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How to Use SQL OFFSET

Master the SQL OFFSET clause. Discover how to use ORDER BY and LIMIT to return values based on position, with practical examples, including data pagination for web applications.
Jun 2024  · 10 min read

Learn how to use the SQL OFFSET clause with the ORDER BY and LIMIT clauses to return values based on their position in the query results. Explore a specific use case with pagination for web applications.

SQL OFFSET is a powerful clause used to skip a specified number of rows in a query result. It is often combined with the LIMIT clause for data pagination. Learn the basics of SQL in our Introduction to SQL and Learn SQL courses. This tutorial explores how OFFSET works, its practical applications, and best practices for optimizing your SQL queries.If you would like to review SQL operations before we get started, take a quick look at our SQL Basics Cheat Sheet.

The Quick Answer: How to Use SQL OFFSET

The OFFSET clause in SQL is used to skip a specific number of rows before returning the rows in the result set. It is often used in combination with the LIMIT clause to paginate results.

SELECT column_names
FROM table_name
ORDER BY column_name
LIMIT number_of_rows OFFSET offset_value;

In the above SQL query, the number_of_rows indicates the specific number of rows to return, while the offset_value shows the number of rows the query should skip before returning them. 

How OFFSET Works

The OFFSET clause skips the specified number of rows in the result set. When used with ORDER BY, it ensures consistent results by skipping rows in a defined order, usually specified by a column name. By default, ORDER BY returns the specified column in ascending order.

Assume you want to query from an employees table the following columns: employee_id, first_name, last_name, phone_number, and salary. You also want to exclude the first 9 rows from your results. You will use the SQL query below.

-- Select all columns for employees, starting from the 10th row
SELECT employee_id, first_name, last_name, phone_number, salary
FROM employees
-- Order by employee_id to ensure consistent ordering
ORDER BY employee_id
-- Skip the first 9 rows
OFFSET 9 ROWS;

It’s important to remember that, due to non-unique sorting columns, care must be taken to avoid duplicate records.

Combining LIMIT and OFFSET

OFFSET is typically used with LIMIT to control the number of rows returned and where to start returning rows. 

In the example below, the LIMIT clause returns only the next 10 rows after skipping the first 9 rows.

-- Select all columns for employees, starting from the 10th row and fetching the next 10 rows
SELECT employee_id, first_name, last_name, phone_number, salary
FROM employees
-- Order by employee_id to ensure consistent ordering
ORDER BY employee_id
-- Skip the first 9 rows
OFFSET 9
-- Fetch the next 10 rows
LIMIT 10;

Practical Applications of OFFSET

SQL OFFSET is widely used for pagination in web applications. Data pagination, to be clear, is a technique for breaking down large data into smaller chunks, which helps users navigate large datasets efficiently. 

I consider data pagination one of the best examples of using OFFSET and LIMIT. In this technique, the OFFSET and LIMIT clauses used together break down the data into manageable chunks displayed across multiple pages.  

This enhances the user experience because no one is overwhelmed by seeing a massive list all at once. 

Other applications of OFFSET include:

  1. Skipping specified records when analyzing data.
  2. Preparing data for exporting in chunks (when used in combination with LIMIT).
  3. Simply focusing on data in a particular range, when you know what you are looking for. 

Database-Specific Support and Alternatives

Different databases support OFFSET and LIMIT clauses, including MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQLite. Alternative methods, such as FETCH, can be used for databases that do not support OFFSET and LIMIT statements, such as SQL Server.

For example, the query below (using LIMIT) would return values in MySQL, SQLite, and PostgreSQL databases but not SQL Server.

-- Select all columns for employees, starting from the 10th row and fetching the next 10 rows
SELECT employee_id, first_name, last_name, phone_number, salary
FROM employees
-- Order by employee_id to ensure consistent ordering
ORDER BY employee_id
-- Skip the first 9 rows
OFFSET 9
-- Fetch the next 10 rows
LIMIT 10;

Therefore, you should use FETCH in SQL Server to return similar results using the query below;

-- Select specific columns for employees, starting from the 10th row and fetching the next 10 rows
SELECT employee_id, first_name, last_name, phone_number, salary
FROM employees
-- Order by employee_id to ensure consistent ordering
ORDER BY employee_id 
-- Skip the first 9 rows (starting from the 10th row)
OFFSET 9 ROWS 
 -- Fetch the next 10 rows
FETCH NEXT 10 ROWS ONLY;

Advanced Techniques: OFFSET and FETCH

The FETCH clause, used in SQL standard, can be an advanced alternative to LIMIT. While OFFSET specifies the number of rows to skip, FETCH gives the number of rows to return from the query.

-- Selecting columns from employees table
SELECT employee_id, first_name, last_name, phone_number, salary
FROM employees
-- Ordering the result set by employee_id for consistent pagination
ORDER BY employee_id
-- Skipping the first 20 rows in the result set
OFFSET 20 ROWS
-- Fetching the next 10 rows only after the offset
FETCH NEXT 10 ROWS ONLY;

Other advanced SQL techniques are found in our Associate Data Analyst in SQL course.

Performance Considerations and Other Best Practices 

Using OFFSET effectively requires understanding its impact on query performance. 

OFFSET can impact query performance, especially with large datasets. SQL Server handles query caching and execution efficiently, but using OFFSET with large datasets may require additional optimization strategies, such as using Common Table Expressions (CTEs) or temporary tables. Therefore, you must monitor query performance to identify issues and resolve bottlenecks hindering query execution. DataCamp’s Intermediate SQL Server course includes a chapter on common table expressions and other advanced topics. 

Here are some additional best practices I have discovered during my practice.

  • Always use an appropriate ORDER BY clause. This approach ensures the records get sorted consistently.
  • Consider indexing and query optimization techniques. This method ensures optimized performance, especially when dealing with large databases.

Conclusion and Further Learning

Mastering the OFFSET clause, which is combined with LIMIT, is crucial for efficient data management. Experiment with these clauses in your SQL queries to improve performance and enhance user experience. You can learn more about the OFFSET clause in SQL by taking DataCamp’s Intermediate SQL and SQL fundamentals courses.

Similarly, you can learn more about data analysis using SQL with our Reporting in SQL course. Also, if you want to demonstrate your hands-on skills with SQL projects, I recommend taking the SQL Associate Certification to help you stand out in job interviews.


Photo of Allan Ouko
Author
Allan Ouko
I create articles that simplify data science and analytics, making them easy to understand and accessible.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the OFFSET clause in SQL?

The OFFSET clause is used to skip rows before returning the results in a query.

Why do we use ORDER BY with OFFSET?

Although our query will run without the ORDER BY clause, the output may not be consistent or as expected. Using OFFSET without ORDER BY means that the database engine has no specified order to follow, leading to potentially unpredictable results, so we use ORDER BY so we aren’t surprised.

Why does the LIMIT clause return an error in SQL Server?

The LIMIT clause is supported in MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQLite. Use FETCH for SQL Server.

What is the difference between OFFSET and LIMIT?

The OFFSET clause skips specified rows before returning the records, while the LIMIT clause restricts the number of records to return.

What happens if my OFFSET query takes time to execute?

You can optimize the query using Common Table Expressions (CTEs) or temporary tables.

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