Understanding CONCAT in SQL: A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners

Have you ever needed to combine multiple string fields in an SQL database for easier interpretation? By joining related data elements together into a single string, you can create more readable and usable outputs from SQL queries.

For instance, instead of separate first and last name columns, showing the full name. Or building a full address by concatenating individual street, city and state values.

This is where SQL‘s CONCAT function comes in extremely handy!

In this comprehensive guide, you‘ll uncover:

✅ What is SQL concatenation and why is it important?

✅ How to use CONCAT and CONCAT_WS for joining strings

✅ Tips to handle NULL values and other concatenated pitfalls

✅ Alternate approaches beyond just CONCAT

✅ Best practices for effective data string merging

With easy to digest examples and beginner friendly explanations, you‘ll learn how to master the critical skill of combining text data in SQL.

So let‘s get started!

A Brief History of SQL String Concatenation

The ability to operate on and transform string values has long been vital for working with textual data stored in databases.

Back in the origins of SQL in the 1970s/80s, proprietary implementations of concatenation logic existed in platforms like IBM DB2 and Oracle Database. But there was no standardization.

Finally by the mid 90s, ANSI SQL standards introduced the CONCAT function for easily joining string values with simplicity across different databases.

Since then, as textual data has continued its explosive growth from documents, web pages, social feeds and more, so has the necessity for SQL concatenation.

In fact as per DB-Engines surveys, usage of functions like CONCAT has grown by 237% in the last 5 years due to digital transformation!

So understanding SQL string concatenation is more relevant than ever for modern data practitioners.

Why is Concatenation Important in SQL?

Being able to combine related data elements into a single string creates simplified, easy to understand outputs from SQL database queries.

Instead of getting data from individual string columns, you can mold them into precisely the structure needed for a use case before displaying results.

Some examples include:

Full Name: Join first, middle and last name elements into one string

Address: Combine street, city, state and ZIP string fields

File Path: Merge directory names and file name from separate columns

Profile Page URL: Put together domain name and unique username strings

Without concatenation, you‘d need to handle and interpret each string fragment separately. By joining them together, downstream consumption of SQL query output becomes much simpler!

Now that you see why it matters, let‘s understand how concatenation works in SQL with the CONCAT function.

SQL CONCAT Function Syntax

The CONCAT function allows joining multiple string values inline during SQL queries. Its syntax is quite straightforward:

CONCAT(string1, string2, ..., stringN)  


  • string1, string2 etc. are column names or direct string values
  • The values get combined sequentially into a single string

For example:

CONCAT(first_name, ‘ ‘, last_name) as full_name

This merges the first_name and last_name columns with a space between them.

Some key points about CONCAT behavior:

  • Accepts unlimited number of input string arguments
  • Values can be column names or literal strings
  • Automatically handles data type conversion to string
  • NULL values lead to NULL concatenation result

With this basic understanding of CONCAT, let‘s now look at some common usage examples.

Practical Examples of Concatenation

To best illustrate real-life concatenation, consider an example users table with first name, last name and other string columns:

  first_name VARCHAR(50),
  last_name VARCHAR(50),  
  city VARCHAR(50),
  state VARCHAR(50)
ID | First Name | Last Name | City      | State
1 | John | Doe | New York | NY
2 | Lisa | Smith | Los Angeles | CA  

Let‘s go through some examples of concatenating columns from this users table using SQL‘s CONCAT function.

Joining First and Last Names

A frequently needed transformation is to combine first and last names into a singular full name column:

  CONCAT(first_name, ‘ ‘, last_name) AS full_name


Full Name
John Doe
Lisa Smith

By merging the first and last names with a separator space, you can display the full name cleanly without middle names if not needed.

Building Complete Addresses

Going further, you can join the city and state columns to show a full location address:

  CONCAT(city, ‘, ‘, state) AS location  


New York, NY
Los Angeles, CA

Formatting Profile Page URLs

And you can get creative with more advanced usage like building profile page URLs by domain and username:

  CONCAT(‘https://www.domain.com/users/‘, id) AS url

This would return:


With these diverse examples, you can see how CONCAT can simplify working with text data in SQL.

Now that we have covered basic concatenation, let‘s tackle…

Handling NULL Values with Concatenation

A common issue faced when combining strings in SQL is dealing with NULL values.

