The Importance of SQL Server Foreign Keys

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Some time ago, I had a water cooler discussion with one my company's java developers about maintaining data integrity. His belief was that all data integrity checks should be handled in the logic tier of an n-tier system. I politely explained why I consider this a bad practice. Foreign keys are specifically provided by SQL Server to prevent your database from storing invalid data relationships and should be a mainstay in every relational database model developed!

Foreign keys are part of the family of constraints that SQL Server provides to ensure database integrity. You may be familiar with other constraint types that help maintain data integrity such as Primary Key constraints, Unique constraints, Default constraints, and Check constraints. Each of these constraint types serves a specific purpose. The foreign key's purpose is to ensure the relationship integrity between a parent table and its child tables.

You can define a foreign key as follows

ALTER TABLE DBO.<child table>
ADD CONSTRAINT <foreign key name> FOREIGN KEY <child column>
REFERENCES DBO.<parent table>(<parent column>)

The following example declares that a line item row cannot exist without an associated order header row. The ON DELETE CASCADE option tells the database engine that if the parent ORDER HEADER row's ORDERNUMBER is deleted, then any LINE ITEM tied to the ORDER HEADER by the deleted ORDERNUMBER should be automatically deleted as well.


There are obvious reasons for defining foreign key constraints in your data model

  • They physically define the business by preventing data integrity issues in your database. (e.g. The database prevents line items from being created without an existing order header)
  • They logically document the business by showing how all data relates to each other. To someone new to your organization, this allows him/her to get a good understanding of how the business works. (e.g. Every order taken must have a valid customer assigned)
  • Foreign Keys are native to SQL Server and are designed to prevent data integrity issues. Business logic developers should not be in the business of verifying table relationships.

The not so obvious

  • If defined and indexed correctly, they can be leveraged by the SQL Server query engine to generate extremely efficient query plans.

Unlike primary key constraints and unique constraints, foreign key constraints are not automatically indexed by SQL Server. However, indexing the column used in your foreign key is a good idea for a few reasons

  • Without an index, user deletion of a parent row from the database would force the SQL Server query engine to scan the child table referenced in the foreign key to ensure that data integrity is not compromised. Consider a child table with hundreds of thousands of rows; an index can speed this lookup considerably.
  • The performance of the foreign key CASCADE options (ON DELETE CASCADE, ON UPDATE CASCADE) can be improved dramatically with the use of an index since the engine performs a query to search for the rows that should be automatically deleted or updated.
  • The performance of JOINs between the parent and child tables on the foreign key column is greatly improved. It's a natural assumption that tables that are related may be queried together to produce result sets. Consider the earlier ORDERHEADER/LINEITEM example. It would be natural for queries to be executed that would require not only elements of the LINE ITEMs but also of the ORDERHEADER (e.g. order date, the CSR who entered the order)

Next Steps

  • When developing and maintaining data models, examine where your model can benefit from a foreign key relationship
  • Ensure your foreign key columns are indexed to prevent table scanning during data deletion, cascading actions, and query JOINs.
  • Read more about foreign key CASCADE options in the SQL Server Books Online under Cascading Options or Cascading Actions.
  • Read more about the other SQL Server constraints: Primary Key, Unique, Default, and Check in the SQL Server Books Online

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About the author
MSSQLTips author Armando Prato Armando Prato has close to 30 years of industry experience and has been working with SQL Server since version 6.5.

This author pledges the content of this article is based on professional experience and not AI generated.

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Comments For This Article

Saturday, October 31, 2015 - 11:24:08 PM - DIBYASACHI MOHANTA Back To Top (39002)

THANKU SIR,this really help me to know and understand about foreign key constraints.

Thursday, April 4, 2013 - 10:44:30 AM - John Back To Top (23163)

Considering only SQL performance: Given that I already have an index on the foriegn key candidate column, is there any performance bump in defining that field as a foreign key?


Monday, August 13, 2012 - 9:43:53 AM - Armando Prato Back To Top (19020)

This is pretty self explanatory.



Monday, August 13, 2012 - 8:00:30 AM - Srikanth Back To Top (19017)


Msg 1785, Level 16, State 0, Line 1

Introducing FOREIGN KEY constraint 'FK_AAAA' on table 'MASKED' may cause cycles or multiple cascade paths. Specify ON DELETE NO ACTION or ON UPDATE NO ACTION, or modify other FOREIGN KEY constraints.

Msg 1750, Level 16, State 0, Line 1

Could not create constraint. See previous errors.

my actual code looks similar:
ALTER TABLE DBO.<child table>
ADD CONSTRAINT <foreign key name> FOREIGN KEY <child column> 
REFERENCES DBO.<parent table>(<parent column>)

Friday, January 27, 2012 - 9:21:04 AM - Armando Prato Back To Top (15803)

Thanks for letting me know.  I will let the folks at Edgewood know

Thursday, January 26, 2012 - 11:36:06 PM - Lx[n] Back To Top (15796)

Nice article, but just want to let you know that I believe someone taken your article and make it as his own, below are the url link:

Prakash Samariya (M): +91-9879074678


Tuesday, March 24, 2009 - 7:17:36 AM - markntejas Back To Top (3069)
many thx ...

Monday, March 23, 2009 - 6:26:40 PM - aprato Back To Top (3065)

A message like that is indicative of having an entry in the child table that does not exist in the parent table.   You won't be able to build the FK until you clear this up (you could, if you used NOCHECK - but I don't recommend it).

Monday, March 23, 2009 - 9:37:15 AM - markntejas Back To Top (3059)
I have a parent table with its primary key. I want it to be referenced as a foreign key in more than one child table. i receive the "ALTER TABLE statement conflicted with the FOREIGN KEY constraint ..." The conflict occurred in database "schema_name", table "dbo.a_db_tablename", column 'parent_tbl_PK_ID'." can i have a primary key that is referenced as a foreign key in multiple tables? thx in advance ....

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