Supported Versions: Current (16) / 15 / 14 / 13 / 12
Development Versions: 17 / devel
Unsupported versions: 11 / 10 / 9.6 / 9.5 / 9.4 / 9.3 / 9.2 / 9.1 / 9.0 / 8.4 / 8.3 / 8.2 / 8.1 / 8.0 / 7.4 / 7.3 / 7.2

43.7. Cursors #

Rather than executing a whole query at once, it is possible to set up a cursor that encapsulates the query, and then read the query result a few rows at a time. One reason for doing this is to avoid memory overrun when the result contains a large number of rows. (However, PL/pgSQL users do not normally need to worry about that, since FOR loops automatically use a cursor internally to avoid memory problems.) A more interesting usage is to return a reference to a cursor that a function has created, allowing the caller to read the rows. This provides an efficient way to return large row sets from functions.

43.7.1. Declaring Cursor Variables #

All access to cursors in PL/pgSQL goes through cursor variables, which are always of the special data type refcursor. One way to create a cursor variable is just to declare it as a variable of type refcursor. Another way is to use the cursor declaration syntax, which in general is:

name [ [ NO ] SCROLL ] CURSOR [ ( arguments ) ] FOR query;

(FOR can be replaced by IS for Oracle compatibility.) If SCROLL is specified, the cursor will be capable of scrolling backward; if NO SCROLL is specified, backward fetches will be rejected; if neither specification appears, it is query-dependent whether backward fetches will be allowed. arguments, if specified, is a comma-separated list of pairs name datatype that define names to be replaced by parameter values in the given query. The actual values to substitute for these names will be specified later, when the cursor is opened.

Some examples:

    curs1 refcursor;
    curs2 CURSOR FOR SELECT * FROM tenk1;
    curs3 CURSOR (key integer) FOR SELECT * FROM tenk1 WHERE unique1 = key;

All three of these variables have the data type refcursor, but the first can be used with any query, while the second has a fully specified query already bound to it, and the last has a parameterized query bound to it. (key will be replaced by an integer parameter value when the cursor is opened.) The variable curs1 is said to be unbound since it is not bound to any particular query.

The SCROLL option cannot be used when the cursor's query uses FOR UPDATE/SHARE. Also, it is best to use NO SCROLL with a query that involves volatile functions. The implementation of SCROLL assumes that re-reading the query's output will give consistent results, which a volatile function might not do.

43.7.2. Opening Cursors #

Before a cursor can be used to retrieve rows, it must be opened. (This is the equivalent action to the SQL command DECLARE CURSOR.) PL/pgSQL has three forms of the OPEN statement, two of which use unbound cursor variables while the third uses a bound cursor variable.


Bound cursor variables can also be used without explicitly opening the cursor, via the FOR statement described in Section 43.7.4. A FOR loop will open the cursor and then close it again when the loop completes.

Opening a cursor involves creating a server-internal data structure called a portal, which holds the execution state for the cursor's query. A portal has a name, which must be unique within the session for the duration of the portal's existence. By default, PL/pgSQL will assign a unique name to each portal it creates. However, if you assign a non-null string value to a cursor variable, that string will be used as its portal name. This feature can be used as described in Section OPEN FOR query #

OPEN unbound_cursorvar [ [ NO ] SCROLL ] FOR query;

The cursor variable is opened and given the specified query to execute. The cursor cannot be open already, and it must have been declared as an unbound cursor variable (that is, as a simple refcursor variable). The query must be a SELECT, or something else that returns rows (such as EXPLAIN). The query is treated in the same way as other SQL commands in PL/pgSQL: PL/pgSQL variable names are substituted, and the query plan is cached for possible reuse. When a PL/pgSQL variable is substituted into the cursor query, the value that is substituted is the one it has at the time of the OPEN; subsequent changes to the variable will not affect the cursor's behavior. The SCROLL and NO SCROLL options have the same meanings as for a bound cursor.

