Ensuring Data Integrity and Speed: A Guide to Unique Constraints and Indexes in PostgreSQL

sql postgresql indexing

Understanding Uniqueness in PostgreSQL:

  • Unique constraints: Enforce that specific column values within a table are unique across all rows, preventing duplicates. They serve as data integrity rules and are defined using the UNIQUE keyword during table creation or through ALTER TABLE commands.
  • Unique indexes: Assist in enforcing uniqueness, but primarily function as performance optimization tools. They create data structures (indexes) that speed up queries searching for specific values. While unique indexes often accompany unique constraints, they don't inherently enforce data integrity; a separate constraint is still needed.


  • Both ensure no duplicate values appear for the specified columns.
  • Both can boost query performance when used correctly.

Key Differences:

FeatureUnique ConstraintUnique Index
PurposeEnforce data integrity (prevent duplicates)Primarily for query performance
CreationRequires UNIQUE keywordCan be created independently
EnforcementEnforced at commit time, even during transactionsEnforced only when used in queries
NullsAllows multiple null valuesNot null-safe by default
Foreign KeysForeign keys can reference themCannot be referenced by foreign keys
DeferralCan be deferred (delayed enforcement)Not deferrable
PartialnessNot supportedCan be partial (unique for certain conditions)
OverheadLower, as they're enforced selectivelyHigher, due to index maintenance


Creating a unique constraint:

  username VARCHAR(255) UNIQUE

Creating a unique index:

CREATE TABLE products (
  name VARCHAR(255),
  UNIQUE INDEX idx_unique_name (name)

Issues and Solutions:

  • Redundancy: Avoid creating both a unique constraint and a unique index on the same columns, as it's redundant and consumes more storage. If you need data integrity enforcement, use a unique constraint; if only query performance optimization is required, create a unique index.
  • Null Value Handling: Be mindful of how null values are treated. Unique constraints allow multiple nulls, while unique indexes don't by default. Use WHERE clauses with unique indexes to control null handling.
  • Partial Uniqueness: If you require uniqueness only under certain conditions, use partial unique indexes instead of constraints.
  • Deferral: Only unique constraints can be deferred, meaning enforcement can be delayed until commit time.

Choosing the Right Option:

  • For enforcing data integrity, use a unique constraint.
  • For pure performance optimization, create a unique index.
  • When both are needed, combine them carefully to avoid redundancy and null value behavior issues.

By understanding these concepts and considerations, you can effectively use unique constraints and indexes in your PostgreSQL databases to ensure data integrity and optimize query performance.

sql postgresql indexing

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