Adding an Auto-Incrementing Primary Key to an Existing PostgreSQL Table


Absolutely, adding an auto-incrementing primary key to an existing table in PostgreSQL is a convenient way to ensure unique identification for each table entry while simplifying data insertion. Here's a breakdown of the concepts involved:

Primary Key:

  • A primary key is a column (or a set of columns) within a table that uniquely identifies each row. No two rows can have the same value for the primary key. This enforces data integrity and allows for efficient retrieval of specific table entries.


  • An auto-incrementing column is a special type of column that automatically generates a unique number whenever a new row is inserted into the table. This eliminates the need to manually assign IDs, saving time and reducing the possibility of errors.


  • PostgreSQL is a powerful open-source relational database management system (RDBMS) known for its robustness, reliability, and feature set.

Adding an Auto-Incrementing Primary Key:

In PostgreSQL, you can leverage the ALTER TABLE statement to add a new column to an existing table. The SERIAL data type acts as a shorthand for creating an auto-incrementing integer column. Here's the syntax:


This command accomplishes three tasks:

  1. ALTER TABLE your_table_name: Specifies that you're modifying the structure of an existing table named "your_table_name". Replace "your_table_name" with the actual name of your table.
  2. ADD COLUMN id SERIAL: Adds a new column named "id" of the SERIAL data type. The SERIAL type ensures automatic incrementing of integer values for this column whenever a new row is inserted.
  3. PRIMARY KEY: Defines the "id" column as the primary key for the table, enforcing uniqueness for each row.

Certainly, here's an example showcasing how to add an auto-incrementing primary key to an existing table named "products" in PostgreSQL:

-- 1. Add a new integer column named "id" to the "products" table

-- 2. Create a sequence named "products_id_seq" to generate IDs for the "id" column
CREATE SEQUENCE products_id_seq;

-- 3. Set the default value of the "id" column to the next value generated by the sequence
ALTER TABLE products ALTER COLUMN id SET DEFAULT nextval('products_id_seq');

-- 4. Update existing rows in the "products" table to set their "id" values based on the sequence
UPDATE products SET id = nextval('products_id_seq');

-- 5. (Optional) Make the sequence owned by the "id" column for automatic management
ALTER SEQUENCE products_id_seq OWNED BY;


  1. This line adds a new column named "id" of type INTEGER to the "products" table.
  2. This line creates a sequence named "products_id_seq" that will be used to generate unique IDs for the "id" column.
  3. This line sets the default value of the "id" column to the next value generated by the "products_id_seq" sequence. This ensures that whenever a new row is inserted, the "id" column will automatically receive a unique integer value.
  4. This line updates all existing rows in the "products" table. It sets the value of the "id" column for each row to the next value from the sequence. This step is necessary to ensure existing data also has unique IDs based on the sequence.
  5. This line (optional) makes the sequence "products_id_seq" owned by the "id" column. This means that if the "id" column is dropped in the future, the sequence will also be automatically dropped.

Note: Steps 4 and 5 can be combined into a single step in recent versions of PostgreSQL:

ALTER TABLE products ALTER COLUMN id SET DEFAULT nextval('products_id_seq'::regclass), OWNED BY;

Here are a couple of alternate methods to add an auto-incrementing primary key to an existing table in PostgreSQL:

Using IDENTITY Columns (PostgreSQL 10+):

PostgreSQL 10 introduced a more standard-compliant way to achieve auto-incrementing behavior: IDENTITY columns. This method avoids the need for a separate sequence. Here's the syntax:

ALTER TABLE your_table_name 

ALTER TABLE your_table_name ALTER COLUMN id SET NOT NULL;  -- Make the column not nullable

This approach accomplishes two things:

  1. ALTER TABLE...ADD COLUMN id INTEGER GENERATED ALWAYS AS IDENTITY: This line adds a new column named "id" of type INTEGER and defines it as an IDENTITY column. The database will automatically generate a unique integer value for this column whenever a new row is inserted.
  2. ALTER TABLE...SET NOT NULL: Since IDENTITY columns can't be null by default, this makes the "id" column not nullable, enforcing a value for every row.

This method offers a cleaner syntax and avoids managing a separate sequence object.

Using Triggers (Less Recommended):

While less common, you can achieve auto-incrementing behavior using a trigger function. However, this approach is generally less performant and requires more maintenance compared to sequences or identity columns. Here's a basic example:

a. Create a Trigger Function:

CREATE FUNCTION set_id_on_insert()
    SELECT setval('your_sequence_name_here', (SELECT MAX(id) FROM your_table_name) + 1); = nextval('your_sequence_name_here');
$$ LANGUAGE plpgsql;

b. Create a Trigger on the Table:

CREATE TRIGGER set_id_before_insert
BEFORE INSERT ON your_table_name
EXECUTE PROCEDURE set_id_on_insert();


  1. The trigger function set_id_on_insert checks if the incoming "id" value ( is null. If it is, the function retrieves the current maximum value from the "id" column and increments it by 1. It then sets the sequence's value to this new number and assigns the next sequence value (unique ID) to the "id" column of the new row.
  2. The trigger set_id_before_insert is created on the table. This trigger fires before each insert operation and executes the set_id_on_insert function, ensuring the auto-incrementing behavior.

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