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Switch to UUIDs

Published: Nov 10th, 2020
Updated: Dec 2nd, 2020

This is part of Joyful Rails, a list of recommendations to make developing your Rails app more productive and joyful.

In this article, we are talking about switching the database primary keys to UUIDs, universally unique identifiers.


On one hand, it is not trivial to change a table’s primary key from the default integer to UUIDs. For that reason, it is helpful to switch to UUIDs as early as possible.

On the other hand, the benefits of using UUIDs are generally not an important concern for new applications, so there is little reason to do it right away.


By default, Rails uses integers as primary keys. Using UUIDs can help prevent a few problems.

Integer overflow

Integer primary keys increase monotonically for every new row. Eventually, the primary key gets too large and new entries cannot be created.

Since Rails 5.1 the default is to use 64-bit integers, which means this will not be a problem until you’ve created over 9*10^18 rows.

UUIDs are much larger (128-bits total) and chosen randomly. So even when you have over 9*10^18 rows your primary key will not be the problem.

Guessable primary keys

Every new integer primary key is one more than the previous one, which means it is trivial to guess what IDs have been created and which ones will be created next.

Knowing what primary keys exist should not be a security issue by itself, but you may still want to hide as part of a defense in depth.

Estimable creation rates

Every new integer primary key is one more than the previous one, which means it is simple to find out how quickly they are being created.

That information may reveal how many users signed up yesterday or how many orders were created this week.

For most applications, most of the time, no one cares and this is not an issue. If it might be for you, using UUIDs as your primary keys can eliminate it.


Enable UUIDs in PostgreSQL:

We assume you have already made the switch to PostgreSQL.

  1. Generate a migration: rails generate migration EnableUuids.
  2. Put this in the change method of the migration: enable_extension 'pgcrypto'
  3. Run the migration: rake db:migrate

Configure the generators to use UUIDs as primary keys:

In config/application.rb add config.generators.orm :active_record, primary_key_type: :uuid.

Test the change

After making a commit, test that this works by running rails generate model foo and rake db:migrate.

The migration and schema should both indicate that the id is a UUID.

Run rake db:rollback and remove the generated files before continuing.


When creating a foreign key column (using references or belongs_to) you must indicate the type if the id is a UUID.

For example:

create_table :post, id: :uuid do |t|

create_table :comment, id: :uuid do |t|
  t.belongs_to :post, type: :uuid

If you do not do this, there is a risk of silent errors when the UUIDs are coerced into an integer to fit into a column that expects an integer.