The difference between WHERE and HAVING

SQL clauses WHERE and HAVING have different functions. But they both filter out rows, so many people don’t know the important difference between them. Let’s shred some light.


In a single-table query, WHERE comes in at the beginning of a query execution. We used to think that it determines which rows will be returned by the query, but this is not accurate:

WHERE determines which rows will be processed by the query.

The difference becomes clear when we use a GROUP BY clause.


HAVING comes in at the end of a query execution.

After all rows have been processed, HAVING determines which of rows will be sent to the client.

The differences

The theory should be clear. But let’s see the differences between WHERE and HAVING in practice.


The difference between WHERE and HAVING becomes clear when we run a query with GROUP BY:

SELECT department_id, count(*) AS employees_no
    FROM employee
    WHERE gender = 'F'
    GROUP BY department_id
    HAVING employees_no < 10;

The query counts the number of female employees in each department, and only returns the departments where this number is less than 10.

  • WHERE excludes non-female employees. Those rows are not read at all by the query.
  • GROUP BY groups (or aggregates) the found rows, producing only one row for each distinct department_id.
  • HAVING eliminates the aggregated rows where employees_no is less than 10.

Note that:

  • WHERE employees_no < 10 would fail with an error, because that value doesn’t exist before aggregation.
  • HAVING gender = 'F' would fail with an error, because the gender column doesn’t exist in the aggregated rows (or, if you prefer, in the SELECT clause).

Query performance

Sometimes you may think that both WHERE and HAVING can be used, and that they’re equivalent. An example:

    FROM employee
    WHERE date_of_birth > '2000-01-01';

This query finds the employees that were born in this century.

Could we use HAVING instead of WHERE? In theory, yes. But in that case we’re telling the database to read all rows, and only return the ones that match the condition. This is unnecessarily slow.

With the WHERE clause, we’re asking the database to only read the rows we’re interested in. If there is an index that starts with the date_of_birth column, it will be used.

Note that some DBMSs are smart enough to translate an unnecessary HAVING clause into a WHERE clause. But not all DBMSs do so, and there may always be complex cases when a DBMS fails to apply this optimisation.