]
ALTER TABLE [ ONLY ] name [ * ]
    RENAME [ COLUMN ] column TO new_column
    RENAME TO new_name

where action is one of:

    ADD [ COLUMN ] column type [ column_constraint [ ... ] ]
    ALTER [ COLUMN ] column TYPE type [ USING expression ]
    ALTER [ COLUMN ] column SET DEFAULT expression
    ALTER [ COLUMN ] column { SET | DROP } NOT NULL
    ALTER [ COLUMN ] column SET STATISTICS integer
    ADD table_constraint
    DROP CONSTRAINT constraint_name [ RESTRICT | CASCADE ]
    CLUSTER ON index_name
    OWNER TO new_owner
    SET TABLESPACE tablespace_name


ALTER TABLE changes the definition of an existing table. There are several subforms:


This form adds a new column to the table using the same syntax as CREATE TABLE.


This form drops a column from a table. Indexes and table constraints involving the column will be automatically dropped as well. You will need to say CASCADE if anything outside the table depends on the column, for example, foreign key references or views.


This form changes the type of a column of a table. Indexes and simple table constraints involving the column will be automatically converted to use the new column type by reparsing the originally supplied expression. The optional USING clause specifies how to compute the new column value from the old; if omitted, the default conversion is the same as an assignment cast from old data type to new. A USING clause must be provided if there is no implicit or assignment cast from old to new type.


These forms set or remove the default value for a column. The default values only apply to subsequent INSERT commands; they do not cause rows already in the table to change. Defaults may also be created for views, in which case they are inserted into INSERT statements on the view before the view's ON INSERT rule is applied.


These forms change whether a column is marked to allow null values or to reject null values. You can only use SET NOT NULL when the column contains no null values.


This form sets the per-column statistics-gathering target for subsequent ANALYZE operations. The target can be set in the range 0 to 1000; alternatively, set it to -1 to revert to using the system default statistics target (default_statistics_target). For more information on the use of statistics by the PostgreSQL query planner, refer to Section 13.2.


This form sets the storage mode for a column. This controls whether this column is held inline or in a supplementary table, and whether the data should be compressed or not. PLAIN must be used for fixed-length values such as integer and is inline, uncompressed. MAIN is for inline, compressible data. EXTERNAL is for external, uncompressed data, and EXTENDED is for external, compressed data. EXTENDED is the default for most data types that support non-PLAIN storage. Use of EXTERNAL will make substring operations on text and bytea columns faster, at the penalty of increased storage space. Note that SET STORAGE doesn't itself change anything in the table, it just sets the strategy to be pursued during future table updates. See Section 49.2 for more information.

ADD table_constraint

This form adds a new constraint to a table using the same syntax as CREATE TABLE.


This form drops constraints on a table. Currently, constraints on tables are not required to have unique names, so there may be more than one constraint matching the specified name. All matching constraints will be dropped.


This form selects the default index for future CLUSTER operations. It does not actually re-cluster the table.


This form removes the most recently used CLUSTER index specification from the table. This affects future cluster operations that don't specify an index.


This form removes the oid system column from the table. This is exactly equivalent to DROP COLUMN oid RESTRICT, except that it will not complain if there is already no oid column.

Note that there is no variant of ALTER TABLE that allows OIDs to be restored to a table once they have been removed.


This form changes the owner of the table, index, sequence, or view to the specified user.


This form changes the table's tablespace to the specified tablespace and moves the data file(s) associated with the table to the new tablespace. Indexes on the table, if any, are not moved; but they can be moved separately with additional SET TABLESPACE commands. See also CREATE TABLESPACE.


The RENAME forms change the name of a table (or an index, sequence, or view) or the name of an individual column in a table. There is no effect on the stored data.

All the actions except RENAME can be combined into a list of multiple alterations to apply in parallel. For example, it is possible to add several columns and/or alter the type of several columns in a single command. This is particularly useful with large tables, since only one pass over the table need be made.

You must own the table to use ALTER TABLE; except for ALTER TABLE OWNER, which may only be executed by a superuser.



