How to map a @ManyToOne association using a non-Primary Key column with JPA and Hibernate


While answering questions on the Hibernate forum, I stumbled on the following question about using the @ManyToOne annotation when the Foreign Key column on the client side references a non-Primary Key column on the parent side.

In this article, you are going to see how to use the @JoinColumn annotation in order to accommodate non-Primary Key many-to-one associations.

Domain Model

Assuming we have the following tables in our database:

The isbn column on the publication and book tables are linked via a Foreign Key constraint which is the base of our @ManyToOne assocation:

Non Primary-Key @ManyToOne mapping

The Book represents the parent side of the association, and it’s mapped as follows:

@Entity(name = "Book")
@Table(name = "book")
public static class Book 
    implements Serializable {

    private Long id;

    private String title;

    private String author;

    private String isbn;

    //Getters and setters omitted for brevity

The isbn column is mapped as a @NaturalId since it can be used as a business key as well.

The Publication represents the child of the association, so it’s going to be mapped like this:

@Entity(name = "Publication")
@Table(name = "publication")
public static class Publication {

    private Long id;

    private String publisher;

    @ManyToOne(fetch = FetchType.LAZY)
        name = "isbn", 
        referencedColumnName = "isbn"
    private Book book;

        name = "price_in_cents", 
        nullable = false
    private Integer priceCents;

    private String currency;

    //Getters and setters omitted for brevity

By default, the @ManyToOne association assumes that the parent-side entity identifier is to be used to join with the client-side entity Foreign Key column.

However, when using a non-Primary Key association, the referencedColumnName should be used to instruct Hibernate which column should be used on the parent side to establish the many-to-one database relationship.

Testing time

Assuming we have the following entities in our database:

Book book = new Book();
book.setTitle( "High-Performance Java Persistence" );
book.setAuthor( "Vlad Mihalcea" );
book.setIsbn( "978-9730228236" );

Publication amazonUs = new Publication();
amazonUs.setPublisher( "" );
amazonUs.setBook( book );
amazonUs.setPriceCents( 4599 );
amazonUs.setCurrency( "$" );
entityManager.persist( amazonUs );

Publication amazonUk = new Publication();
amazonUk.setPublisher( "" );
amazonUk.setBook( book );
amazonUk.setPriceCents( 3545 );
amazonUk.setCurrency( "&" );
entityManager.persist( amazonUk );

Upon fetching the Publication along with its associated Book, we can see that the @ManyToOne association works as expected:

Publication publication = entityManager.createQuery(
    "select p " +
    "from Publication p " +
    "join fetch b " +
    "where " +
    "   b.isbn = :isbn and " +
    "   p.currency = :currency", Publication.class)
.setParameter( "isbn", "978-9730228236" )
.setParameter( "currency", "&" )


    "High-Performance Java Persistence",

When executing the JPQL query above, Hibernate generates the following SQL statement:

SELECT AS id1_1_0_, AS id1_0_1_,
        p.isbn AS isbn5_1_0_, p.currency AS currency2_1_0_,
        p.price_in_cents AS price_in3_1_0_,
        p.publisher AS publishe4_1_0_, AS author2_0_1_, b.isbn AS isbn3_0_1_,
        b.title AS title4_0_1_
FROM    publication p
        book b ON p.isbn = b.isbn
WHERE   b.isbn = '978-9730228236'
        AND p.currency = '&'

As you can see, the referencedColumnName allows you to customize the JOIN ON clause so that the isbn column is used instead of the default entity identifier.

If you enjoyed this article, I bet you are going to love my book as well.


If you want to represent a non-Primary Key @ManyToOne association, you should use the referencedColumnName attribute of the @JoinColumn annotation.

For more complex situations, like when you need to use a custom SQL function in the JOIN ON clause, you can use the Hibernate specific @JoinFormula annotation.

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4 thoughts on “How to map a @ManyToOne association using a non-Primary Key column with JPA and Hibernate

  1. Vlad,

    If I’m not wrong, this mapping doesn’t work very well without an entity identifier when performing a persist or merge. Imagine I’m persisting a new Publication which references a Book by its isbn field only (no @Id was set in the book entity), in this case Hibernate will complains about the relationship because book entity doesn’t have an id settled.

    What do you think?

    1. Well, most often, the parent side @Id is the best when mapping the @ManyToOne association because the @Id is typically an auto-incremented number that takes either 4 or 8 bytes. A natural key would take more storage, therefore, putting pressure on indexes and memory.

      Now, back to your question. You need to provide a Book entity reference for the @ManyToOne association. You can use @NaturalId to fetch a reference, instead of an actual entity too.

      Hibernate allows you to provide transient entity just to populate the FK, but that works when you also set the identifier, as you suggested. However, this is not the typical use case to set the FK, as JPA offers the Proxy reference fetching for this purpose.

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