I have the following tables,


-- already exists with data
CREATE TABLE message ();

How do I alter messages table such that,

  1. a new column called sender is added to it
  2. where sender is a foreign key referencing the users table

This didn't work

ERROR:  column "sender" referenced in foreign key constraint does not exist

Does this statement not create the column as well?

  • 3
    You need to create the column before you reference it. I would also try reading the documentation for ALTER TABLE here, and pay very close attention to the examples.
    – Kassandry
    Mar 12, 2016 at 5:48
  • Hassan, I cleaned up this question to use DDL and I removed the things that weren't working. See if this answers the question: dba.stackexchange.com/a/202564/2639 . Feel free to reject any of these edits, I just wanted to clean this up for posterity. Mar 28, 2018 at 17:38
  • @Kassandry dba.stackexchange.com/a/202564/2639 Mar 28, 2018 at 19:25
  • Check my edit to my answer and my comment to @EvanCarroll - I think that you should mark his answer as correct since he first proposed the one step solution which is more elegant!
    – Vérace
    Oct 21, 2020 at 11:19

4 Answers 4


You just have to add another step - in fact PostgreSQL is already telling you that: column "sender" referenced in foreign key constraint does not exist.

The FOREIGN KEY (aka parent) column has to already exist in order to make it an FK.

I did the following (from here and the documentation). Note that the parent column has to have a UNIQUE constraint (or be the PRIMARY KEY) but it doesn't have to be NOT NULL. This is because NULLs are not equal to each other, nor are they equal to anything else - each NULL is considered UNIQUE in its own right!



CONSTRAINT y_x_fk_c REFERENCES x (a)   -- if x (a) doens't exist, this will fail!
ON UPDATE CASCADE ON DELETE CASCADE;  -- or other Referential Integrity Action

A couple of points to note (see the fiddle here) - an attempt to insert a value into y (c) which is not in x (a) fails and the constraint name is given in the error message.

The fiddle has NOT NULL constraints on x (a) and on y (c). Unless I have a really compelling reason, I always declare my columns as NOT NULL - it helps the optimiser and reduces the potential for confusion/error. You can experiment yourself with the fiddle to see what happens when you leave out the NOT NULL on either (and both) field(s) - the behaviour isn't always intuitively obvious!

ALWAYS give your foreign keys meaningful names. Being told that key "SYS_C00308108" is being violated is not very helpful. See the fiddle here for Oracle's behaviour under these circumstances the key name will vary from fiddle to fiddle, but is some arbitrary string beginning with SYS_... (comes after the long dbfiddle generated tablename).

Evan Carroll in his answer here believes that auto-generated names are OK - I've shown why that is not a good idea for Oracle (at least up to 18c), but I also feel that it's not a good idea for PostgreSQL either - potential problems for portability if nothing else.

I would like to credit Evan Carroll for pointing out that the addition of the new field and the FOREIGN KEY creation and the CONSTRAINT (with specified name) can be added in one step and not two steps as I originally said) - so please give him credit for that if you feel like upvoting me - I do go into more detail however.

Considering the statement in your question:


It would be a "nice-to-have" if the RDBMS could automatically create the field you want with the data type matching the referenced field.

All I would say is that changing DDL is (or at least should be) a rarely used operation and not something that you'd want to be doing regularly. It also risks adding to an already fairly substantial documentation.

At least PostgreSQL tries to do something reasonable - it concatenates the table name, the FOREIGN KEY field name and fkey. Furthermore, when you do name the constraint yourself, the error message will add DETAIL: Key (c)=(7) is not present in table "x". to give something that might make sense to a human being (unlike Oracle - see the end of the PostgreSQL fiddle).