The name (possibly schema-qualified) of an existing table to alter. If ONLY is specified, only that table is altered. If ONLY is not specified, the table and all its descendant tables (if any) are updated. * can be appended to the table name to indicate that descendant tables are to be altered, but in the current version, this is the default behavior. (In releases before 7.1, ONLY was the default behavior. The default can be altered by changing the configuration parameter sql_inheritance.)


Name of a new or existing column.


New name for an existing column.


New name for the table.


Data type of the new column, or new data type for an existing column.


New table constraint for the table.


Name of an existing constraint to drop.


Automatically drop objects that depend on the dropped column or constraint (for example, views referencing the column).


Refuse to drop the column or constraint if there are any dependent objects. This is the default behavior.


The index name on which the table should be marked for clustering.


The user name of the new owner of the table.


The tablespace name to which the table will be moved.


The key word COLUMN is noise and can be omitted.

When a column is added with ADD COLUMN, all existing rows in the table are initialized with the column's default value (NULL if no DEFAULT clause is specified).

Adding a column with a non-null default or changing the type of an existing column will require the entire table to be rewritten. This may take a significant amount of time for a large table; and it will temporarily require double the disk space.

Adding a CHECK or NOT NULL constraint requires scanning the table to verify that existing rows meet the constraint.

The main reason for providing the option to specify multiple changes in a single ALTER TABLE is that multiple table scans or rewrites can thereby be combined into a single pass over the table.

The DROP COLUMN form does not physically remove the column, but simply makes it invisible to SQL operations. Subsequent insert and update operations in the table will store a null value for the column. Thus, dropping a column is quick but it will not immediately reduce the on-disk size of your table, as the space occupied by the dropped column is not reclaimed. The space will be reclaimed over time as existing rows are updated.

The fact that ALTER TYPE requires rewriting the whole table is sometimes an advantage, because the rewriting process eliminates any dead space in the table. For example, to reclaim the space occupied by a dropped column immediately, the fastest way is

ALTER TABLE table ALTER COLUMN anycol TYPE anytype;

where anycol is any remaining table column and anytype is the same type that column already has. This results in no semantically-visible change in the table, but the command forces rewriting, which gets rid of no-longer-useful data.

The USING option of ALTER TYPE can actually specify any expression involving the old values of the row; that is, it can refer to other columns as well as the one being converted. This allows very general conversions to be done with the ALTER TYPE syntax. Because of this flexibility, the USING expression is not applied to the column's default value (if any); the result might not be a constant expression as required for a default. This means that when there is no implicit or assignment cast from old to new type, ALTER TYPE may fail to convert the default even though a USING clause is supplied. In such cases, drop the default with DROP DEFAULT, perform the ALTER TYPE, and then use SET DEFAULT to add a suitable new default. Similar considerations apply to indexes and constraints involving the column.

If a table has any descendant tables, it is not permitted to add, rename, or change the type of a column in the parent table without doing the same to the descendants. That is, ALTER TABLE ONLY will be rejected. This ensures that the descendants always have columns matching the parent.

A recursive DROP COLUMN operation will remove a descendant table's column only if the descendant does not inherit that column from any other parents and never had an independent definition of the column. A nonrecursive DROP COLUMN (i.e., ALTER TABLE ONLY ... DROP COLUMN) never removes any descendant columns, but instead marks them as independently defined rather than inherited.

Changing any part of a system catalog table is not permitted.

Refer to CREATE TABLE for a further description of valid parameters. Chapter 5 has further information on inheritance.


