Adding Auto-Incrementing IDs to Existing Columns in PostgreSQL


Here's an example of the SQL code for these steps:

CREATE SEQUENCE users_id_seq OWNED BY;  -- Create sequence

SELECT setval('users_id_seq', coalesce(max(id), 0) + 1, false)
FROM users;  -- Set starting value (optional)

ALTER TABLE users ALTER COLUMN id SET DEFAULT nextval('users_id_seq');

ALTER TABLE users ALTER COLUMN id SET NOT NULL;  -- Make not null (optional)

By following these steps, you can effectively convert an existing column to behave like a SERIAL column in PostgreSQL.

-- Assuming your table is named 'products' and the existing column to convert is 'item_number'

-- 1. Create a sequence named 'products_item_number_seq' owned by the 'item_number' column
CREATE SEQUENCE products_item_number_seq OWNED BY products.item_number;

-- 2. (Optional) Set the starting value of the sequence to the highest existing item number + 1
-- This avoids gaps in IDs if your table already has data
SELECT setval('products_item_number_seq', coalesce(max(item_number), 0) + 1, false)
FROM products;

-- 3. Modify 'item_number' column to use the sequence for new insertions
ALTER TABLE products ALTER COLUMN item_number SET DEFAULT nextval('products_item_number_seq');

-- 4. (Optional) Make 'item_number' not null to ensure every product has a unique ID

This code snippet demonstrates adding SERIAL functionality to the item_number column in the products table. It first creates a sequence named products_item_number_seq specifically for this column.

The optional step (commented out) checks for existing data in the item_number column and sets the sequence's starting value accordingly. This prevents gaps in the generated IDs if your table already has entries.

Finally, the code modifies the item_number column to use the newly created sequence for new insertions. Additionally, you can make the column NOT NULL to enforce that every product has a unique ID.

Create a New Table (Efficient for Large Tables):

This method is particularly efficient for very large tables. Here's the approach:

  • Create a new table identical to the existing one using the LIKE clause. This creates a new table with the same structure (columns and data types) as the original.
  • In the new table definition, directly add a SERIAL column for the desired functionality.
  • Populate the new table by copying data from the original table. You can use techniques like COPY or INSERT INTO ... SELECT to efficiently transfer data.
  • Once the data is transferred, you can drop the original table and rename the new table if needed.


  • Efficient for large tables as it avoids modifying a massive amount of data.


  • Requires creating a temporary table and copying data, which can take time depending on the table size.
  • Might disrupt existing views or foreign keys referencing the original table (requires adjustments).

Identity Column (PostgreSQL 10 or Later):

If you're using PostgreSQL version 10 or later, you can leverage the IDENTITY column feature. This method is simpler than the others:

  • Use ALTER TABLE to add a new BIGINT column with GENERATED ALWAYS AS IDENTITY clause. This creates a column that automatically generates unique, increasing integers for each new row.
  • Simpler syntax compared to creating a sequence and modifying defaults.
  • This method only works with PostgreSQL 10 or later versions.
  • Identity columns cannot be used as primary keys directly (workaround might be needed).

Choosing the Right Method:

The best method depends on your specific situation:

  • For small to medium-sized tables, modifying the existing column with a sequence is a good choice.
  • For very large tables, creating a new table with a SERIAL column can be more efficient.
  • If you're using PostgreSQL 10 or later and don't need the column as a primary key, the identity column approach is the simplest.


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