Structuring a complex schema

When writing computer programs of even moderate complexity, it's commonly accepted that "structuring" the program into reusable functions is better than copying-and-pasting duplicate bits of code everywhere they are used. Likewise in JSON Schema, for anything but the most trivial schema, it's really useful to structure the schema into parts that can be reused in a number of places. This chapter will present the tools available for reusing and structuring schemas as well as some practical examples that use those tools.

Schema Identification

Like any other code, schemas are easier to maintain if they can be broken down into logical units that reference each other as necessary. In order to reference a schema, we need a way to identify a schema. Schema documents are identified by non-relative URIs.

Schema documents are not required to have an identifier, but you will need one if you want to reference one schema from another. In this documentation, we will refer to schemas with no identifier as "anonymous schemas".

In the following sections we will see how the "identifier" for a schema is determined.

URI terminology can sometimes be unintuitive. In this document, the following definitions are used.

  • URI [1] or non-relative URI: A full URI containing a scheme (https). It may contain a URI fragment (#foo). Sometimes this document will use "non-relative URI" to make it extra clear that relative URIs are not allowed.
  • relative reference [2]: A partial URI that does not contain a scheme (https). It may contain a fragment (#foo).
  • URI-reference [3]: A relative reference or non-relative URI. It may contain a URI fragment (#foo).
  • absolute URI [4] A full URI containing a scheme (https) but not a URI fragment (#foo).

Even though schemas are identified by URIs, those identifiers are not necessarily network-addressable. They are just identifiers. Generally, implementations don't make HTTP requests (https://) or read from the file system (file://) to fetch schemas. Instead, they provide a way to load schemas into an internal schema database. When a schema is referenced by it's URI identifier, the schema is retrieved from the internal schema database.

Base URI

Using non-relative URIs can be cumbersome, so any URIs used in JSON Schema can be URI-references that resolve against the schema's base URI resulting in a non-relative URI. This section describes how a schema's base URI is determined.

Base URI determination and relative reference resolution is defined by RFC-3986. If you are familiar with how this works in HTML, this section should feel very familiar.

Retrieval URI

The URI used to fetch a schema is known as the "retrieval URI". It's often possible to pass an anonymous schema to an implementation in which case that schema would have no retrieval URI.

Let's assume a schema is referenced using the URI and the following schema is retrieved.

{ "type": "object", "properties": { "street_address": { "type": "string" }, "city": { "type": "string" }, "state": { "type": "string" } }, "required": ["street_address", "city", "state"]}

The base URI for this schema is the same as the retrieval URI,


You can set the base URI by using the $id keyword at the root of the schema. The value of $id is a URI-reference without a fragment that resolves against the retrieval-uri. The resulting URI is the base URI for the schema.

Draft-specific info:
Draft 4
Draft 4-7
In Draft 4, $id is just id (without the dollar sign).

This is analogous to the <base> tag in HTML.

When the $id keyword appears in a subschema, it means something slightly different. See the bundling section for more.

Let's assume the URIs and both identify the following schema.

{ "$id": "/schemas/address",
"type": "object", "properties": { "street_address": { "type": "string" }, "city": { "type": "string" }, "state": { "type": "string" } }, "required": ["street_address", "city", "state"]}

No matter which of the two URIs is used to retrieve this schema, the base URI will be, which is the result of the $id URI-reference resolving against the Retrieval URI.

However, using a relative reference when setting a base URI can be problematic. For example, we couldn't use this schema as an anonymous schema because there would be no Retrieval URI and you can't resolve a relative reference against nothing. For this and other reasons, it's recommended that you always use an absolute URI when declaring a base URI with $id.

The base URI of the following schema will always be no matter what the Retrieval URI was or if it's used as an anonymous schema.

{ "$id": "",
"type": "object", "properties": { "street_address": { "type": "string" }, "city": { "type": "string" }, "state": { "type": "string" } }, "required": ["street_address", "city", "state"]}

JSON Pointer

In addition to identifying a schema document, you can also identify subschemas. The most common way to do that is to use a JSON Pointer in the URI fragment that points to the subschema.