To add a column of type varchar to a table:

ALTER TABLE distributors ADD COLUMN address varchar(30);

To drop a column from a table:


To change the types of two existing columns in one operation:

ALTER TABLE distributors
    ALTER COLUMN address TYPE varchar(80),
    ALTER COLUMN name TYPE varchar(100);

To change an integer column containing UNIX timestamps to timestamp with time zone via a USING clause:

    ALTER COLUMN foo_timestamp TYPE timestamp with time zone
        timestamp with time zone 'epoch' + foo_timestamp * interval '1 second';

To rename an existing column:

ALTER TABLE distributors RENAME COLUMN address TO city;

To rename an existing table:

ALTER TABLE distributors RENAME TO suppliers;

To add a not-null constraint to a column:


To remove a not-null constraint from a column:


To add a check constraint to a table:

ALTER TABLE distributors ADD CONSTRAINT zipchk CHECK (char_length(zipcode) = 5);

To remove a check constraint from a table and all its children:

ALTER TABLE distributors DROP CONSTRAINT zipchk;

To add a foreign key constraint to a table:

ALTER TABLE distributors ADD CONSTRAINT distfk FOREIGN KEY (address) REFERENCES addresses (address) MATCH FULL;

To add a (multicolumn) unique constraint to a table:

ALTER TABLE distributors ADD CONSTRAINT dist_id_zipcode_key UNIQUE (dist_id, zipcode);

To add an automatically named primary key constraint to a table, noting that a table can only ever have one primary key:

ALTER TABLE distributors ADD PRIMARY KEY (dist_id);

To move a table to a different tablespace:

ALTER TABLE distributors SET TABLESPACE fasttablespace;


The ADD, DROP, and SET DEFAULT forms conform with the SQL standard. The other forms are PostgreSQL extensions of the SQL standard. Also, the ability to specify more than one manipulation in a single ALTER TABLE command is an extension.

ALTER TABLE DROP COLUMN can be used to drop the only column of a table, leaving a zero-column table. This is an extension of SQL, which disallows zero-column tables.


Feb. 10, 2005, 4:45 p.m.

I posted this example a couple years ago showing how to set default column values for inserts on views. A. Elein Mustain picked it up and added some commentary in her 22-Sep-2003 (Issue: 44) "Postgresql General Bits" column. I've reproduced it here as a documented example showing how to use default values on views as well as how to create updateable views using rules.

CREATE TABLE test_table (
field1 char(1) NOT NULL,
field2 SERIAL,
field4 VARCHAR(24) DEFAULT '(default value)',
CONSTRAINT testdb_pkey PRIMARY KEY (field2));

CREATE VIEW test_table_v AS
SELECT field1, field3, field4 FROM test_table;

CREATE RULE test_table_rd AS ON DELETE TO test_table_v DO INSTEAD
DELETE FROM test_table WHERE field1 = old.field1;

CREATE RULE test_table_ri AS ON INSERT TO test_table_v DO INSTEAD
INSERT INTO test_table (field1, field3, field4)
VALUES (new.field1, new.field3, new.field4);

CREATE RULE test_table_ru AS ON UPDATE TO test_table_v DO INSTEAD
UPDATE test_table SET field1 = new.field1, field3 = new.field3, field4 = new.field4
WHERE field1 = old.field1;

INSERT INTO test_table VALUES ('A');
INSERT INTO test_table_v VALUES ('B');
SELECT * FROM test_table;
-- Result --
=# SELECT * FROM test_table;
field1 | field2 | field3 | field4
A | 1 | 1 | (default value)
B | 2 | |
(2 rows)

-- Just for fun, show NON NULL constraints work
INSERT INTO test_table_v values (NULL);

=# insert into test_table_v values (NULL);
ERROR: ExecInsert: Fail to add null value in not null attribute field1

A. Elein Mustain added: "The solution to having updateable views with proper defaults is to ALTER TABLE ... SET DEFAULT. Most ALTER TABLE commands will not let you alter a view, but ALTER TABLE ... SET DEFAULT will. It is also possible that you may want the view to have different defaults than the underlying table and that can also implemented with the ALTER."

ALTER TABLE test_table_v ALTER field3 SET DEFAULT 1;
ALTER TABLE test_table_v ALTER field4 SET DEFAULT '(default value)';
INSERT INTO test_table_v VALUES ('C');
=# insert into test_table_v VALUES ('C');
INSERT 3702953 1

SELECT * FROM test_table;

-- Result --
field1 | field2 | field3 | field4
A | 1 | 1 | (default value)
B | 2 | |
C | 4 | 1 | (default value)
(4 rows)

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