Understanding Django Self-Referential Foreign Keys

A foreign key in Django sets up a many-to-one relationship between two models. It connects one model (the child) to another (the parent), allowing the child model to reference a specific record in the parent model.

However, sometimes you need a model to reference itself. This is where self-referential foreign keys come in handy.

What is a Self-Referential Foreign Key?

A self-referential foreign key is when a model has a foreign key that points back to its own model. Specifically, it allows an instance of a model to be linked to another instance of the same model.

For example, you might have an Employee model that has a foreign key pointing back to the Employee model. This could allow each employee record to have a field noting who their manager is, where the manager is represented by another employee record.

Reasons to Use a Self-Referential Foreign Key

There are a few useful cases where a self-referential foreign key makes sense:

  • Modeling hierarchical data, like org charts, folder structures, category trees, etc. The foreign key links parents to children.
  • Social models, showing connections between similar users. Like friend relationships in social networks.
  • Relating records logically to similar records. Like an employee to their manager.

How to Create a Self-Referential Foreign Key in Django

Setting up a self-referential foreign key in Django is straightforward. Here are the steps:

First, create your model and point a foreign key back to the same model:

from django.db import models

class Employee(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=100)
    manager = models.ForeignKey('self', on_delete=models.SET_NULL, null=True, blank=True)

Pay attention to that manager field. It points to the Employee model itself, allowing each employee to reference another employee record as its manager.

Next, make sure to set up recursion protection on this model using related_name:

manager = models.ForeignKey('self', on_delete=models.SET_NULL, null=True, blank=True, related_name='employees')

This avoids infinite reference loops when accessing related objects.

And that’s it! The `Employee` model now has a self-referential foreign key to link managers and their employees.

Examples of Using Self-Referential Foreign Keys

Here are some examples of where self-referential foreign keys are handy in applications:

Category Trees

Show hierarchical categories with parents and children:

        Dining Chairs
        Office Chairs
        Coffee Tables

The foreign key links each parent to its child categories.

Organizational Charts

Model management relationships between employees:

        Engineering VP
        Marketing VP
            Marketing Managers

The foreign key links managers to their direct reports.

Social Models

Show connections between users:



The foreign key links user accounts to their friends’ accounts.


Django self-referential foreign keys enable powerful relational patterns like hierarchical trees, management chains, and social models. By linking a model to itself, new doors open for structuring and querying application data.

They are simple to implement but immensely useful. Just point any model’s foreign key back to its own model class. Try them out next time you need advanced self-referencing capabilities!