Versions and constraints#

Composer Versions vs VCS Versions#

Because Composer is heavily geared toward utilizing version control systems like git, the term "version" can be a little ambiguous. In the sense of a version control system, a "version" is a specific set of files that contain specific data. In git terminology, this is a "ref", or a specific commit, which may be represented by a branch HEAD or a tag. When you check out that version in your VCS -- for example, tag v1.1 or commit e35fa0d --, you're asking for a single, known set of files, and you always get the same files back.

In Composer, what's often referred to casually as a version -- that is, the string that follows the package name in a require line (e.g., ~1.1 or 1.2.*) -- is actually more specifically a version constraint. Composer uses version constraints to figure out which refs in a VCS it should be checking out (or to verify that a given library is acceptable in the case of a statically-maintained library with a version specification in composer.json).

VCS Tags and Branches#

For the following discussion, let's assume the following sample library repository:

~/my-library$ git branch
~/my-library$ git tag


Normally, Composer deals with tags (as opposed to branches -- if you don't know what this means, read up on version control systems). When you write a version constraint, it may reference a specific tag (e.g., 1.1) or it may reference a valid range of tags (e.g., >=1.1 <2.0, or ~4.0). To resolve these constraints, Composer first asks the VCS to list all available tags, then creates an internal list of available versions based on these tags. In the above example, composer's internal list includes versions 1.0, 1.0.1, 1.0.2, the beta release of 1.1, the first and second release candidates of 1.1, the final release version 1.1, etc.... (Note that Composer automatically removes the 'v' prefix in the actual tagname to get a valid final version number.)

When Composer has a complete list of available versions from your VCS, it then finds the highest version that matches all version constraints in your project (it's possible that other packages require more specific versions of the library than you do, so the version it chooses may not always be the highest available version) and it downloads a zip archive of that tag to unpack in the correct location in your vendor directory.


If you want Composer to check out a branch instead of a tag, you need to point it to the branch using the special dev-* prefix (or sometimes suffix; see below). If you're checking out a branch, it's assumed that you want to work on the branch and Composer actually clones the repo into the correct place in your vendor directory. For tags, it copies the right files without actually cloning the repo. (You can modify this behavior with --prefer-source and --prefer-dist, see install options.)

In the above example, if you wanted to check out the my-feature branch, you would specify dev-my-feature as the version constraint in your require clause. This would result in Composer cloning the my-library repository into my vendor directory and checking out the my-feature branch.

When branch names look like versions, we have to clarify for Composer that we're trying to check out a branch and not a tag. In the above example, we have two version branches: v1 and v2. To get Composer to check out one of these branches, you must specify a version constraint that looks like this: v1.x-dev. The .x is an arbitrary string that Composer requires to tell it that we're talking about the v1 branch and not a v1 tag (alternatively, you can name the branch v1.x instead of v1). In the case of a branch with a version-like name (v1, in this case), you append -dev as a suffix, rather than using dev- as a prefix.


Composer recognizes the following stabilities (in order of stability): dev, alpha, beta, RC, and stable where RC stands for release candidate. The stability of a version is defined by its suffix e.g version v1.1-BETA has a stability of beta and v1.1-RC1 has a stability of RC. If such a suffix is missing e.g. version v1.1 then Composer considers that version stable. In addition to that Composer automatically adds a -dev suffix to all numeric branches and prefixes all other branches imported from a VCS repository with dev-. In both cases the stability dev gets assigned.

Keeping this in mind will help you in the next section.

Minimum Stability#

There's one more thing that will affect which files are checked out of a library's VCS and added to your project: Composer allows you to specify stability constraints to limit which tags are considered valid. In the above example, note that the library released a beta and two release candidates for version 1.1 before the final official release. To receive these versions when running composer install or composer update, we have to explicitly tell Composer that we are ok with release candidates and beta releases (and alpha releases, if we want those). This can be done using either a project-wide minimum-stability value in composer.json or using "stability flags" in version constraints. Read more on the schema page.

Writing Version Constraints#

Now that you have an idea of how Composer sees versions, let's talk about how to specify version constraints for your project dependencies.

Exact Version Constraint#

You can specify the exact version of a package. This will tell Composer to install this version and this version only. If other dependencies require a different version, the solver will ultimately fail and abort any install or update procedures.

Example: 1.0.2

Version Range#

By using comparison operators you can specify ranges of valid versions. Valid operators are >, >=, <, <=, !=.

You can define multiple ranges. Ranges separated by a space ( ) or comma (,) will be treated as a logical AND. A double pipe (||) will be treated as a logical OR. AND has higher precedence than OR.