A JSON Pointer describes a slash-separated path to traverse the keys in the objects in the document. Therefore, /properties/street_address means:

  • 1) find the value of the key properties
  • 2) within that object, find the value of the key street_address

The URI identifies the highlighted subschema in the following schema.

{ "$id": "", "type": "object", "properties": { "street_address": { "type": "string" }, "city": { "type": "string" }, "state": { "type": "string" } }, "required": ["street_address", "city", "state"]}


A less common way to identify a subschema is to create a named anchor in the schema using the $anchor keyword and using that name in the URI fragment. Anchors must start with a letter followed by any number of letters, digits, -, _, :, or ..

Draft-specific info:
Draft 4
Draft 6-7

In Draft 4, you declare an anchor the same way you do in Draft 6-7 except that $id is just id (without the dollar sign).

If a named anchor is defined that doesn't follow these naming rules, then behavior is undefined. Your anchors might work in some implementation, but not others.

The URI identifies the subschema on the highlighted part of the following schema.

{ "$id": "", "type": "object", "properties": { "street_address": { "$anchor": "street_address", "type": "string" }, "city": { "type": "string" }, "state": { "type": "string" } }, "required": ["street_address", "city", "state"]}


A schema can reference another schema using the $ref keyword. The value of $ref is a URI-reference that is resolved against the schema's Base URI. When evaluating a $ref, an implementation uses the resolved identifier to retrieve the referenced schema and applies that schema to the instance.

Draft-specific info
In Draft 4-7, $ref behaves a little differently. When an object contains a $ref property, the object is considered a reference, not a schema. Therefore, any other properties you put in that object will not be treated as JSON Schema keywords and will be ignored by the validator. $ref can only be used where a schema is expected.

For this example, let's say we want to define a customer record, where each customer may have both a shipping and a billing address. Addresses are always the same — they have a street address, city and state — so we don't want to duplicate that part of the schema everywhere we want to store an address. Not only would that make the schema more verbose, but it makes updating it in the future more difficult. If our imaginary company were to start doing international business in the future and we wanted to add a country field to all the addresses, it would be better to do this in a single place rather than everywhere that addresses are used.

{ "$id": "",
"type": "object", "properties": { "first_name": { "type": "string" }, "last_name": { "type": "string" }, "shipping_address": { "$ref": "/schemas/address" }, "billing_address": { "$ref": "/schemas/address" } }, "required": ["first_name", "last_name", "shipping_address", "billing_address"]}

The URI-references in $ref resolve against the schema's Base URI ( which results in The implementation retrieves that schema and uses it to evaluate the "shipping_address" and "billing_address" properties.

When using $ref in an anonymous schema, relative references may not be resolvable. Let's assume this example is used as an anonymous schema

{ "type": "object", "properties": { "first_name": { "type": "string" }, "last_name": { "type": "string" }, "shipping_address": { "$ref": "" }, "billing_address": { "$ref": "/schemas/address" } }, "required": ["first_name", "last_name", "shipping_address", "billing_address"]}

The $ref at /properties/shipping_address can resolve just fine without a non-relative base URI to resolve against, but the $ref at /properties/billing_address can't resolve to a non-relative URI and therefore can't be used to retrieve the address schema.


Sometimes we have small subschemas that are only intended for use in the current schema and it doesn't make sense to define them as separate schemas. Although we can identify any subschema using JSON Pointers or named anchors, the $defs keyword gives us a standardized place to keep subschemas intended for reuse in the current schema document.

Let's extend the previous customer schema example to use a common schema for the name properties. It doesn't make sense to define a new schema for this and it will only be used in this schema, so it's a good candidate for using $defs.

{ "$id": "",
"type": "object", "properties": { "first_name": { "$ref": "#/$defs/name" }, "last_name": { "$ref": "#/$defs/name" }, "shipping_address": { "$ref": "/schemas/address" }, "billing_address": { "$ref": "/schemas/address" } }, "required": ["first_name", "last_name", "shipping_address", "billing_address"],
"$defs": { "name": { "type": "string" } }}

$defs isn't just good for avoiding duplication. It can also be useful for writing schemas that are easier to read and maintain. Complex parts of the schema can be defined in $defs with descriptive names and referenced where it's needed. This allows readers of the schema to more quickly and easily understand the schema at a high level before diving into the more complex parts.

