Imagine the following situation:

> A person has a passport.
> A person *owns only* one passport.
> One passport can only *be owned by a single* person. 

This is a clear case of a one-to-one relationship. For the sake of simplicity let us imagine that a person only has a name and the passport only has a nationality. What is bothering me the most is that it seems that everyone is doing this differently. From what I can tell there are four strategies that can be taken to map this relationship:

  1. Everything on the same table:

  1. A foreign key on the owner side that references the owned side.

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  1. Same value for primary keys on both tables.

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  1. A foreign key on the owned side with a unique key on top:

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  • Number 1 is pretty self explanatory and I do not see any problem when the entities are small, but if they have a lot of fields we will have a gigantic table.
  • Number 2 seems fine and this is the way I have seen most people and frameworks do it (e.g. Entity Framework, Hibernate) and it is also the way I was taught in school. The big problem here is that, because of referential integrity, our deletion logic will be upside down. I should be able to delete a passport without any problem, but in this case I will not be able to delete it without deleting the person as well, which does not make any sense.
  • Number 3 and 4 seem pretty much identical. With the foreign key on the passport side, I am able to delete passports without deleting people, which makes sense. If I remove a person, I should have to remove their passport. The main advantage that I see for using option number 4 instead of number 3 or all the others, is that if for ever reason I decide that I now want a user to have multiple passports I only have to remove the unique key constraint, which is incredibly easy and a lot less hassle than changing the keys from both tables.

So my question basically is reduced to the following: With so many advantages with number 4 why do people keep using the other strategies? My biggest grip is with ORMs such as Hibernate which, in my opinion, do things the opposite way. The owning side of the relation tracked by Hibernate is the side of the relation that owns the foreign key in the database. So if I tried to do this in Java with Hibernate my relationship would be swapped. If I included the foreign key to the passport on the person table like it wants me too, it would ruin the deletion logic like I have explained before. I have the impression that EF also works this way. So, with all of this, why do people keep preferring the "disadvantageous" approaches?

  • This case assumes that the Passport table only contains active passports and not inactive ones (i.e. expired, lost, stolen). In a system where both active and inactive passports are in one table, and where an additional column indicates a passport's status (active or inactive), then the relationship becomes one to many.
    – alds
    Aug 24, 2022 at 10:00

5 Answers 5


The most important thing is to word constraints precisely and not allow for logical errors. Options 1, 2, 3 contain logical errors. Option 4 is close, but may not represent reality very good -- in general one person may have more than one passport (dual citizenship).

Option 1 is not realistic, because it states that there can not exist a person without a passport.

Option 2 essentially allows a passport to exist without a person..

Option 3 states that passport is a person.

Option 4 is the closest and can be worded as:

[P1] Person (PERSON_ID) named (NAME) exists.

(c1.1) Person is identified by PERSON_ID.

(c1.2) Each person has exactly one name; for each name, more than one person can have that name.

[P2] Passport (PASSPORT_ID) issued by country (COUNTRY) is owned by person (PERSON_ID)

(c2.1) Passport is Identified by PASSPORT_ID.

(c2.2) Each passport is issued by exactly one country; for each country, more than one passport can be issued by that country.

(c2.3) Each passport is owned by exactly one person; for each person that person may own at most one passport.

(c2.4) If a passport issued by a country is owned by a person then that person must exist.

person {PERSON_ID, NAME}  -- p1
   KEY {PERSON_ID}        -- c1.1

     KEY {PASSPORT_ID}                      -- c2.1
     KEY {PERSON_ID}                        -- c2.3



[Px]   = predicate x
[cx.y] = constraint x.y

KEY = PK or AK


All attributes NOT NULL


Just to be clear, option 3 would have been the correct choice had you chosen a different example. Say, Person & Employee or Employee & Accountant instead of Person & Passport. Because an employee is a person, and an accountant is an employee. The is-a relationship implies a proper subset.

