PostgreSQL timestamps: With or without time zone?

I am currently building a toy project to learn Rust and VueJS. Like most applications it needs to store data and I'm using PostgreSQL (PG) as the database due to familiarity. When creating the db schema I had to make a choice - should the timestamp column be with or without time zone?

I've often run into this question and based on my superficial understanding and the fact that both variants take up same space in postgresql, I've always chosen WITH TIME ZONE and moved on. If there's no additional cost, "with" must be better than "without", right? But there's definitely more to it, otherwise why would the db provide options?

Incidentally, some timestamps in my application are critical to the business logic and not merely the usual created_at and updated_at columns. Any processing such as time zone conversions or adding/subtracting intervals is something I'd happily let the database take care of, so it's important for me to have correct up front understanding of how the two variants will behave with various date/time functions and operators (particularly AT TIME ZONE and INTERVAL for the above mentioned use cases).

While the official documentation does cover these topics, I found it a bit terse at first. Things became clear to me only after actually trying out some queries and then the docs started making sense. In this blog post I'll try to explain the difference between the two variants using the same queries that helped me understand it. I'll also include some practical examples to help decide which one to use when.

Henceforth in this post, I'll refer to the "WITH" variant as timestampz and the "WITHOUT" variant as just timestamp. Official docs use the same terminology.

Before diving into the queries, here's my setup:

  • PostgreSQL version 16.0 running inside a linux container (using podman) on MacOS.

  • The time zone of the podman machine, and hence the container is UTC.

  • The local time zone on the host machine (MacOS) is 'Asia/Kolkata' or Indian standard time (IST) which is UTC+530.

  • Finally, the timezone setting configured for the server is UTC. This is an important piece of information, we'll see why in a few minutes.

Let's start by running a simple query that outputs the current timestamp. I'm using the now function to do this. At the time of running the query, the local time here in India is 6:36PM

    postgres=# select now();
     2023-11-28 13:06:48.961341+00
    (1 row)

As you can see, the result is displayed in UTC (notice the +00 suffix) and that's because the value of the timezone setting configured for the server is UTC. Also note that this value is time zone aware and hence a timestampz.

It's possible to override the timezone setting per session so let's confirm the above by setting it to another time zone.

    postgres=# set timezone = 'US/Pacific';
    postgres=# select now();
    2023-11-28 05:17:43.352201-08
    (1 row)

And now the result is displayed as per 'US/Pacific' time.

Internally, postgresql stores timestamp values in UTC and as per my understanding, there's no way to configure this. The result that gets displayed is implicitly converted from UTC (internal representation) into a time zone which can either be configured for the server or set (overridden) for the psql session. Henceforth, I'll refer to it as the client time zone 1.

Before proceeding further, I'll just reset the client time zone back to UTC.

    postgres=# set timezone = 'UTC';

For the the next set of examples, we'll create a test table with 3 fields,

  1. an int (to be used as an identifier),
  2. a timestampz,
  3. a timestamp

And then we'll insert a row with the current timestamp in both the timestamp columns.

    CREATE TABLE test (
        id int,
        tsz timestamp with time zone,
        ts timestamp without time zone

    INSERT INTO test VALUES (1, now(), now());

And now let's run a query.

    postgres=# select * from test;
     id |              tsz              |            ts
     1  | 2023-11-28 13:28:35.944451+00 | 2023-11-28 13:28:35.944451
    (1 row)

As expected, tsz has an extra time zone component in the output (notice the +00) which is missing in ts. For reference, the current time in IST at the time of running the above query is 6:58PM.

One problem with inserting data using the now function is that the value keeps changing, which I feel is a cognitive overhead when trying to make sense of the results. To avoid that, let's insert another row in the table but this time I'll explicitly specify a timestamp along with a time zone.

    postgres=# insert into test values (2, '2023-11-28 21:00+530', '2023-11-28 21:00+530');
    INSERT 0 1

    postgres=# select * from test where id = 2;
     id |           tsz          |         ts
      2 | 2023-11-28 15:30:00+00 | 2023-11-28 21:00:00
    (1 row)

Note that the exact same value 2023-11-28 21:00+530 was inserted (along with the time zone) in the two columns. But in the output, tsz is interpreted in UTC (again because of configured timezone setting) whereas ts is returned as it is.

This is what's happening:

  1. At the time of insertion, tsz being a timestampz is aware of the specified time zone offset +530 (IST). Before storing the value, it gets internally converted to UTC.

