Release: 1.1.5 | Release Date: January 17, 2017

SQLAlchemy 1.1 Documentation

Transactions and Connection Management

Managing Transactions

A newly constructed Session may be said to be in the “begin” state. In this state, the Session has not established any connection or transactional state with any of the Engine objects that may be associated with it.

The Session then receives requests to operate upon a database connection. Typically, this means it is called upon to execute SQL statements using a particular Engine, which may be via Session.query(), Session.execute(), or within a flush operation of pending data, which occurs when such state exists and Session.commit() or Session.flush() is called.

As these requests are received, each new Engine encountered is associated with an ongoing transactional state maintained by the Session. When the first Engine is operated upon, the Session can be said to have left the “begin” state and entered “transactional” state. For each Engine encountered, a Connection is associated with it, which is acquired via the Engine.contextual_connect() method. If a Connection was directly associated with the Session (see Joining a Session into an External Transaction (such as for test suites) for an example of this), it is added to the transactional state directly.

For each Connection, the Session also maintains a Transaction object, which is acquired by calling Connection.begin() on each Connection, or if the Session object has been established using the flag twophase=True, a TwoPhaseTransaction object acquired via Connection.begin_twophase(). These transactions are all committed or rolled back corresponding to the invocation of the Session.commit() and Session.rollback() methods. A commit operation will also call the TwoPhaseTransaction.prepare() method on all transactions if applicable.

When the transactional state is completed after a rollback or commit, the Session releases all Transaction and Connection resources, and goes back to the “begin” state, which will again invoke new Connection and Transaction objects as new requests to emit SQL statements are received.

The example below illustrates this lifecycle:

engine = create_engine("...")
Session = sessionmaker(bind=engine)

# new session.   no connections are in use.
session = Session()
    # first query.  a Connection is acquired
    # from the Engine, and a Transaction
    # started.
    item1 = session.query(Item).get(1)

    # second query.  the same Connection/Transaction
    # are used.
    item2 = session.query(Item).get(2)

    # pending changes are created. = 'bar' = 'foo'

    # commit.  The pending changes above
    # are flushed via flush(), the Transaction
    # is committed, the Connection object closed
    # and discarded, the underlying DBAPI connection
    # returned to the connection pool.
    # on rollback, the same closure of state
    # as that of commit proceeds.


SAVEPOINT transactions, if supported by the underlying engine, may be delineated using the begin_nested() method:

Session = sessionmaker()
session = Session()

session.begin_nested() # establish a savepoint
session.rollback()  # rolls back u3, keeps u1 and u2

session.commit() # commits u1 and u2

begin_nested() may be called any number of times, which will issue a new SAVEPOINT with a unique identifier for each call. For each begin_nested() call, a corresponding rollback() or commit() must be issued. (But note that if the return value is used as a context manager, i.e. in a with-statement, then this rollback/commit is issued by the context manager upon exiting the context, and so should not be added explicitly.)

When begin_nested() is called, a flush() is unconditionally issued (regardless of the autoflush setting). This is so that when a rollback() occurs, the full state of the session is expired, thus causing all subsequent attribute/instance access to reference the full state of the Session right before begin_nested() was called.

begin_nested(), in the same manner as the less often used begin() method, returns a transactional object which also works as a context manager. It can be succinctly used around individual record inserts in order to catch things like unique constraint exceptions:

for record in records:
        with session.begin_nested():
        print("Skipped record %s" % record)

Autocommit Mode

The example of Session transaction lifecycle illustrated at the start of Managing Transactions applies to a Session configured in the default mode of autocommit=False. Constructing a Session with autocommit=True produces a Session placed into “autocommit” mode, where each SQL statement invoked by a Session.query() or Session.execute() occurs using a new connection from the connection pool, discarding it after results have been iterated. The Session.flush() operation still occurs within the scope of a single transaction, though this transaction is closed out after the Session.flush() operation completes.


“autocommit” mode should not be considered for general use. If used, it should always be combined with the usage of Session.begin() and Session.commit(), to ensure a transaction demarcation.

Executing queries outside of a demarcated transaction is a legacy mode of usage, and can in some cases lead to concurrent connection checkouts.

In the absence of a demarcated transaction, the Session cannot make appropriate decisions as to when autoflush should occur nor when auto-expiration should occur, so these features should be disabled with autoflush=False, expire_on_commit=False.

