SQL Contains String – SQL RegEx Example Query (2023)

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SQL Contains String – SQL RegEx Example Query (1)
Ilenia Magoni
SQL Contains String – SQL RegEx Example Query (2)

Being able to do complex queries can be really useful in SQL.

In this article, we'll look at how you can use the Contains String query.

SQL patterns are useful for pattern matching, instead of using literal comparisons. They have a more limited syntax than RegEx, but they're more universal through the various SQL versions.

SQL patterns use the LIKE and NOT LIKE operators and the metacharacters (characters that stand for something other than themselves) % and _.

The operators are used like this: column_name LIKE pattern.

CharacterMeaning
%Any sequence of characters
_Exactly one character

You can use these characters in a wide variety of use-cases. Here are some examples:

example patternusage
re%Strings that begin with a specific substring
%reStrings that end with a specific substring
%re%Strings that have a specific substring anywhere in the string
%re_Strings that have a specific substring at a specific position from the end¹
__re%Strings that have a specific substring at a specific position from the beginning²

¹ (in the example, second to last and third to last characters are determined)
² (in the example, third and fourth characters are determined)

Example query

SELECT name FROM planets WHERE name LIKE "%us";

Where planets is a table with the data of the solar system's planets.

With this query you would get the below names of the planets that end with "us".

name
Venus
Uranus

The NOT LIKE operator finds all strings that do not match the pattern.

Let's use it in an example too.

SELECT name FROM planets WHERE name NOT LIKE "%u%";

With this query you get all planets whose names don't contain the letter u, like below.

name
Earth
Mars

Alternative to the LIKE operator in SQL

Depending on the SQL flavour you are using, you might also be able to use the SIMILAR TO operator. You can use it in addition to or in place of LIKE.

The SQL SIMILAR TO operator

The SIMILAR TO operator works in a pretty similar way to the LIKE operator, including which metacharacters are available. You can use the % operator for any number of characters, and the _ operator for exactly one character.

Let's take the example used with LIKE and let's use it here too.

SELECT name FROM planets WHERE name SIMILAR TO "%us";

You can use this operator with NOT in front to have the opposite effect. This is how you would write the example we used before using SIMILAR TO instead:

SELECT name FROM planets WHERE name NOT SIMILAR TO "%u%";

What about if you need more complex pattern matching? Well, for that you need to use Regular Expressions.

What is RegEx?

RegEx on its own is a powerful tool that allows for flexible pattern recognition. You can use RegEx in many languages like PHP, Python, and also SQL.

RegEx lets you match patterns by character class (like all letters, or just vowels, or all digits), between alternatives, and other really flexible options. You will see them below.

What you can do with RegEx

You can do a lot of different things with RegEx patterns. To see a good variety, let's use some of the examples presented in the RegEx freeCodeCamp Curriculum.

Keep in mind that the freeCodeCamp curriculum presents RegEx for JavaScript, so there is not a perfect match, and we need to convert the syntax. Still, it gives you a good overview of basic RegEx features, so let's follow this curriculum so you can get a good idea of what RegEx can do.

Match Literal Strings

The easiest way to use RegEx it's to use it to match an exact sequence of characters.

For example the regex "Kevin" will match all strings that contains those letters in that exact sequence, as "Kevin", "Kevin is great", "this is my friend Kevin" and so on.

Match a Literal String with Different Possibilities

A regular expression can be used to match different possibilities using the character |. For example "yes|no|maybe" would match any string that contains one of the three sequence of characters, such as "maybe I will do it", "maybelline", "monologue", "yes, I will do it", "no, I don't like it", and so on.

Match Anything with the Wildcard Period

The wildcard period . matches any character, for example "hu." would match anything that contains an h followed by an u followed by any character, such as "hug", "hum", "hub", "huh", but also "husband", "churros", "thumb", "shuttle" and so on.

Match Single Character with Multiple Possibilities

You can use a character class (or character set) to match a group of characters, for example "b[aiu]g" would match any string that contains a b, then one letter between a, i and u, and then a g, such as "bug", "big", "bag", but also "cabbage", "ambigous", "ladybug", and so on.

Match Letters of the Alphabet

You have seen above how you can match a group of characters with character classes, but if you want to match a long list of letters that is a lot of typing.

To avoid all that typing, you can define a range. For example you can match all letters between a and e with "[a-e]".

A regex like "[a-e]at" would match all strings that have in order one letter between a and e, then an a and then a t, such as "cat", "bat" and "eat", but also "birdbath", "bucatini", "date", and so on.