  2. But ts, being just a timestamp, the time zone offset is disregarded while storing it.

  3. At the time of interpreting the result of the select query, tsz gets converted to client time zone of UTC. But ts is returned as it is.

As you can see, in case of tsz the result that we get is very much affected by the implicit conversion from the input time zone to the client time zone. What if we do the conversion explicitly?

    postgres=# SELECT
    postgres-#     tsz AT TIME ZONE 'Asia/Kolkata' as tsz,
    postgres-#     ts AT TIME ZONE 'Asia/Kolkata' as ts
    postgres-# FROM
    postgres-#     test
    postgres-# WHERE
    postgres-#     id = 2;
             tsz         |           ts
     2023-11-28 21:00:00 | 2023-11-28 15:30:00+00
    (1 row)

Wow! What's going on here?

  1. tsz was converted to 'Asia/Kolkata' time zone. This makes sense. It's the same value we had inserted.

  2. ts was converted to UTC which may come as a surprise.

  3. And in case you missed it - the value of tsz is a timestamp whereas the value of ts is a timestampz!

Before drawing any conclusions, let's try converting to some other time zone, say 'US/Pacific':

    postgres=# SELECT
    postgres-#     tsz at time zone 'US/Pacific' as tsz,
    postgres-#     ts at time zone 'US/Pacific' as ts
    postgres-# FROM
    postgres-#     test
    postgres-# WHERE
    postgres-#     id = 2;
             tsz         |           ts
     2023-11-28 07:30:00 | 2023-11-29 05:00:00+00
    (1 row)

The above observations still check out. This is what's going on:

When the AT TIME ZONE operator is applied to a timestampz, it converts the stored value in UTC to the specified time zone and returns a timestamp.

When the AT TIME ZONE operator is applied to a timestamp, it assumes the stored value in the specified time zone (Asia/Kolkata or US/Pacific in the above queries) and converts it into the client time zone i.e. UTC. The result is a timestampz.

In other words, AT TIME ZONE adds time zone to a timestamp value that lacks it. Whereas, it shifts time zone of a time zone aware timestampz value to the specified time zone and returns a value without a time zone.

The above explanation is not much different from the one in the official docs, although it's much easier to understand by actually trying out these queries.

Let's see what happens if we apply the AT TIME ZONE operator twice.

    postgres=# SELECT
    postgres-#     tsz AS tsz_orig,
    postgres-#     tsz AT TIME ZONE 'US/Pacific' AS tsz_once,
    postgres-#     (tsz AT TIME ZONE 'US/Pacific') AT TIME ZONE 'US/Pacific' AS tsz_twice
    postgres-# FROM
    postgres-#     test
    postgres-# WHERE
    postgres-#     id = 2;
            tsz_orig        |      tsz_once       |        tsz_twice
     2023-11-28 15:30:00+00 | 2023-11-28 07:30:00 | 2023-11-28 15:30:00+00

As you can see, tsz_twice is exactly equal to tsz_orig. This means AT TIME ZONE applied for the second time cancels out the effect of applying it once, in terms of both, adding the offset as well as converting the data type. If you try the same query with ts, you'll find that it behaves similarly.

Before proceeding to the next section on deciding which one to use when, one important observation about explicit v/s implicit time zone conversions:

  • When we convert time zone explicitly using AT TIME ZONE, the value and type of both variants are affected (timestampz gets converted to timestamp and vice versa).

  • On the other hand, implicit conversion to client time zone affects only timestampz values. Moreover only the value changes (offset gets added) but the type stays the same (timestampz remains timestampz).

Take away: If you want time zone conversion in the result, always do so explicitly using AT TIME ZONE, even if the target time zone happens to be the same as client time zone.

When should you use timestampz?

In case of timestampz, the db takes into account the specified time zone and converts it into UTC at the time of insertion. Hence, it's suitable in places where we want to capture an exact instant in time. Regardless of the time zone of the user/client/app, it will always be stored in UTC and at the time of reading we have a choice to convert it into the required time zone.

The created_at and updated_at columns are a good example of where timestampz is suitable. Imagine that these fields are part of a messages table that's used in a typical chat application. Suppose there are two users located in different time zones sending messages to each other using this app. When storing a message in the db, we want to capture the exact instant in time and store it in the created_at column. While displaying the messages to each user, we can convert them to their respective time zones.

This also means that a timestamp value in the db will continue to represent the same instant in time even if the timezone setting is changed. After all, timezone setting is nothing but default time zone for the psql client.

