Which Data Structure Is Best for BFS?


Heather Bennett

Breadth-First Search (BFS) is a popular graph traversal algorithm used to explore all the vertices of a graph in a breadthward motion. It starts at a given vertex and explores all its neighboring vertices before moving on to the next level. BFS is widely used in various applications, such as finding the shortest path, detecting cycles, or solving puzzles.

Choosing the Right Data Structure for BFS

The efficiency of the BFS algorithm greatly depends on the data structure chosen for storing and managing the vertices. The choice of data structure affects both the time complexity and space complexity of the algorithm.

1. Queue

In BFS, we need to visit each vertex in a specific order – first in, first out (FIFO). A queue data structure perfectly suits this requirement. It allows us to insert elements at one end and remove elements from the other end.

To implement BFS using a queue, we start with an empty queue and enqueue the starting vertex. Then, while there are vertices in the queue, we dequeue a vertex, visit it, and enqueue its unvisited neighbors.

The advantage of using a queue is that it ensures that each vertex is visited only once (if implemented correctly). Additionally, inserting and removing elements from a queue can be done efficiently with a time complexity of O(1).

2. Linked List or Array

Another option for implementing BFS is using either a linked list or an array to store the vertices. In this approach, we maintain two lists: one for storing visited vertices and another for storing vertices yet to be visited.

We start by initializing both lists with only the starting vertex. Then, while there are unvisited vertices in our second list, we visit each unvisited vertex, mark it as visited by moving it to the first list, and append its unvisited neighbors to the second list.

Using a linked list or array for BFS has its advantages. It allows us to easily keep track of visited vertices and unvisited vertices. However, removing an element from an array or linked list requires shifting all subsequent elements, resulting in a time complexity of O(n).

3. Priority Queue

In some cases, we might want to explore the graph in a specific order defined by priorities assigned to the vertices. This is where a priority queue comes into play.

A priority queue stores elements with associated priorities and allows us to extract the element with the highest (or lowest) priority efficiently. By assigning priorities to vertices based on certain criteria, we can ensure that BFS visits them in the desired order.

The advantage of using a priority queue is that it allows us to prioritize certain vertices over others, which can be useful in various scenarios. However, implementing a priority queue can be more complex and may have a higher space complexity compared to other data structures.


Choosing the right data structure for BFS is essential for achieving optimal performance in terms of time and space complexity. While each data structure has its advantages and disadvantages, using a queue is generally considered the most efficient option for implementing BFS due to its inherent FIFO behavior.

However, depending on specific requirements or constraints of your application, other data structures like linked lists or arrays (for simpler cases) or priority queues (for prioritized exploration) may also be viable choices.

In summary, understanding the characteristics and trade-offs of different data structures will help you make an informed decision when choosing the best data structure for BFS in your particular use case.

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