Match Numbers and Letters of the Alphabet

You can also use the hyphen to match numbers. For example "[0-5]" would match any number between 0 and 5, including 0 and 5.

You can also combine different ranges together in a single character set. For example "[a-z0-9]" would match all letters from a to z and all numbers from 0 to 5.

Match Single Characters Not Specified

You can also use a character set to exclude some characters from a match, these sets are called negated character sets.

You can create a negated character set by placing a caret character (^) after the opening bracket of the character class.

For example "[^aeiou]" matches all characters that are not vowels. It would match strings like "rythm" where no character is a vowel, or also "87 + 14".

Match Characters that Occur One or More Times

If you need to match a specific character or group of characters that can appear one or more times, you can use the character + after this character.

For example, "as+i" would match strings that contain one a followed by one or more s followed by one i, such as "occasional", "assiduous" and so on.

Match Characters that Occur Zero or More Times

If you can use + to match a character one or more times, there is also * to match a character zero or more times.

A regular expression such as "as*i" would match, other than "occasional" and "assiduous" also strings such as "aide".

Match Beginning String Patterns

Until now you have seen ways to match anywhere in the string, without the option to say where the match must be.

We use the character ^ to match the beginning of a string, for example a regex such as "^Ricky" would match "Ricky is my friend", but not "This is Ricky".

Match Ending String Patterns

Just as there's a way to match the beginning of a string, there is also a way to match the end of a string.

You can use the character $ to match the end of a string, so for example "story$" would match any string that ends with "story", such as "This is a never ending story", but not a string such a "Sometimes a story will have to end".

Match the Whole String

You can combine the two characters ^ and $ to match a whole string.

So, taking one of the previous examples, writing "b[aiu]g" can match both "big" and "bigger", but if instead you want to match only "big", "bag" and "bug", adding the two beginning and ending string characters ensures that there can't be other characters in the string: "^b[aiu]g$". This pattern would match only "big", "bag" and "bug", and it doesn't match "bigger" or "ambiguous".

Match All Letters and Numbers

You have seen before how to match characters with a character class.

There are a few predefined classes, called POSIX classes, that you can use instead. So if you want to match all letters and numbers like with "[0-9a-zA-Z]" you can instead write "[[:alphanum:]]".

Match Everything But Letters and Numbers

If instead you want to match anything that is not a letter of a number, you can use the alphanum POSIX class together with a negated character set: "[^[:alphanum:]].

Match All Numbers

You can also use a POSIX class to match all numbers instead of using "[0-9]", like so: "[[:digit:]]".

Match All Non-Numbers

You can use the digit POSIX class with a negated character set to match anything that is not a number, like so: "[^[:digit:]]".

Match Whitespace

You can match whitespace with the POSIX class "[[:blank:]]" or "[[:space:]]". The difference between these two classes is that the class blank matches only spaces and tabs, while space matches all blank characters, including carriage returns, new lines, form feeds, and vertical tabs.

Match Non-Whitespace Characters

You can match anything that is not a space or tab with "[^[:blank:]]".

And you can match anything that is not a whitespace, carriage return, tab, form feed, space, or vertical tab with "[^[:space:]]".

Specify Upper and Lower Number of Matches

You have seen before how to match one or more or zero or more characters. But sometimes you want to match a certain range of patterns.

For this you can use quantity specifiers.

Quantity specifiers are written with curly brackets ({ and }). You put two numbers separated by a comma in the curly bracket. The first is the lower number of patterns, the second is the upper number of patterns.

For example, if your pattern is "Oh{2,4} yes", then it would match strings like "Ohh yes" or "Ohhhh yes", but not "Oh yes" or "Ohhhhh yes".

Specify Exact Number of Matches

You can also use the quantity specifier other than for a range to specify an exact number of matches. You can do this by writing a single number inside the curly brackets.

So, if your pattern is "Oh{3} yes", then it would match only "Ohhh yes".

Check For Mixed Grouping of Characters

If you want to check for groups of characters using regular expressions you can do so using parenthesis.

For example, you may want to match both "Penguin" and "Pumpkin", you can do so with a regular expression like this: "P(engu|umpk)in".

Summary of RegEx patterns

You have seen a lot of regex options here. So now let's put all of these, along with a few others, into easily consultable tables.

RegEx patterns

patterndescription
^beginning of string
$end of string
.any character
( )grouping characters
[abc]any character inside the square brackets
[^abc]any character not inside the square brackets
a|b|ca OR b OR c
*zero or more of the preceding element
+one or more of the preceding element
{n}n times the preceding element
{n,m}between n and m times the preceding element

Posix classes

In the table below you can see the posix classes we saw above, as well as some others that you can use to create patterns.