An example:


OPEN unbound_cursorvar [ [ NO ] SCROLL ] FOR EXECUTE query_string
                                     [ USING expression [, ... ] ];

The cursor variable is opened and given the specified query to execute. The cursor cannot be open already, and it must have been declared as an unbound cursor variable (that is, as a simple refcursor variable). The query is specified as a string expression, in the same way as in the EXECUTE command. As usual, this gives flexibility so the query plan can vary from one run to the next (see Section 43.11.2), and it also means that variable substitution is not done on the command string. As with EXECUTE, parameter values can be inserted into the dynamic command via format() and USING. The SCROLL and NO SCROLL options have the same meanings as for a bound cursor.

An example:

OPEN curs1 FOR EXECUTE format('SELECT * FROM %I WHERE col1 = $1',tabname) USING keyvalue;

In this example, the table name is inserted into the query via format(). The comparison value for col1 is inserted via a USING parameter, so it needs no quoting. Opening a Bound Cursor #

OPEN bound_cursorvar [ ( [ argument_name := ] argument_value [, ...] ) ];

This form of OPEN is used to open a cursor variable whose query was bound to it when it was declared. The cursor cannot be open already. A list of actual argument value expressions must appear if and only if the cursor was declared to take arguments. These values will be substituted in the query.

The query plan for a bound cursor is always considered cacheable; there is no equivalent of EXECUTE in this case. Notice that SCROLL and NO SCROLL cannot be specified in OPEN, as the cursor's scrolling behavior was already determined.

Argument values can be passed using either positional or named notation. In positional notation, all arguments are specified in order. In named notation, each argument's name is specified using := to separate it from the argument expression. Similar to calling functions, described in Section 4.3, it is also allowed to mix positional and named notation.

Examples (these use the cursor declaration examples above):

OPEN curs2;
OPEN curs3(42);
OPEN curs3(key := 42);

Because variable substitution is done on a bound cursor's query, there are really two ways to pass values into the cursor: either with an explicit argument to OPEN, or implicitly by referencing a PL/pgSQL variable in the query. However, only variables declared before the bound cursor was declared will be substituted into it. In either case the value to be passed is determined at the time of the OPEN. For example, another way to get the same effect as the curs3 example above is

    key integer;
    curs4 CURSOR FOR SELECT * FROM tenk1 WHERE unique1 = key;
    key := 42;
    OPEN curs4;

43.7.3. Using Cursors #

Once a cursor has been opened, it can be manipulated with the statements described here.

These manipulations need not occur in the same function that opened the cursor to begin with. You can return a refcursor value out of a function and let the caller operate on the cursor. (Internally, a refcursor value is simply the string name of the portal containing the active query for the cursor. This name can be passed around, assigned to other refcursor variables, and so on, without disturbing the portal.)

All portals are implicitly closed at transaction end. Therefore a refcursor value is usable to reference an open cursor only until the end of the transaction. FETCH #

FETCH [ direction { FROM | IN } ] cursor INTO target;

FETCH retrieves the next row from the cursor into a target, which might be a row variable, a record variable, or a comma-separated list of simple variables, just like SELECT INTO. If there is no next row, the target is set to NULL(s). As with SELECT INTO, the special variable FOUND can be checked to see whether a row was obtained or not.

The direction clause can be any of the variants allowed in the SQL FETCH command except the ones that can fetch more than one row; namely, it can be NEXT, PRIOR, FIRST, LAST, ABSOLUTE count, RELATIVE count, FORWARD, or BACKWARD. Omitting direction is the same as specifying NEXT. In the forms using a count, the count can be any integer-valued expression (unlike the SQL FETCH command, which only allows an integer constant). direction values that require moving backward are likely to fail unless the cursor was declared or opened with the SCROLL option.

cursor must be the name of a refcursor variable that references an open cursor portal.