Modern usage of “autocommit” is for framework integrations that need to control specifically when the “begin” state occurs. A session which is configured with autocommit=True may be placed into the “begin” state using the Session.begin() method. After the cycle completes upon Session.commit() or Session.rollback(), connection and transaction resources are released and the Session goes back into “autocommit” mode, until Session.begin() is called again:

Session = sessionmaker(bind=engine, autocommit=True)
session = Session()
    item1 = session.query(Item).get(1)
    item2 = session.query(Item).get(2) = 'bar' = 'foo'

The Session.begin() method also returns a transactional token which is compatible with the Python 2.6 with statement:

Session = sessionmaker(bind=engine, autocommit=True)
session = Session()
with session.begin():
    item1 = session.query(Item).get(1)
    item2 = session.query(Item).get(2) = 'bar' = 'foo'

Using Subtransactions with Autocommit

A subtransaction indicates usage of the Session.begin() method in conjunction with the subtransactions=True flag. This produces a non-transactional, delimiting construct that allows nesting of calls to begin() and commit(). Its purpose is to allow the construction of code that can function within a transaction both independently of any external code that starts a transaction, as well as within a block that has already demarcated a transaction.

subtransactions=True is generally only useful in conjunction with autocommit, and is equivalent to the pattern described at Nesting of Transaction Blocks, where any number of functions can call Connection.begin() and Transaction.commit() as though they are the initiator of the transaction, but in fact may be participating in an already ongoing transaction:

# method_a starts a transaction and calls method_b
def method_a(session):
        session.commit()  # transaction is committed here
        session.rollback() # rolls back the transaction

# method_b also starts a transaction, but when
# called from method_a participates in the ongoing
# transaction.
def method_b(session):
        session.add(SomeObject('bat', 'lala'))
        session.commit()  # transaction is not committed yet
        session.rollback() # rolls back the transaction, in this case
                           # the one that was initiated in method_a().

# create a Session and call method_a
session = Session(autocommit=True)

Subtransactions are used by the Session.flush() process to ensure that the flush operation takes place within a transaction, regardless of autocommit. When autocommit is disabled, it is still useful in that it forces the Session into a “pending rollback” state, as a failed flush cannot be resumed in mid-operation, where the end user still maintains the “scope” of the transaction overall.

Enabling Two-Phase Commit

For backends which support two-phase operaration (currently MySQL and PostgreSQL), the session can be instructed to use two-phase commit semantics. This will coordinate the committing of transactions across databases so that the transaction is either committed or rolled back in all databases. You can also prepare() the session for interacting with transactions not managed by SQLAlchemy. To use two phase transactions set the flag twophase=True on the session:

engine1 = create_engine('postgresql://db1')
engine2 = create_engine('postgresql://db2')

Session = sessionmaker(twophase=True)

# bind User operations to engine 1, Account operations to engine 2
Session.configure(binds={User:engine1, Account:engine2})

session = Session()

# .... work with accounts and users

# commit.  session will issue a flush to all DBs, and a prepare step to all DBs,
# before committing both transactions

Setting Transaction Isolation Levels

Isolation refers to the behavior of the transaction at the database level in relation to other transactions occurring concurrently. There are four well-known modes of isolation, and typically the Python DBAPI allows these to be set on a per-connection basis, either through explicit APIs or via database-specific calls.

SQLAlchemy’s dialects support settable isolation modes on a per-Engine or per-Connection basis, using flags at both the create_engine() level as well as at the Connection.execution_options() level.

When using the ORM Session, it acts as a facade for engines and connections, but does not expose transaction isolation directly. So in order to affect transaction isolation level, we need to act upon the Engine or Connection as appropriate.

Setting Isolation Engine-Wide

To set up a Session or sessionmaker with a specific isolation level globally, use the create_engine.isolation_level parameter:

from sqlalchemy import create_engine
from sqlalchemy.orm import sessionmaker

eng = create_engine(

maker = sessionmaker(bind=eng)

session = maker()

Setting Isolation for Individual Sessions

When we make a new Session, either using the constructor directly or when we call upon the callable produced by a sessionmaker, we can pass the bind argument directly, overriding the pre-existing bind. We can combine this with the Engine.execution_options() method in order to produce a copy of the original Engine that will add this option:

session = maker(

For the case where the Session or sessionmaker is configured with multiple “binds”, we can either re-specify the binds argument fully, or if we want to only replace specific binds, we can use the Session.bind_mapper() or Session.bind_table() methods:

session = maker()
    User, user_engine.execution_options(isolation_level='SERIALIZABLE'))

We can also use the individual transaction method that follows.

