Using FOREIGN KEY Constraints

MySQL supports foreign keys, which let you cross-reference related data across tables, and foreign key constraints, which help keep this spread-out data consistent. The essential syntax for a foreign key constraint definition in a CREATE TABLE or ALTER TABLE statement looks like this:

    [index_name] (index_col_name, ...)
    REFERENCES tbl_name (index_col_name,...)
    [ON DELETE reference_option]
    [ON UPDATE reference_option]


index_name represents a foreign key ID. The index_name value is ignored if there is already an explicitly defined index on the child table that can support the foreign key. Otherwise, MySQL implicitly creates a foreign key index that is named according to the following rules:

Foreign keys definitions are subject to the following conditions:

Referential Actions

This section describes how foreign keys help guarantee referential integrity.

For storage engines supporting foreign keys, MySQL rejects any INSERT or UPDATE operation that attempts to create a foreign key value in a child table if there is no a matching candidate key value in the parent table.

When an UPDATE or DELETE operation affects a key value in the parent table that has matching rows in the child table, the result depends on the referential action specified using ON UPDATE and ON DELETE subclauses of the FOREIGN KEY clause. MySQL supports five options regarding the action to be taken, listed here:

For an ON DELETE or ON UPDATE that is not specified, the default action is always RESTRICT.

MySQL supports foreign key references between one column and another within a table. (A column cannot have a foreign key reference to itself.) In these cases, child table records really refers to dependent records within the same table.

Examples of Foreign Key Clauses

Here is a simple example that relates parent and child tables through a single-column foreign key:

    id INT NOT NULL,
    PRIMARY KEY (id)

    id INT,
    parent_id INT,
    INDEX par_ind (parent_id),
    FOREIGN KEY (parent_id)
        REFERENCES parent(id)

A more complex example in which a product_order table has foreign keys for two other tables. One foreign key references a two-column index in the product table. The other references a single-column index in the customer table:

CREATE TABLE product (
    category INT NOT NULL, id INT NOT NULL,
    price DECIMAL,
    PRIMARY KEY(category, id)

CREATE TABLE customer (
    id INT NOT NULL,
    PRIMARY KEY (id)

CREATE TABLE product_order (
    product_category INT NOT NULL,
    product_id INT NOT NULL,
    customer_id INT NOT NULL,

    PRIMARY KEY(no),
    INDEX (product_category, product_id),
    INDEX (customer_id),

    FOREIGN KEY (product_category, product_id)
      REFERENCES product(category, id)

    FOREIGN KEY (customer_id)
      REFERENCES customer(id)
Adding foreign keys

You can add a new foreign key constraint to an existing table by using ALTER TABLE. The syntax relating to foreign keys for this statement is shown here:

ALTER TABLE tbl_name
    [index_name] (index_col_name, ...)
    REFERENCES tbl_name (index_col_name,...)
    [ON DELETE reference_option]
    [ON UPDATE reference_option]

The foreign key can be self referential (referring to the same table). When you add a foreign key constraint to a table using ALTER TABLE, remember to create the required indexes first.

Dropping Foreign Keys

You can also use ALTER TABLE to drop foreign keys, using the syntax shown here:

ALTER TABLE tbl_name DROP FOREIGN KEY fk_symbol;

If the FOREIGN KEY clause included a CONSTRAINT name when you created the foreign key, you can refer to that name to drop the foreign key. Otherwise, the fk_symbol value is generated internally when the foreign key is created. To find out the symbol value when you want to drop a foreign key, use a SHOW CREATE TABLE statement, as shown here:

mysql> SHOW CREATE TABLE ibtest11c\G
*************************** 1. row ***************************
       Table: ibtest11c
Create Table: CREATE TABLE `ibtest11c` (
  `A` int(11) NOT NULL auto_increment,
  `D` int(11) NOT NULL default '0',
  `B` varchar(200) NOT NULL default '',
  `C` varchar(175) default NULL,
  PRIMARY KEY  (`A`,`D`,`B`),
  KEY `B` (`B`,`C`),
  KEY `C` (`C`),
  CONSTRAINT `0_38775` FOREIGN KEY (`A`, `D`)
REFERENCES `ibtest11a` (`A`, `D`)
  CONSTRAINT `0_38776` FOREIGN KEY (`B`, `C`)
REFERENCES `ibtest11a` (`B`, `C`)
1 row in set (0.01 sec)

mysql> ALTER TABLE ibtest11c DROP FOREIGN KEY `0_38775`;

Adding and dropping a foreign key in separate clauses of a single ALTER TABLE statement may be problematic in some cases and is therefore unsupported. Use separate statements for each operation.

