There was a perplexing issue we ran into when testing the Persephone web API. There was a foreign key constraint specified in SQLAlchemy but you could add in new entries with bogus foreign keys without the DB engine raising an IntegrityError. Why did this happen?

This API requires some tables that have foreign key relationships between them, so I wrote some definitions as follows:

class Utterance(db.Model):
    """Database ORM definition for Utterances.
    This consists of a relationship between an Audio file and a transcription file
    __tablename__ = 'utterance'

    id = db.Column(db.Integer, primary_key=True)

    audio_id = db.Column(
    audio = db.relationship('Audio', backref='utterances')

    transcription_id = db.Column(
    transcription = db.relationship('Transcription', backref='utterances')

    def __repr__(self):
        return "<Utterance(audio={}, transcription={})>".format(, self.transcription)

Which is then called like this:

current_utterance = Utterance(audio_id=audioId, transcription_id=transcriptionId)

Now given bogus IDs for foreign keys this should just fail. But it didn't! So I knew something was wrong and immediately wrote a test case to cover this behavior. I spent some time studying the SQLAlchemy docs for foreign keys to see if I'd done something stupid in my ORM definitions but I didn't spot anything.

So the next thing to look at is the rest of the configuration. I'm using SQLite for the tests and I remember that SQL implementations can differ so I look it up issues relating to SQLite. Looking into this further it turns out that SQLite doesn't actually enforce FK constraints by default. This default behavior took me entirely by surprise and was the cause of this behavior.

This is because SQLite only started supporting foreign keys in version 3.6.19, see their page for details. So this means that for backwards compatibility reasons you have to turn that functionality on explicitly. This means we need to issue the following command:

sqlite> PRAGMA foreign_keys = ON;

To do this using SQLALchemy we can use the following hook:

from sqlalchemy import event
from sqlalchemy.engine import Engine
from sqlite3 import Connection as SQLite3Connection

@event.listens_for(Engine, "connect")
def _set_sqlite_pragma(dbapi_connection, connection_record):
    if isinstance(dbapi_connection, SQLite3Connection):
        cursor = dbapi_connection.cursor()
        cursor.execute("PRAGMA foreign_keys=ON;")


Now we get this:

    def do_execute(self, cursor, statement, parameters, context=None):
>       cursor.execute(statement, parameters)
E       sqlalchemy.exc.IntegrityError: (sqlite3.IntegrityError) FOREIGN KEY constraint failed [SQL: 'INSERT INTO utterance (audio_id, transcription_id) VALUES (?, ?)'] [parameters: (99999, 99999)] (Background on this error at:


Moral of the story, SQL implementations vary and these variations can be significant.