Setting Isolation for Individual Transactions

A key caveat regarding isolation level is that the setting cannot be safely modified on a Connection where a transaction has already started. Databases cannot change the isolation level of a transaction in progress, and some DBAPIs and SQLAlchemy dialects have inconsistent behaviors in this area. Some may implicitly emit a ROLLBACK and some may implicitly emit a COMMIT, others may ignore the setting until the next transaction. Therefore SQLAlchemy emits a warning if this option is set when a transaction is already in play. The Session object does not provide for us a Connection for use in a transaction where the transaction is not already begun. So here, we need to pass execution options to the Session at the start of a transaction by passing Session.connection.execution_options provided by the Session.connection() method:

from sqlalchemy.orm import Session

sess = Session(bind=engine)
sess.connection(execution_options={'isolation_level': 'SERIALIZABLE'})

# work with session

# commit transaction.  the connection is released
# and reverted to its previous isolation level.

Above, we first produce a Session using either the constructor or a sessionmaker. Then we explicitly set up the start of a transaction by calling upon Session.connection(), which provides for execution options that will be passed to the connection before the transaction is begun. If we are working with a Session that has multiple binds or some other custom scheme for Session.get_bind(), we can pass additional arguments to Session.connection() in order to affect how the bind is procured:

sess = my_sesssionmaker()

# set up a transaction for the bind associated with
# the User mapper
    execution_options={'isolation_level': 'SERIALIZABLE'})

# work with session

# commit transaction.  the connection is released
# and reverted to its previous isolation level.

The Session.connection.execution_options argument is only accepted on the first call to Session.connection() for a particular bind within a transaction. If a transaction is already begun on the target connection, a warning is emitted:

>>> session = Session(eng)
>>> session.execute("select 1")
<sqlalchemy.engine.result.ResultProxy object at 0x1017a6c50>
>>> session.connection(execution_options={'isolation_level': 'SERIALIZABLE'})
sqlalchemy/orm/ SAWarning: Connection is already established
for the given bind; execution_options ignored

New in version 0.9.9: Added the Session.connection.execution_options parameter to Session.connection().

Tracking Transaction State with Events

See the section Transaction Events for an overview of the available event hooks for session transaction state changes.

Joining a Session into an External Transaction (such as for test suites)

If a Connection is being used which is already in a transactional state (i.e. has a Transaction established), a Session can be made to participate within that transaction by just binding the Session to that Connection. The usual rationale for this is a test suite that allows ORM code to work freely with a Session, including the ability to call Session.commit(), where afterwards the entire database interaction is rolled back:

from sqlalchemy.orm import sessionmaker
from sqlalchemy import create_engine
from unittest import TestCase

# global application scope.  create Session class, engine
Session = sessionmaker()

engine = create_engine('postgresql://...')

class SomeTest(TestCase):
    def setUp(self):
        # connect to the database
        self.connection = engine.connect()

        # begin a non-ORM transaction
        self.trans = self.connection.begin()

        # bind an individual Session to the connection
        self.session = Session(bind=self.connection)

    def test_something(self):
        # use the session in tests.


    def tearDown(self):

        # rollback - everything that happened with the
        # Session above (including calls to commit())
        # is rolled back.

        # return connection to the Engine

Above, we issue Session.commit() as well as Transaction.rollback(). This is an example of where we take advantage of the Connection object’s ability to maintain subtransactions, or nested begin/commit-or-rollback pairs where only the outermost begin/commit pair actually commits the transaction, or if the outermost block rolls back, everything is rolled back.

Supporting Tests with Rollbacks

The above recipe works well for any kind of database enabled test, except for a test that needs to actually invoke Session.rollback() within the scope of the test itself. The above recipe can be expanded, such that the Session always runs all operations within the scope of a SAVEPOINT, which is established at the start of each transaction, so that tests can also rollback the “transaction” as well while still remaining in the scope of a larger “transaction” that’s never committed, using two extra events:

from sqlalchemy import event

class SomeTest(TestCase):

    def setUp(self):
        # connect to the database
        self.connection = engine.connect()

        # begin a non-ORM transaction
        self.trans = connection.begin()

        # bind an individual Session to the connection
        self.session = Session(bind=self.connection)

        # start the session in a SAVEPOINT...

        # then each time that SAVEPOINT ends, reopen it
        @event.listens_for(self.session, "after_transaction_end")
        def restart_savepoint(session, transaction):
            if transaction.nested and not transaction._parent.nested:

                # ensure that state is expired the way
                # session.commit() at the top level normally does
                # (optional step)


    # ... the tearDown() method stays the same
Previous: Cascades Next: Additional Persistence Techniques