It's possible to reference an external subschema, but generally you want to limit a $ref to referencing either an external schema or an internal subschema defined in $defs.


The $ref keyword may be used to create recursive schemas that refer to themselves. For example, you might have a person schema that has an array of children, each of which are also person instances.

{ "type": "object", "properties": { "name": { "type": "string" }, "children": { "type": "array", "items": { "$ref": "#" } } }}

A snippet of the British royal family tree

{ "name": "Elizabeth", "children": [ { "name": "Charles", "children": [ { "name": "William", "children": [ { "name": "George" }, { "name": "Charlotte" } ] }, { "name": "Harry" } ] } ]}
compliant to schema

Above, we created a schema that refers to itself, effectively creating a "loop" in the validator, which is both allowed and useful. Note, however, that a $ref referring to another $ref could cause an infinite loop in the resolver, and is explicitly disallowed.

{ "$defs": { "alice": { "$ref": "#/$defs/bob" }, "bob": { "$ref": "#/$defs/alice" } }}

Extending Recursive Schemas

New in draft 2019-09

Documentation Coming Soon


Working with multiple schema documents is convenient for development, but it's often more convenient for distribution to bundle all of your schemas into a single schema document. This can be done using the $id keyword in a subschema. When $id is used in a subschema, it indicates an embedded schema. The identifier for the embedded schema is the value of $id resolved against the Base URI of the schema it appears in. A schema document that includes embedded schemas is called a Compound Schema Document. Each schema with an $id in a Compound Schema Document is called a Schema Resource.

Draft-specific info:
Draft 4
Draft 4-7
In Draft 4, $id is just id (without the dollar sign).

This is analogous to the <iframe> tag in HTML.

It is unusual to use embedded schemas when developing schemas. It's generally best not to use this feature explicitly and use schema bundling tools to construct bundled schemas if such a thing is needed. :::

This example shows the customer schema example and the address schema example bundled into a Compound Schema Document.

{ "$id": "", "$schema": "",
"type": "object", "properties": { "first_name": { "type": "string" }, "last_name": { "type": "string" }, "shipping_address": { "$ref": "/schemas/address" }, "billing_address": { "$ref": "/schemas/address" } }, "required": ["first_name", "last_name", "shipping_address", "billing_address"],
"$defs": { "address": { "$id": "", "$schema": "",
"type": "object", "properties": { "street_address": { "type": "string" }, "city": { "type": "string" }, "state": { "$ref": "#/definitions/state" } }, "required": ["street_address", "city", "state"],
"definitions": { "state": { "enum": ["CA", "NY", "... etc ..."] } } } }}

All references in a Compound Schema Document need to be the same whether the Schema Resources are bundled or not. Notice that the $ref keywords from the customer schema have not changed. The only difference is that the address schema is now defined at /$defs/address instead of a separate schema document. You couldn't use #/$defs/address to reference the address schema because if you unbundled the schema, that reference would no longer point to the address schema.

Draft-specific info
In Draft 4-7, both of these URIs are valid because a subschema $id only represented a base URI change, not an embedded schema. However, even though it's allowed, it's still highly recommended that JSON Pointers don't cross a schema with a base URI change.

You should also see that "$ref": "#/definitions/state" resolves to the definitions keyword in the address schema rather than the one at the top level schema like it would if the embedded schema wasn't used.

Each Schema Resource is evaluated independently and may use different JSON Schema dialects. The example above has the address Schema Resource using Draft 7 while the customer Schema Resource uses Draft 2020-12. If no $schema is declared in an embedded schema, it defaults to using the dialect of the parent schema.

Draft-specific info
In Draft 4-7, a subschema $id is just a base URI change and not considered an independent Schema Resource. Because $schema is only allowed at the root of a Schema Resource, all schemas bundled using subschema $id must use the same dialect.
Draft-specific info
In Draft 2020-12, support for changing dialects in an embedded schema (using $schema with a different value than the parent schema) was added.

Need Help?

Did you find these docs helpful?

Help us make our docs great!

At JSON Schema, we value docs contributions as much as every other type of contribution!

Still Need Help?

Learning JSON Schema is often confusing, but don't worry, we are here to help!.