Join vs. sub-query – Dev

The best answers to the question “Join vs. sub-query” in the category Dev.


I am an old-school MySQL user and have always preferred JOIN over sub-query. But nowadays everyone uses sub-query, and I hate it; I don’t know why.

I lack the theoretical knowledge to judge for myself if there is any difference. Is a sub-query as good as a JOIN and therefore is there nothing to worry about?


In most cases JOINs are faster than sub-queries and it is very rare for a sub-query to be faster.

In JOINs RDBMS can create an execution plan that is better for your query and can predict what data should be loaded to be processed and save time, unlike the sub-query where it will run all the queries and load all their data to do the processing.

The good thing in sub-queries is that they are more readable than JOINs: that’s why most new SQL people prefer them; it is the easy way; but when it comes to performance, JOINS are better in most cases even though they are not hard to read too.


Sub-queries are the logically correct way to solve problems of the form, “Get facts from A, conditional on facts from B”. In such instances, it makes more logical sense to stick B in a sub-query than to do a join. It is also safer, in a practical sense, since you don’t have to be cautious about getting duplicated facts from A due to multiple matches against B.

Practically speaking, however, the answer usually comes down to performance. Some optimisers suck lemons when given a join vs a sub-query, and some suck lemons the other way, and this is optimiser-specific, DBMS-version-specific and query-specific.

Historically, explicit joins usually win, hence the established wisdom that joins are better, but optimisers are getting better all the time, and so I prefer to write queries first in a logically coherent way, and then restructure if performance constraints warrant this.


Use EXPLAIN to see how your database executes the query on your data. There is a huge “it depends” in this answer…

PostgreSQL can rewrite a subquery to a join or a join to a subquery when it thinks one is faster than the other. It all depends on the data, indexes, correlation, amount of data, query, etc.


Taken from the MySQL manual ( Rewriting Subqueries as Joins):

A LEFT [OUTER] JOIN can be faster than an equivalent subquery because the server might be able to optimize it better—a fact that is not specific to MySQL Server alone.

So subqueries can be slower than LEFT [OUTER] JOIN, but in my opinion their strength is slightly higher readability.