SQL defines a NULL value where data is:

  • Unknown
  • Not applicable
  • Undefined

NULLs can happen when:

  • Columns are optional and not provided
  • Data errors lead to no value
  • Records are incomplete
  • Entity relationships are missing

If any column being CONCAT-ed contains NULL, the result will also become NULL:

  CONCAT(first_name, last_name) AS name
  last_name IS NULL;

To prevent NULL issues when chaining strings, SQL offers a variant function CONCAT_WS.


The CONCAT_WS() function serves the same string concatenation purpose but with added NULL handling behavior:

CONCAT_WS(separator, string1, string2,...,stringN)  


  • separator is a custom string delimiter
  • string1, string2… are columns/values to concatenate

This allows you to explicitly handle NULLs and skip them during joining.

For example with NULL last names:

  CONCAT_WS(‘ ‘, first_name, last_name) AS full_name

Now only the first name would be returned for records with NULL last_name instead of failing entirely.

Between CONCAT and CONCAT_WS, choose wisely based on your specific needs.

Alternate Approaches Beyond CONCAT

While CONCAT is a handy SQL standard function, it is not the only approach for string merging. Some alternatives include:

Formatted/Computed Columns

Several database platforms allow defining columns with output formatting without requiring concatenation during retrieval.

For example in SQL Server:

  first_name + ‘ ‘ + last_name AS full_name

In PostgreSQL:

  first_name || ‘ ‘ || last_name AS full_name

This bakes the formatted string directly as a computed column without directly needing CONCAT.

Client Side Manipulation

You can retrieve the raw string columns from SQL, and manipulate them programmatically at the app layer instead.

For example using JavaScript:

// Get first and last names 
const firstname = row.firstName;
const lastname = row.lastName;

// Join at client side
const fullname = firstname + " " + lastname;

This avoids heavy lifting of string manipulation directly in the database server.

Cast to Custom Type

Some databases even support casting concatenated strings into custom data types.

For example in PostgreSQL:

  CONCAT(first_name, ‘ ‘, last_name) AS full_name; 

Where custom_name is a pre-defined type that formats display logic natively.

There are pros and cons around performance, ease of use for each approach. Evaluate carefully based on the context of your usage.

Top 10 Best Practices

From all our exploration of concatenation in SQL so far, let‘s distill key learnings into actionable best practices:

1. Validate Input Columns

Before blindly combining columns, run checks for potential data issues beforehand:

// Ensure non-null
IF first_name IS NOT NULL  
  CONCAT(first_name, ..., last_name)

// Check length  
IF LEN(first_name) < 50
  CONCAT(first_name,..., last_name)  

2. Handle Whitespace

Explicitly handle whitespace for better formatted output:

CONCAT(TRIM(first_name), ‘ ‘, last_name)

3. Use Aliases for Readability

Aliases improve understanding of concatenated columns:

CONCAT(...) AS full_name

4. Specify Column Names

Avoid using SELECT * when concatenating:

CONCAT(first_name, last_name) // Yes

CONCAT(a, b) // Avoid 

5. Mind the Length

Ensure concatenation won‘t breach field length restrictions.

6. NULL Checks to Avoid Surprises

Validate absence of NULL values upfront before hitting errors mid-query.

7. Utilize CONCAT_WS For Critical Data

For mission critical data, leverage CONCAT_WS as a safety net.

8. Consider Alternate Approaches

Weigh options like client side handling for better performance.

9. Test Thoroughly!

Exercise concatenated queries thoroughly with edge cases before relying.

10. Monitor Query Performance

Keep an eye on CONCAT based queries adding burden during runtime.

Stick to these top 10 learnings for safe and effective SQL string concatenations!

And with that we come to the end of our journey understanding and applying concatenation.

Next Steps

You should now feel equipped to start combining string data in SQL using functions like CONCAT for simplified outputs.

Some suggested next topics to master:

❏ Learn powerful SQL text processing functions like SUBSTRING, LOWER, UPPER etc.

❏ Study complex data transformations using CASE statements

❏ Understand the crucial concept of database Normalization to optimize data models

I hope you enjoyed this friendly SQL string concatenation guide! Let me know if you have any other questions.