If an ALTER TABLE statement results in changes to column values (for example, because a column is truncated), MySQL's foreign key constraint checks do not notice possible violations caused by changing the values.

Foreign Keys and Other MySQL Statements

Table and column identifiers in a FOREIGN KEY ... REFERENCES ... clause can be quoted within backticks (`). Alternatively, double quotation marks (") can be used if the ANSI_QUOTES SQL mode is enabled. The setting of the lower_case_table_names system variable is also taken into account.

You can view a child table's foreign key definitions as part of the output of the SHOW CREATE TABLE statement:


You can also obtain information about foreign keys by querying the INFORMATION_SCHEMA.KEY_COLUMN_USAGE table.

mysqldump produces correct definitions of tables in the dump file, including the foreign keys for child tables.

To make it easier to reload dump files for tables that have foreign key relationships, mysqldump automatically includes a statement in the dump output to set foreign_key_checks to 0. This avoids problems with tables having to be reloaded in a particular order when the dump is reloaded. It is also possible to set this variable manually:

mysql> SET foreign_key_checks = 0;
mysql> SOURCE dump_file_name;
mysql> SET foreign_key_checks = 1;

This enables you to import the tables in any order if the dump file contains tables that are not correctly ordered for foreign keys. It also speeds up the import operation. Setting foreign_key_checks to 0 can also be useful for ignoring foreign key constraints during LOAD DATA and ALTER TABLE operations. However, even if foreign_key_checks = 0, MySQL does not permit the creation of a foreign key constraint where a column references a nonmatching column type. Also, if a table has foreign key constraints, ALTER TABLE cannot be used to alter the table to use another storage engine. To change the storage engine, you must drop any foreign key constraints first.

You cannot issue DROP TABLE for a table that is referenced by a FOREIGN KEY constraint, unless you do SET foreign_key_checks = 0. When you drop a table, any constraints that were defined in the statement used to create that table are also dropped.

If you re-create a table that was dropped, it must have a definition that conforms to the foreign key constraints referencing it. It must have the correct column names and types, and it must have indexes on the referenced keys, as stated earlier. If these are not satisfied, MySQL returns Error 1005 and refers to Error 150 in the error message, which means that a foreign key constraint was not correctly formed. Similarly, if an ALTER TABLE fails due to Error 150, this means that a foreign key definition would be incorrectly formed for the altered table.

For InnoDB tables, you can obtain a detailed explanation of the most recent InnoDB foreign key error in the MySQL Server, by checking the output of SHOW ENGINE INNODB STATUS.


For users familiar with the ANSI/ISO SQL Standard, please note that no storage engine, including InnoDB, recognizes or enforces the MATCH clause used in referential-integrity constraint definitions. Use of an explicit MATCH clause will not have the specified effect, and also causes ON DELETE and ON UPDATE clauses to be ignored. For these reasons, specifying MATCH should be avoided.

The MATCH clause in the SQL standard controls how NULL values in a composite (multiple-column) foreign key are handled when comparing to a primary key. MySQL essentially implements the semantics defined by MATCH SIMPLE, which permit a foreign key to be all or partially NULL. In that case, the (child table) row containing such a foreign key is permitted to be inserted, and does not match any row in the referenced (parent) table. It is possible to implement other semantics using triggers.

Additionally, MySQL requires that the referenced columns be indexed for performance reasons. However, the system does not enforce a requirement that the referenced columns be UNIQUE or be declared NOT NULL. The handling of foreign key references to nonunique keys or keys that contain NULL values is not well defined for operations such as UPDATE or DELETE CASCADE. You are advised to use foreign keys that reference only UNIQUE (including PRIMARY) and NOT NULL keys.

Furthermore, MySQL parses but ignores inline REFERENCES specifications (as defined in the SQL standard) where the references are defined as part of the column specification. MySQL accepts REFERENCES clauses only when specified as part of a separate FOREIGN KEY specification. For storage engines that do not support foreign keys (such as MyISAM), MySQL Server parses and ignores foreign key specifications.