What are & How to Use Wildcards in SQL

By Cristian G. Guasch • Updated: 03/03/24 • 8 min read

Diving into the world of SQL, I’ve always found wildcards to be one of those game-changing tools that can significantly streamline how we query databases. They’re like the Swiss Army knife in your SQL toolkit, versatile and powerful, ready to tackle a variety of tasks with ease. But what exactly are SQL wildcards, and why should you care?

At their core, SQL wildcards are special characters used in search conditions to represent one or more characters within a string. They’re the secret sauce that makes searching for data not just possible but incredibly efficient. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, understanding wildcards is essential for crafting effective SQL queries. Let’s dive deeper into their world and unlock the potential they hold for making our database interactions more dynamic and flexible.

Understanding SQL Wildcards

When diving deeper into SQL wildcards, it’s crucial to recognize they’re not just about searching for a needle in a haystack. They’re about finding every needle, or perhaps, every variant of a needle that could exist in that haystack. I’ve found that wildcards, when mastered, are nothing short of magical, allowing us to navigate through vast databases efficiently and effectively.

The ‘%’ Wildcard

The most commonly used wildcard is the % symbol. It represents any number of characters in a string. Say I’m looking for all customers whose names start with “J”. My SQL query would look something like this:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'J%';

This query fetches every customer named John, Jamie, or even Jacqueline. The flexibility this wildcard provides is indispensable in data querying.

The ‘_’ Wildcard

For more precise searches, I use the _ wildcard. It stands for a single character. Thus, if I need to find three-letter names that start with “Jo”, I’d write:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'Jo_';

This fetches “Jon” but not “John” or “Jody”. It’s the precision tool in my SQL toolkit.

Common Mistakes

One common pitfall is forgetting the context in which these wildcards operate. A query like SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE '%' will return all entries because % matches everything. It might seem like an oversight, but it’s a powerful feature when used purposefully.

Another mistake is misinterpreting the _ wildcard. Remember, it represents exactly one character. Queries like SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'J__' will not fetch “Jo”, only names with exactly three letters.

Variations and Their Impact

SQL also allows for combining wildcards, which can lead to pretty sophisticated queries. For instance:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'J%e';

This finds customers whose names start with “J” and end with “e”, such as “Jade” or “Jude”. The versatility of using % and _ together or separately allows for nuanced data retrieval, tailored precisely to the information I need.

Types of SQL Wildcards

In my journey exploring the vast capabilities of SQL, I’ve realized that truly understanding wildcards is like unlocking new levels in a video game. Let’s dive into the primary types of SQL wildcards, each serving its unique purpose in database querying.

First up is the % wildcard. This one’s a powerhouse, allowing for the retrieval of data that matches a specified pattern, regardless of what characters may occupy the space the % symbol represents. Take, for instance, the scenario where I need to find all customer names starting with ‘A’ in a database. My query would look something like this:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'A%';

This query fetches every name that begins with ‘A’, disregarding whatever follows. It’s incredibly flexible but be wary of overuse, as it can slow down searches in large datasets due to its broad match capability.

Next, we have the _ wildcard, which is significantly more precise than its counterpart. It substitutes for exactly one character, offering a finer level of control. Suppose I’m looking for all four-lettered cities where the second letter is ‘a’. Here’s how I’d craft that query:

SELECT City FROM Locations WHERE City LIKE '_a__';

This query meticulously sifts through the database for cities matching the exact pattern.

A common mistake when using SQL wildcards is neglecting the importance of the LIKE operator. Without it, wildcards lose their special abilities and are interpreted as literal characters. Remember, wildcards are not just about what you’re searching for but how strategically you search.

Combining wildcards can unlock even more tailored results. For instance, searching for customer names that start with ‘A’ and end with ‘e’ but are of unspecified length becomes seamless:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'A%e';

By integrating both % and _ wildcards in various configurations, I’ve fine-tuned my searches across different scenarios, illustrating SQL’s adaptability to intricate data retrieval needs.

Practical Examples of Using SQL Wildcards

When I dive into SQL queries, I often find myself needing a flexible yet powerful way to search through data. SQL wildcards become my go-to tool in these situations. Through practical examples, I’ll show you how to harness their power effectively.

Searching for a Text Pattern

Imagine I’m looking for any customer whose name starts with “Jo”. Here’s how I’d use the % wildcard:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'Jo%';

This query fetches all customers with names that start with “Jo,” such as John, Joanne, and Joseph. It’s important not to overuse the % wildcard, as searching large datasets with a leading % can slow down the query significantly.

Finding Names with Specific Lengths

Let’s say I need names that are exactly five characters long. The _ wildcard shines here:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE '_____';

This technique is especially useful when I’m dealing with data that has a fixed format, like certain types of IDs.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Leading % Wildcards: Using a query like '%John%' might seem comprehensive, but it can dramatically increase search times on large datasets.
  • Misplacing Wildcards: A misplaced _, such as in ‘J_n%’, can return unexpected results if I’m not careful.

Mixing Wildcards

For complex searches, mixing % and _ wildcards offers me incredible flexibility. Let’s say I’m looking for a customer with a name that starts with “Ma”, has five letters, but I’m not sure about the middle letters:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'Ma_%_';

This query smartly combines both wildcards to tailor my search, making SQL wildcards an indispensable part of my querying toolkit. By practicing these examples, I’ve been able to refine my approach to data retrieval, making my searches both efficient and effective. The versatility of SQL wildcards, when used judiciously, significantly enhances my ability to work with diverse datasets and search requirements.

Tips for Using SQL Wildcards Effectively

Navigating through SQL wildcards can be tricky, but with the right strategies, I’ve found they can significantly optimize data retrieval processes. Here are some hands-on tips I’ve gathered through my experience, complete with examples, common mistakes, and their variations, all aimed at enhancing your SQL query effectiveness.

First off, let’s start with a clear understanding of the ‘%’ wildcard. It’s versatile for pattern searches but can easily lead to errors if not used judiciously. For instance, a common pitfall is using a leading ‘%’ which may slow down your query due to the broad search parameter it sets. Consider this example:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE '%son';

The above query searches for any customer names ending in “son”, but if “son” is a common substring, it results in an unnecessarily large data set. A more efficient approach is:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'John%';

This query will only fetch customers whose names start with ‘John’, proving to be much faster.

Next, the ‘_’ wildcard represents a single character and is incredibly useful for searching data of a specific length or format. However, misplacing the ‘_’ wildcard can lead to missed results. An example for fetching a five-letter name starting with J would be:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'J____';

Mixing wildcards can serve complex search needs. For example, to find a name starting with ‘J’ and ending with ‘n’ but has six characters, you’d use:

SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Name LIKE 'J____n';

While these examples illustrate the power of SQL wildcards, it’s crucial to avoid overusing them. Excessive wildcard use can lead to performance issues. Always aim for the right balance in your queries. By applying these tips and keeping an eye on common mistakes, I’ve been able to conduct more efficient and accurate searches.


Mastering SQL wildcards has the power to transform your data retrieval efforts from good to great. I’ve shared how the ‘%’ and ‘_’ wildcards can be your best friends in pattern searches when used wisely. Remember, it’s all about the balance—too much of a good thing can lead to performance dips. By applying these tips and steering clear of common pitfalls, you’re well on your way to crafting more efficient and effective SQL queries. Happy querying!

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