This is a great example of how focusing on technical details may introduce logical errors, and there is no such a thing as a small logical error.


I'd consider that both passports and persons exist independently.
That is, the given situation makes for bad assumptions.

  • a passport may not naturally expire
  • some persons don't have passports
  • a passport may exist past expiry (for legal reasons tracking entry and exits)
  • a passport has a "disposal" that describes where it goes (Expired. Lost. Damaged etc)
  • some persons have multiple passports from different authorities (country, diplomatic, temporary)


  1. I lose one, get a replacement, both are non-expired but only the replacement is valid for me (the person entity). The lost one must exist as an entity (so it can be confiscated at a border etc).
  2. a recent passport in case of a new issue may be relevant in some cases
    (Not related to this design, but I used my old passport for some legal stuff that started before I got a new one.)
  3. I can get a temporary passport to get my home (I send my passport off for renewal, then I must travel so I go to the embassy to get a short duration emergency one)
  4. I have multiple citizenships

In pseudo SQL

Assumes Passport has a superkey on (passportId, issuerId) which requires further analysis. I'm just doing it quickly here.

TABLE personpassport
    personId  int FOREIGN KEY -> Person primary key
    passportId int FOREIGN KEY -> Passport super key
    issuerId int FOREIGN KEY -> Passport super key
    isCurrent bit default 0

    PRIMARY KEY (person_id, passport_id)
    UNIQUE (personId, issuerId, isCurrent) WHERE isCurrent = 1

Of course, person and passport may just be examples here
But they let me demonstrate that the design should follow the real world or business model: not what some ORM or developer thinks it should be


If a passport can only belong to one owner and an owner can only have one passport then the first approach is the right one

Everything on the same table.

  person_id   int PRIMARY KEY,
  passport_id int UNIQUE,

The passport is effectively being defined as an attribute (by proxy of possession) on the person. We store attribute on tables in columns.

  • Not necessarily. "Right" by what criteria? This approach allows for orphaned passports in the passport table. Is that acceptable? Not for us to decide.
    – Brandon
    Aug 27, 2018 at 19:41
  • Also, that wasn't the first approach. It was the second.
    – Brandon
    Aug 27, 2018 at 19:43
  • @Brandon the first approach doesn't have a passport table. passport_id isn't an fkey. It's the id of the passport or whatever. There is no linking out. nothing can be orphaned. This is the first approach. Aug 27, 2018 at 19:44

To me, whether you need to use multiple tables (or entities) to present the 1:1 relationship really depends on some business facts. Let's use your passport case as an example, this is a perfect 1:1 relationship, but I probably would choose option 4, not only for the advantages you mentioned, but also for the following advantages:

  1. [Passport] can have multiple columns, such as issue date / expire date / issuing authority etc, which has nothing to do with [Person] entity. So including all passport's attributes into a [Person] table (together with the possible indexes needed) will make [Person] table unnecessarily big in columns and table size, and may increase future maintenance cost when the table gets bigger down the road.
  2. A person can have multiple passports from a history perspective because a passport does expire at some time, and you may need to have a passport history for a person.

So in short summary, I'd say separate [Person] and [Passport] to make a concise and flexible data model. If you need to join them, you can create a view to link the two tables together.

  • Not sure about all that. He says in the text a person only owns one passport. You're reading into it when you state he owns expired-passports. A null on the table is usually a bit in a bitmap. At least with SQL Server and PostgreSQL. Normally the row is the same-size even if you add new null columns. Aug 26, 2018 at 6:09

In my opinion, if there are persons without passport (as in real life), the third solution is the most straightforward (and efficient) one, with PersonId in Passport both as primary key and foreign key towards Persons.

If each person must have a passport, then both the first and the third solutions are reasonable, and the choice among them can be done on non-strictly “modeling” aspects like efficiency, hypotheses on the stability of the structures of the relations, etc.

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