How to drop a column in PostgreSQL

Dropping or deleting a column in PosgreSQL

Dropping or deleting a column is typically performed as part of a deliberate schema management process, data cleanup, or in response to changing business requirements or compliance needs. This is a significant and irreversible operation that should be carefully considered.

When a column is no longer needed or contains redundant information but consumes storage and affects query performance, it can be a good idea to drop it. Dropping a column simplifies the table structure, optimizes storage, and aids schema evaluation. If a column contains sensitive or Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and you need to comply with data privacy regulations like GDPR, you might need to drop the column to ensure data privacy and security.


Dropping a column is a fairly straightforward operation.

  1. To drop a column in PostgreSQL, you can use the ALTER TABLE statement with the DROP COLUMN clause. Here's the basic syntax for dropping a column:

    ALTER TABLE table_name
    DROP COLUMN column_name;
  2. You need to replace table_name with the name of the table that contains the column you want to drop, and column_name with the name of the column you wish to remove.

    Here's an example of how to drop a column from a table. Suppose you have a table named employees and you want to drop the phone_number column.

sql ALTER TABLE employees DROP COLUMN phone_number;

Errors while dropping a table

When attempting to drop a table in PostgreSQL, several errors can occur, especially if there are dependencies or issues related to permissions, active connections, or other factors. Here are common errors you might encounter when trying to drop a table in PostgreSQL:

Table Does Not Exist

If the table you're trying to drop does not exist in the database, you'll receive an error like "table does not exist."

ERROR:  table "table_name" does not exist

Dependency Exists

If there are dependencies on the table, such as foreign keys, views, or indexes, PostgreSQL won't allow you to drop the table until you've addressed these dependencies. You might see an error like:

ERROR:  cannot drop table "table_name" because other objects depend on it
DETAIL:  constraint "constraint_name" of table "referencing_table_name" depends on table "table_name"

In this case, you need to drop the dependent objects first, or you may use the CASCADE option with the DROP TABLE command to automatically remove dependent objects. However, be cautious when using CASCADE as it will remove all dependent objects without confirmation.

Access Privileges

If you do not have the required permissions to drop the table, you'll receive an error like:

ERROR:  permission denied for table "table_name"

You should have the DROP privilege on the table to delete it.

Active Connections

If there are active sessions or open transactions that are using the table, you won't be able to drop it until those sessions are closed or the transactions are completed. You might see an error indicating that there are active connections.

ERROR:  table "table_name" is being used by active queries

Ensure that there are no active transactions or connections using the table before attempting to drop it.

Table in Use by Views or Rules

If the table is being used by views or rules, you'll encounter an error indicating that the table is in use.

ERROR:  cannot drop table "table_name" because it is being used by object "view_name"

You must first drop or modify the dependent views or rules before deleting the table.

Table Contains Data

If the table contains data, PostgreSQL will require you to specify whether you want to delete the data (and the table) or just the table structure. You may receive an error like:

ERROR:  cannot drop table "table_name" because other objects depend on it

DETAIL:  constraint "constraint_name" of table "referencing_table_name" depends on table "table_name"

HINT:  Use DROP ... CASCADE to drop the dependent objects too.

In this case, you can either drop the data and table or use the CASCADE option to remove dependent objects.

Recovery Mode

If PostgreSQL is in recovery mode, you won't be able to drop a table. You'll receive an error like:

ERROR:  cannot execute DELETE in a read-only transaction

Ensure that you're not in recovery mode when attempting to drop the table.

Reserved Keywords

If your table name is a reserved keyword in PostgreSQL, you might encounter issues. It's generally a good practice to avoid using reserved keywords as table names.

ERROR:  syntax error at or near "select"

To successfully drop a table in PostgreSQL, make sure to address these potential errors by removing dependencies, granting necessary permissions, and ensuring there are no active connections or transactions using the table. Always exercise caution and back up your data before attempting to drop a table, as it is an irreversible operation.

Dropping a table is permanent

It's important to emphasize that dropping a column is a potentially destructive operation. You should always perform a thorough analysis of the impact before proceeding as this operation cannot be undone. Consider the following:

  • Data Dependencies: Check for any dependencies on the column, such as in views, indexes, triggers, or stored procedures. You may need to update or remove these objects.
  • Backup: Ensure you have a recent backup of the data in case you need to restore it.
  • Application Impact: Be aware of how dropping a column may affect the applications that rely on the table. You may need to modify your application code or queries.
  • Testing: Consider testing the column drop in a development or staging environment to verify that it won't cause unexpected issues.

Further table manipulation

Now that you know how to drop a column in PostgreSQL, let us explore how to add a column with this next tutorial.


1. What happens to the data in the column when I delete it?

Deleting a column in PostgreSQL also removes all the data stored in that column. It is an irreversible operation, so make sure to back up your data before proceeding if you need to keep the information.

2. What if there are constraints or dependencies on the column I want to delete?

If there are constraints (e.g., foreign keys) or dependencies (e.g., views) that reference the column, you won't be able to delete it directly. You'll need to address these dependencies first, either by dropping or modifying the dependent objects.

3. Do I need specific privileges to delete a column?

Yes, you need the appropriate privileges to modify the table. Typically, you must have the ALTER privilege on the table to delete a column.

4. What is the impact of deleting a column on my application or queries?

Removing a column can impact any SQL queries, views, or applications that reference the deleted column. You will need to update your code and queries to accommodate the change, ensuring they no longer reference the deleted column.

database icon
Better SQL for the people
Get more done with PopSQL and PostgreSQL