In short, if you want to represent an instant or moment in time, this is the way to go.

When should you use timestamp?

In case of timestamp, the value stored in the db is without any time zone context. At the time of reading it from the db, the application may attach a time zone context to it if required.

Here is a an example use case for timestamp which might be a bit contrived (or not!). Consider a reminder app which allows its users to add entries specifying the date and time of the day at which they want to be reminded of something. It's reasonable for such an app to assume that the users want to be reminded as per their local time zone. Now imagine a particular user of this app who stays in India but has to travel to Singapore next week for a business meeting. Before departing from India, she sets a reminder for 8:20AM on coming Tuesday, i.e. at a time when she'd be in Singapore. Here, the current time zone of the user is irrelevant at the time of creating the reminder, so there's no point in storing it as a timestampz. A time zone context will have to be attached to it only when the time comes (i.e. the reminder is due), which may be in an unknown time zone!

In this case, the app can use a timestamp type to store a time zone agnostic time value in the db and at the time of reading, it can attach the time zone context to it as per the current time zone of the user. Think of it as asking the db,

The user has set a reminder for 5th Dec 8:20AM. What would be the instant in time if the user is currently located in Singapore? Please return it in the time zone I (client) prefer.

Let's try this out with an actual value. Suppose the user sets the reminder for 2023-12-05 08:20:00. Being a timestamp type, this value will be stored in the db as it is. At the time of querying, the app can ask the db to convert it to the timezone setting (UTC for simplicity 2) considering the local time zone of 'Asia/Singapore'.

    CREATE TABLE reminders (
        user_id int,
        topic text,
        remind_at timestamp without time zone

    INSERT INTO reminders
        VALUES (1, 'pre-book cab', '2023-12-05 08:20:00');

        user_id = 1
        AND now() >= remind_at AT TIME ZONE 'Asia/Singapore';

In the where clause above, both the L.H.S and R.H.S will be timestampz values in the client time zone. Whereas the user's current time zone 'Asia/Singapore' is something that can be obtained and/or periodically synced from the application frontend (web browser or mobile app).

For e.g. if the query is run inside a per minute cronjob 3, then the one that gets triggered at 00:20 UTC on 5th Dec will return the above reminder (Singapore being 8 hours ahead of UTC - considering UTC as the server time as well as the client time zone).

What if time zones don't matter (for your app)?

I haven't mentioned any case where time zones don't matter. In my experience, I've yet to come across such a (realistic) use case. If you happen to know any, please let me know. In today's well connected world, there's always a possibility - what if the user travels to another country with a different time zone? In case of a personal project, that user would be you. Even in case of those apps that are meant to be operational in only one specific region (eg. cab booking, food delivery etc.), there could be reasons to support multiple time zones e.g. what if some one staying in the US wants to use Zomato/Swiggy to order food for their family or friends in India 4.

Final thoughts

The decision about which variant of timestamp to use for a particular column is an important one and needs to be taken at the time of schema design. Always using timestampz just because there's no extra cost in storing data is a lazy choice which may come back to bite you later. At that point, it'd be impossible to fix it without introducing hard coded assumptions and performing time zone conversion gymnastics in business logic. Thinking about time zones right from the beginning may also simply the system by letting the db perform the necessary time zone operations instead of the application code, which I believe is a win.


  1. https://www.postgresql.org/docs/current/datatype-datetime.html

  2. https://www.postgresql.org/docs/current/functions-datetime.html#FUNCTIONS-DATETIME-ZONECONVERT

  3. https://www.enterprisedb.com/postgres-tutorials/postgres-time-zone-explained


1. Even though the timezone setting is configured for the server, it represents the time zone in which a timestamp value is displayed to the client. Hence "client time zone" is an appropriate name for it. Think of it as the default client time zone that the server will use if the client doesn't set one.

2. It's always easier to use UTC as the reference for calculating offsets. Hence it's usually recommended to use UTC as the application time. I believe it's the same reason why PostgreSQL (if you consider it a server application) internally stores timestamps in UTC only.

3. For the sake of this example, I am considering a simple implementation of the reminder app that uses a per minute cronjob as the "timer", that triggers a polling query to fetch all reminders due in a 1 min time window. I doubt if real world reminder apps would be using cronjob for the timer, but a similar query could be used with any timer implementation.

4. Not sure if Zomato, Swiggy support this use case but it'd be commendable if they do.

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