What Is Priority Queue Data Structure?


Larry Thompson

A priority queue data structure is an abstract data type that allows elements to be inserted with a priority and retrieved according to their priority level. In a regular queue, elements are stored and retrieved in a first-in-first-out (FIFO) manner, whereas in a priority queue, elements are stored and retrieved based on their priority.

Priority Queue: A Brief Overview
A priority queue is a collection of elements with each element having an associated priority value. The element with the highest priority is always placed at the front of the queue and is the first one to be dequeued. This differs from other data structures where elements are processed based on their arrival time or in some other predefined order.

How Does a Priority Queue Work?
A priority queue can be implemented using various data structures, such as arrays, linked lists, binary heaps, or balanced search trees. Each implementation has its advantages and trade-offs in terms of time complexity for insertion and retrieval operations.

  • Array-based Implementation: In this implementation, the elements are stored in an array along with their corresponding priorities. Insertion takes linear time complexity O(n), as it requires shifting all higher-priority elements to make room for the new element. Retrieval of the highest-priority element takes constant time complexity O(1) by accessing the first element in the array.
  • Linked List-based Implementation: Here, each element is stored as a node with its associated priority value. Insertion can be done efficiently by traversing through the linked list until finding the correct position based on priorities. However, retrieval of the highest-priority element requires searching through all nodes to find the maximum value, resulting in linear time complexity O(n).
  • Binary Heap Implementation: A binary heap is a complete binary tree that satisfies the heap property.

    In a max-heap, the value of each node is greater than or equal to the values of its children. This property allows for efficient insertion and retrieval operations. Insertion has a time complexity of O(log n) as it involves comparing and swapping elements to maintain the heap property. Retrieval of the highest-priority element also takes O(log n) time complexity by extracting the root element and then restoring the heap property.

  • Balanced Search Tree Implementation: A balanced search tree, such as a red-black tree or an AVL tree, can also be used to implement a priority queue. These trees maintain a balanced structure, allowing for logarithmic time complexity for both insertion and retrieval operations.

Use Cases

Priority queues find applications in various domains where ordering elements based on their priority is crucial. Some common use cases include:

  • Task Scheduling: In operating systems, priority queues are used to prioritize tasks based on their importance or urgency.
  • Event-driven Simulations: In simulations like network traffic modeling or event-driven systems, priority queues help in processing events based on their scheduled occurrence time.
  • Dijkstra’s Shortest Path Algorithm: Priority queues are used in graph algorithms like Dijkstra’s algorithm to prioritize nodes during traversal and find the shortest path efficiently.


In conclusion, a priority queue data structure allows elements to be stored and retrieved based on their priority values. It provides an efficient way of handling tasks or events that require prioritization. The choice of implementation depends on specific requirements such as time complexity constraints and trade-offs between insertion and retrieval operations.

Whether you choose an array-based implementation for simplicity or opt for more complex structures like binary heaps or balanced search trees for improved efficiency, understanding the concept and use cases of a priority queue can greatly enhance your ability to solve problems in various domains.

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