Note: Be careful when using unbounded ranges as you might end up unexpectedly installing versions that break backwards compatibility. Consider using the caret operator instead for safety.

Note: In older versions of Composer the single pipe (|) was the recommended alternative to the logical OR. Thus for backwards compatibility the single pipe (|) will still be treated as a logical OR.


  • >=1.0
  • >=1.0 <2.0
  • >=1.0 <1.1 || >=1.2

Hyphenated Version Range (-)#

Inclusive set of versions. Partial versions on the right include are completed with a wildcard. For example 1.0 - 2.0 is equivalent to >=1.0.0 <2.1 as the 2.0 becomes 2.0.*. On the other hand 1.0.0 - 2.1.0 is equivalent to >=1.0.0 <=2.1.0.

Example: 1.0 - 2.0

Wildcard Version Range (.*)#

You can specify a pattern with a * wildcard. 1.0.* is the equivalent of >=1.0 <1.1.

Example: 1.0.*

Next Significant Release Operators#

Tilde Version Range (~)#

The ~ operator is best explained by example: ~1.2 is equivalent to >=1.2 <2.0.0, while ~1.2.3 is equivalent to >=1.2.3 <1.3.0. As you can see it is mostly useful for projects respecting semantic versioning. A common usage would be to mark the minimum minor version you depend on, like ~1.2 (which allows anything up to, but not including, 2.0). Since in theory there should be no backwards compatibility breaks until 2.0, that works well. Another way of looking at it is that using ~ specifies a minimum version, but allows the last digit specified to go up.

Example: ~1.2

Note: Although 2.0-beta.1 is strictly before 2.0, a version constraint like ~1.2 would not install it. As said above ~1.2 only means the .2 can change but the 1. part is fixed.

Note: The ~ operator has an exception on its behavior for the major release number. This means for example that ~1 is the same as ~1.0 as it will not allow the major number to increase trying to keep backwards compatibility.

Caret Version Range (^)#

The ^ operator behaves very similarly, but it sticks closer to semantic versioning, and will always allow non-breaking updates. For example ^1.2.3 is equivalent to >=1.2.3 <2.0.0 as none of the releases until 2.0 should break backwards compatibility. For pre-1.0 versions it also acts with safety in mind and treats ^0.3 as >=0.3.0 <0.4.0 and ^0.0.3 as >=0.0.3 <0.0.4.

This is the recommended operator for maximum interoperability when writing library code.

Example: ^1.2.3

Note: If you are using PowerShell on Windows, you have to escape carets when using them as argument on the CLI for example when using the composer require command. You have to use four subsequent caret operators, e.g. ^^^^1.2.3, to ensure the caret operator gets passed to Composer correctly.

Stability Constraints#

If you are using a constraint that does not explicitly define a stability, Composer will default internally to -dev or -stable, depending on the operator(s) used. This happens transparently.

If you wish to explicitly consider only the stable release in the comparison, add the suffix -stable.


Constraint Internally
1.2.3 =
>1.2 >
>=1.2 >=
>=1.2-stable >=
<1.3 <
<=1.3 <=
1 - 2 >= <
~1.3 >= <
1.4.* >= <

To allow various stabilities without enforcing them at the constraint level however, you may use stability-flags like @<stability> (e.g. @dev) to let Composer know that a given package can be installed in a different stability than your default minimum-stability setting. All available stability flags are listed on the minimum-stability section of the schema page.


"require": {
    "vendor/package": "1.3.2", // exactly 1.3.2

    // >, <, >=, <= | specify upper / lower bounds
    "vendor/package": ">=1.3.2", // anything above or equal to 1.3.2
    "vendor/package": "<1.3.2", // anything below 1.3.2

    // * | wildcard
    "vendor/package": "1.3.*", // >=1.3.0 <1.4.0

    // ~ | allows last digit specified to go up
    "vendor/package": "~1.3.2", // >=1.3.2 <1.4.0
    "vendor/package": "~1.3", // >=1.3.0 <2.0.0

    // ^ | doesn't allow breaking changes (major version fixed - following semver)
    "vendor/package": "^1.3.2", // >=1.3.2 <2.0.0
    "vendor/package": "^0.3.2", // >=0.3.2 <0.4.0 // except if major version is 0

Testing Version Constraints#

You can test version constraints using Fill in a package name and it will autofill the default version constraint which Composer would add to your composer.json file. You can adjust the version constraint and the tool will highlight all releases that match.

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