How to Use INSTR in SQL? Find Substrings Easily with Examples

By Cristian G. Guasch • Updated: 02/09/24 • 10 min read

Navigating through the vast world of SQL can sometimes feel like trying to find a needle in a haystack, especially when you’re dealing with strings. That’s where the INSTR function comes into play. It’s a powerful tool that I’ve found indispensable for searching within strings, making data manipulation and analysis a breeze.

Understanding how to use INSTR in SQL has been a game-changer for me. It allows for pinpoint accuracy in locating the position of a substring within a string, opening up a plethora of possibilities for data querying and management. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced developer, mastering INSTR can significantly streamline your SQL workflows. Let’s dive into how you can leverage this function to its fullest potential.

What is INSTR function in SQL?

When diving deeper into SQL querying, it’s crucial to grasp the tools that facilitate efficient data manipulation. Among such tools, the INSTR function stands out as a powerhouse in string searching. INSTR, short for “INSTRing”, allows us to locate the position of a substring within a string, returning the position of the first occurrence. This function is versatile and supports various parameters to enhance its searching capabilities.

How to Use INSTR in SQL – Basics

The syntax for the INSTR function is quite straightforward:

INSTR(string, substring, [start_position], [occurrence])
  • string refers to the text where you’re searching for the substring.
  • substring is the sequence of characters you’re looking to find within the string.
  • start_position (optional) specifies where to begin the search. The default is 1, indicating the search starts at the beginning of the string.
  • occurrence (optional) identifies which occurrence of the substring you’re interested in.

Let’s see it in action:

SELECT INSTR('Hello World', 'World') AS Position;

This query searches for ‘World’ in ‘Hello World’ and returns 6, indicating ‘World’ starts at the 6th position.

Variations and Common Mistakes

When using INSTR, it’s important to remember a few key variations and pitfalls:

  • Specifying a start_position beyond the first character can help you skip certain parts of the string:
SELECT INSTR('Hello World', 'o', 5) AS Position;

This skips the first ‘o’ in ‘Hello’ and returns 8, the position of the second ‘o’ in ‘World’.

  • A frequent mistake is forgetting that positions are 1-based. This means that counting starts at 1, not 0, which is different from some other languages.
  • The occurrence parameter allows you to find the second, third, and so on, occurrence of the substring:
SELECT INSTR('Banana', 'a', 1, 2) AS Position;

This returns 5, the position of the second ‘a’ in ‘Banana’.

Why is INSTR function important in SQL?

In my years of working with SQL, I’ve found the INSTR function to be an indispensable tool for string manipulation and analysis. It’s the backbone for tasks that involve searching and parsing strings, making it vital for data cleaning, preparation, and even complex queries. The INSTR function’s ability to pinpoint the position of a substring within a string offers immense flexibility, allowing for enhanced data analysis and manipulation that would be cumbersome or near impossible otherwise.

For instance, let’s say I’m dealing with a dataset filled with customer information, and I need to extract the domain names from their email addresses. Using INSTR, I can easily identify the position of the “@” symbol and then manipulate the string to get the domain:

SELECT SUBSTR(email, INSTR(email, '@') + 1) AS domain_name FROM customers;

This example barely scratches the surface. The INSTR function shines in its ability to be tailored through optional parameters, such as specifying a start position or searching for the nth occurrence of a substring. This flexibility allows for pinpoint precision when working with strings:

SELECT INSTR('SQL Database', 'a', 1, 2) AS position FROM dual;

In the example above, I’m searching for the second occurrence of “a” in the string “SQL Database” starting from the first character. This returns the position as an integer, which can be critically useful in numerous scenarios.

However, it’s essential to be wary of common mistakes when using INSTR. A frequent oversight is neglecting the start position or occurrence parameters, leading to results that don’t match expectations. Always double-check parameters to ensure they precisely match the intended search criteria.

Understanding and mastering the INSTR function opens up a world of possibilities for string manipulation. Whether it’s extracting specific parts of a string, searching for particular patterns, or even data validation, the INSTR function is a powerful tool in any SQL user’s arsenal. With the examples and considerations mentioned, it’s clear how vital it is to not just know, but to expertly utilize INSTR in everyday SQL tasks.

Syntax of the INSTR function

When it comes to string manipulation in SQL, understanding the syntax of the INSTR function is key. This function is a game changer for anyone working with databases, helping to pinpoint the exact location of a substring within a string. The beauty of INSTR lies in its simplicity and flexibility. I’ll walk you through its basic form and then dive into some variations that highlight its adaptability.

The basic syntax of the INSTR function looks something like this:

INSTR(string, substring, [start_position], [occurrence])
  • string is the text in which you’re searching.
  • substring is the piece of text you’re looking to find the position of.
  • start_position is optional and specifies where in the string to start searching. If omitted, the search starts at the beginning.
  • occurrence is also optional and indicates which occurrence of the substring you’re interested in.