  • 2
    I don't ever name my foreign keys. They get autonamed, and they're usually pretty useful. For instance, the default name in that context is "y_z_fkey". I'd argue that's a better name than y_x_fkey because your violation doesn't tell you the column you're inserting into that's causing the error. I care less about where it's pointing. As a general rule, you should NEVER name your fkeys and let PostgreSQL's default handle it. Mar 28, 2018 at 17:26
  • Also, you may not want to override the defaults of ON UPDATE CASCADE ON DELETE CASCADE; in an example either, especially without reason. It makes the example more complex, and you don't bother explaining what it is. I for one don't normally want deletes to cascade. Mar 28, 2018 at 17:27
  • 1
    I always name FKs, according to the convention that the company/project has decided. It doesn't matter much if it is y_x_fkey or y_z_fkey or x__y_FK, as long as it is consistent. Mar 28, 2018 at 18:36
  • I would very much agree with this if you're contracting - pick a convention and stick to it and/or ensure that you conform to the convention(s) that was/were used with the system previously.
    – Vérace
    Mar 28, 2018 at 22:14
  • @EvanCarroll - if PostgreSQL's convention is that of the project or one previously decided on systems which might not be PostgreSQL - a system may well have started out on, say, Oracle or other system which might not have PostgreSQL's convention(s). You could argue that x_y_z_fk might give the maximum possible information in the event of an error! Pick something and stick to it is my motto, but don't let one RDBMS (no matter how good) decide conventions for you!
    – Vérace
    Mar 28, 2018 at 22:19

I'm not sure why everyone is telling you that you have to do this in two steps. In fact, you don't. You tried to add a FOREIGN KEY which assumes, by design, the column is there and throws that error if the column is not there. If you add the COLUMN, you can explicitly make it a FOREIGN KEY on creation with REFERENCES,

  REFERENCES users;  -- or REFERENCES table(unique_column)

Will work fine. You can see the syntax of ALTER TABLE here,

ALTER TABLE [ IF EXISTS ] [ ONLY ] name [ * ]
action [, ... ]

With "action" as,

ADD [ COLUMN ] [ IF NOT EXISTS ] column_name data_type [ COLLATE collation ] [ column_constraint [ ... ] ]

These examples are even in the docs,

ALTER TABLE distributors
  FOREIGN KEY (address)
  REFERENCES addresses (address);

ALTER TABLE distributors
  FOREIGN KEY (address)
  REFERENCES addresses (address)

But all that isn't needed because we can rely on autonaming and the primary-key resolution (if only the table-name is specified then you're referencing the primary key).

  • I've finally updated my answer and I have given you credit for the one step solution - I'm going to leave a message for the OP to change his correct answer vote, since you were the first one to suggest the better correct solution and I've given your answer a +1!
    – Vérace
    Oct 21, 2020 at 11:18

CASE1: If you need to create foreign key while creating a new table

column1 varchar(n) NOT NULL,
table2_id SMALLINT REFERENCES table2(id)

The above commands will create a table with name 'table1' and three columns named 'id'(Primary key), 'column1', 'table2_id'(foreign key of table1 that references id column of table2).

DATATYPE 'serial' will make the column that uses this datatype as a auto-generated column, when inserting values into the table you need not mention this column at all, or you can give 'default' without quotes at the value place.

A primary key column is always added to index of the table with value 'tablename_pkey'.

If foreign key is added at table creation time, A CONSTRAINT is added with pattern '(present_table_name)_(foreign_key_id_name)_fkey'.

When adding a foreign key, we have to input the keyword 'REFERENCES' next to column name because we want to tell the postgres that this column references a table and then next to references we have to give the table for reference and in brackets give the column name of the referenced table, usually foreign keys are given as primary key columns.

CASE 2: If you want foreign key to an existing table on existing column

ADD CONSTRAINT table1_table2_id_id_fkey
FOREIGN KEY (table2_id) REFERENCES table2(id);

NOTE: brackets'()' after FOREIGN KEY and REFERENCES tabel2 are compulsory or else postgres will throw error.


I know the problem. The column names are different. Maybe in one column, there is an added space after your column name, so please carefully ensure your column names were named exactly the same.

  • 1
    OP asked: Does this statement not create the column as well? So it is evident that he expected that to happen. Apr 6, 2020 at 11:37

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