FETCH curs1 INTO rowvar;
FETCH curs2 INTO foo, bar, baz;

MOVE [ direction { FROM | IN } ] cursor;

MOVE repositions a cursor without retrieving any data. MOVE works exactly like the FETCH command, except it only repositions the cursor and does not return the row moved to. As with SELECT INTO, the special variable FOUND can be checked to see whether there was a next row to move to.


MOVE curs1;


When a cursor is positioned on a table row, that row can be updated or deleted using the cursor to identify the row. There are restrictions on what the cursor's query can be (in particular, no grouping) and it's best to use FOR UPDATE in the cursor. For more information see the DECLARE reference page.

An example:

UPDATE foo SET dataval = myval WHERE CURRENT OF curs1; CLOSE #

CLOSE cursor;

CLOSE closes the portal underlying an open cursor. This can be used to release resources earlier than end of transaction, or to free up the cursor variable to be opened again.

An example:

CLOSE curs1; Returning Cursors #

PL/pgSQL functions can return cursors to the caller. This is useful to return multiple rows or columns, especially with very large result sets. To do this, the function opens the cursor and returns the cursor name to the caller (or simply opens the cursor using a portal name specified by or otherwise known to the caller). The caller can then fetch rows from the cursor. The cursor can be closed by the caller, or it will be closed automatically when the transaction closes.

The portal name used for a cursor can be specified by the programmer or automatically generated. To specify a portal name, simply assign a string to the refcursor variable before opening it. The string value of the refcursor variable will be used by OPEN as the name of the underlying portal. However, if the refcursor variable's value is null (as it will be by default), then OPEN automatically generates a name that does not conflict with any existing portal, and assigns it to the refcursor variable.


Prior to PostgreSQL 16, bound cursor variables were initialized to contain their own names, rather than being left as null, so that the underlying portal name would be the same as the cursor variable's name by default. This was changed because it created too much risk of conflicts between similarly-named cursors in different functions.

The following example shows one way a cursor name can be supplied by the caller:

CREATE TABLE test (col text);
INSERT INTO test VALUES ('123');

CREATE FUNCTION reffunc(refcursor) RETURNS refcursor AS '
    OPEN $1 FOR SELECT col FROM test;
    RETURN $1;
' LANGUAGE plpgsql;

SELECT reffunc('funccursor');
FETCH ALL IN funccursor;

The following example uses automatic cursor name generation:

CREATE FUNCTION reffunc2() RETURNS refcursor AS '
    ref refcursor;
    OPEN ref FOR SELECT col FROM test;
    RETURN ref;
' LANGUAGE plpgsql;

-- need to be in a transaction to use cursors.
SELECT reffunc2();

 <unnamed cursor 1>
(1 row)

FETCH ALL IN "<unnamed cursor 1>";

The following example shows one way to return multiple cursors from a single function:

CREATE FUNCTION myfunc(refcursor, refcursor) RETURNS SETOF refcursor AS $$
    OPEN $1 FOR SELECT * FROM table_1;
    OPEN $2 FOR SELECT * FROM table_2;
$$ LANGUAGE plpgsql;

-- need to be in a transaction to use cursors.

SELECT * FROM myfunc('a', 'b');


43.7.4. Looping through a Cursor's Result #

There is a variant of the FOR statement that allows iterating through the rows returned by a cursor. The syntax is:

[ <<label>> ]
FOR recordvar IN bound_cursorvar [ ( [ argument_name := ] argument_value [, ...] ) ] LOOP
END LOOP [ label ];

The cursor variable must have been bound to some query when it was declared, and it cannot be open already. The FOR statement automatically opens the cursor, and it closes the cursor again when the loop exits. A list of actual argument value expressions must appear if and only if the cursor was declared to take arguments. These values will be substituted in the query, in just the same way as during an OPEN (see Section

The variable recordvar is automatically defined as type record and exists only inside the loop (any existing definition of the variable name is ignored within the loop). Each row returned by the cursor is successively assigned to this record variable and the loop body is executed.

Submit correction

If you see anything in the documentation that is not correct, does not match your experience with the particular feature or requires further clarification, please use this form to report a documentation issue.