Posix classsimilar todescription
[:alnum:][a-zA-Z0-9]Aphanumeric character
[:alpha:][a-zA-Z]Alphabetic characters
[:blank:]Spaces or tab characters
[:cntrl:][^[:print:]]Control characters
[:digit:][0-9]Numeric characters
[:graph:][^ [:ctrl:]]All characters that have graphic rapresentation
[:lower:][a-z]Lowercase alphabetic characters
[:print:][[:graph:][:space:]]Graphic or spaces characters
[:punct:]All graphic characters except letters and digits
[:space:]Space, new line, tab, carriage return
[:upper:][A-Z]Uppercase alphabetic characters
[:xdigit:][0-9a-fA-F]Hexadecimal digits

Remember that when using a POSIX class, you always need to put it inside the square brackets of a character class (so you'll have two pair of square brackets). For example, "a[[:digit:]]b" matches a0b, a1b and so on.

How to use RegEx patterns

Here you will see two kind of operators, REGEXP operators and POSIX operators. Just be aware that which operators you can use depends on the flavour of SQL you are using.

RegEx operators

RegEx operators are usually case insensitive, meaning that they don't distinguish between uppercase and lowercase letters. So for them, a is equivalent to A. But you can change this default behaviour, so don't take it for granted.

OperatorDescription
REGEXPGives true if it matches the given pattern
NOT REGEXPGives true if the string doesn't contain the given pattern

Posix operators

The other kind of operators you could have available are POSIX operators. Instead of being keywords, these are represented with punctuation, and can be case sensitive or insensitive.

operatordescription
~case sensitive, true if the pattern is contained in the string
!~case sensitive, true if the pattern is not contained in the string
~*case insensitive, true if the pattern is contained in the string
!~*case insensitive, true if the pattern is not contained in the string

RegEx and Posix Examples

Let's see how to use these operators and RegEx patterns in a query.

Example query 1

For this first example, you want to match a string in which the first character is an "s" or "p" and the second character is a vowel.

To do this, you can use the character class [sp] to match the first letter, and you can use the character class [aeiou] for the second letter in the string.

You also need to use the character to match the start of the string, ^, so all together you'll write "^[sp][aeiou]".

You write the query below to get back the list of users whose names match the pattern.

SELECT name FROM users WHERE name REGEXP '^[sp][aeiou]';

And if the default case insensitive behaviour was changed, you would need to write a pattern that allows both uppercase and lowercase letters, like "^[spSP][aeiouAEIOU]" and use it in the query as below:

SELECT name FROM users WHERE name REGEXP '^[spSP][aeiouAEIOU]';

Or with the POSIX operator, in this case you could use the case insensitive operator, ~* and you would not need to write both upper case and lower case letters inside a character class. You could write the query as below.

SELECT name FROM users WHERE name ~* '^[sp][aeiou]';

As the operator is by definition case insensitive, you don't need to worry about specifying both uppercase and lowercase letters in the character class.

These queries would give back a table with results similar to below:

name
Sergio
PAUL
samantha
Seraphina

Example query 2

As a second example, let's say you want to find a hexadecimal color. You can use the POSIX class [:xdigit:] for this – it does the same as the character class [0-9a-fA-F].

Writing #[[:xdigit:]]{3} or #[[:xdigit:]]{6} would match a hexadecimal color in its shorthand or longhand form: the first one would match colors like #398 and the second one colors like #00F5C4.

You could combine them using character grouping and | to have one single RegEx pattern that matches both, and use it in the query as below:

SELECR color FROM styles WHERE color REGEXP '#([[:xdigit:]]{3}|[[:xdigit:]]{6})'; 
SELECR color FROM styles WHERE color ~ '#([[:xdigit:]]{3}|[[:xdigit:]]{6})';

This would give back something like below:

color
#341
#00fa67
#FF00AB

The POSIX class [:xdigit:] already includes both uppercase and lowercase letters, so you would not need to worry about if the operator is case sensitive or not.

Note on resource use

Depending on the size of your tables, a Contains String query can be really resource-intensive. Be careful when you're using them in production databases, as you don't want to have your app stop working.

The Contains String queries are really useful. You have learned how to use them in this article, and you've seen a few examples.

Hopefully you have added a new tool to your arsenal, and you enjoy using it! Just be careful not to crash your app.

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SQL Contains String – SQL RegEx Example Query (3)
Ilenia Magoni

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