Let’s put this into context with an example. Say I want to find the position of “” in a bunch of email addresses. Here’s how I’d do it:

SELECT INSTR(email, '')
FROM users;

But what if I’m only interested in finding the position of the second occurrence of a character, or need to start the search midway through the string? The INSTR function handles these scenarios with ease. Check out this variation:

SELECT INSTR(email, '.', 1, 2)
FROM users;

This command searches for the second occurrence of the period character in an email address, starting from the first character.

Common mistakes often revolve around misunderstanding the start_position and occurrence parameters. Remember, start_position doesn’t refer to the occurrence number—it’s strictly about the character position in the string. Mixing these up can lead to results that are off by a mile.

Staying on top of these nuances ensures that when I leverage the INSTR function, I’m doing so with precision and efficiency. This understanding elevates my SQL game, making data manipulation tasks quicker and more insightful.

Examples of using the INSTR function in SQL

One of the most empowering aspects of the INSTR function is its versatility in various scenarios. I’ll walk you through a couple of practical examples to give you a solid understanding of how to wield this tool effectively.

Let’s start simple. Suppose I want to find the position of the “@” symbol in an email address. This might seem straightforward, but it’s a common task when handling user data. The SQL query looks like this:

SELECT INSTR(email, '@') FROM users;

In this example, if we have an email like “”, the function returns 9, indicating that the “@” symbol is located at the ninth position. This basic usage is the foundation for more complex manipulations.

But let’s amp it up a bit. Imagine I need to find the second occurrence of a dot “.” in a URL to extract the top-level domain (TLD). This is where the optional parameters come into play. I can specify the start position and the occurrence as follows:

SELECT INSTR(url, '.', 1, 2) AS second_dot_position FROM web_pages;

This query significantly demonstrates the function’s flexibility, enabling me to pinpoint specific instances of a character or substring, a valuable skill for parsing URLs or file paths.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

While the INSTR function is straightforward, there are pitfalls. A frequent oversight is not accounting for case sensitivity. SQL is inherently case-sensitive in some environments, meaning searching for “ABC” is different from “abc”. Always verify the case sensitivity rules of your SQL environment to avoid unexpected results. Another common error is neglecting the function’s return value of 0 when the substring isn’t found. Forgetting this can lead to confusing results or errors in logical conditions.

Through these examples and tips, I’ve shown how the INSTR function can be a powerful tool in your SQL toolkit. With practice, it’ll become second nature to manipulate and analyze strings with precision, enhancing your data processing tasks marvelously.

Tips and best practices for using the INSTR function in SQL

When leveraging the INSTR function in SQL, there are several strategies and practices I’ve found particularly effective. These not only ensure I’m using the function to its full potential but also help avoid common pitfalls that can lead to incorrect results or inefficiencies.

Begin with a Clear Understanding

A solid grasp of what the INSTR function does is fundamental. Remember, it searches for a substring within a string and returns the position of the first occurrence. This might sound straightforward, but knowing how to manipulate its parameters can vastly change its utility.

Code Examples for Clarity

For instance, finding the first occurrence of a character can be done with a simple command:

SELECT INSTR('', '@') AS Position;

This will return 9, indicating the @ symbol is at the ninth position in the email address.

But what if we need to find the position of the second dot '.' in an email? That’s where optional parameters come into play:

SELECT INSTR('', '.', 1, 2) AS SecondDotPosition;

In this command, the 1 denotes the start position (from the beginning of the string), and the 2 indicates we’re interested in the second occurrence of the dot.

Avoiding Common Mistakes

One common mistake is overlooking the function’s case sensitivity. SQL’s INSTR function treats uppercase and lowercase characters as distinct. To circumvent this, ensure you’re using the correct case or utilize functions like UPPER() or LOWER() to standardize the string before searching:

SELECT INSTR(LOWER(''), 'doe') AS Position;

Another pitfall is forgetting that INSTR will return 0 if the substring isn’t found. Always account for this possibility in your logic to avoid misunderstandings or bugs.

Mind the Performance

When working with large datasets or complex queries, the efficiency of your SQL commands is paramount. Using the INSTR function judiciously can prevent unnecessary computational overhead. For instance, if you’re only interested if a substring exists rather than its position, consider using EXISTS or CONTAINS for more streamlined performance.


Mastering the INSTR function is key to unlocking advanced data manipulation capabilities in SQL. Through the practical examples and tips I’ve shared, you’re now better equipped to handle string analysis with precision. Remember, understanding the nuances of INSTR, from using optional parameters to avoiding common pitfalls, can significantly enhance your SQL queries. As you continue to work with data, keep experimenting with INSTR to discover new ways it can streamline your data analysis tasks. Happy querying!

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