Regex - regular expressions in PHP

Regular expressions (abbreviated regex) are sequences of characters that form search patterns. They are mainly used in pattern matching with strings.

Brief history

  • It started in 1940s-60s with lots of smart people talking about regular expressions
  • 1970s g/re/p
  • 1980 Perl and Henry Spencer
  • 1997 PCRE (Perl Compatible Regular Expressions) That’s where it really took off and when we talk about regex today that’s what we’re talking about. PCRE has libraries for almost every language, it looks the same everywhere and it is very useful.

Common regex usage in PHP

PHP has three main regular expression PCRE functions - preg_match, preg_match_all and preg_replace.


This returns 1 if match is found, 0 if not and false if error occurs:

int preg_match (
    string $pattern,
    string $subject [,
    array &$matches [,
    int $flags = 0 [,
    int $offset = 0

This returns number of matches found:

int preg_match_all (
    string $pattern,
    string $subject [,
    array &$matches [,
    int $flags = PREG_PATTERN_ORDER [,
    int $offset = 0


This returns the replaced string or array (based on the $subject):

mixed preg_replace (
    mixed $pattern,
    mixed $replacement,
    mixed $subject [,
    int $limit = -1 [,
    int $count

Common regex usage in JavaScript

For comparison, regular expressions in JavaScript look pretty much the same as in PHP.


Returns an array of matches or null if no matches were found:



Returns the string with the replacements performed:

string.replace(RegExp, replacement);

Caveats of regex in JavaScript

  • No “single-line” or DOTALL mode. (The dot never matches new line.)
  • No lookbehind support
  • Same methods for regex and non-regex matching and replacing

Basics of regex patterns

Let’s take a look at example to find email addresses in codebase. Our goal: /[\w.+-]+@[a-z0-9-]+(\.[a-z0-9-]+)*/i

Sockets analogy

Regular expressions are built from two type of characters:

  • special characters: .\[]?*+{}()^$/
  • literals

Imagine your input strings as bolts and your pattern as a set of sockets (in order).

Special characters

Let’s take a look at what special characters do:

  • Backslash character \\ can escape other special character in regular expression:
  • The Dot and the \w - .

    Matches everything but new lines. If you want to match a dot and only a dot escape it like \, \w matches letters, numbers, and the underscore

  • Square brackets []

    Matches characters inside the brackets. Supports ranges. Some examples:

    • [abc] - matches any a, b or c.
    • [a-z] Lowercase letters
    • [0-9] Any single digit
    • [a-zA-Z] - matches any lower or uppercase alphabetic character
  • Optional ?

    The ? matches 0 or 1

  • The star *

    The star matches 0 or more

  • The Plus +

    Matches 1 or more

  • Curly brackets {}

    Min and Max ranges. Some examples:

    • {1,} at least 1
    • {1,3} 1 through 3
    • {1,64} 1 through 64

Let’s put all this together to get regex for email addresses:


Regex for email

How this looks in PHP:


Using regex for validation

Problem: make sure input is what we expect Goal 1: /[^\[\]\w$.]/ Goal 2: /^[0-9]{1,2}[dwmy]$/

Regex is great at finding things but you need to know what you’re looking for. When you validate you get to determine exactly what you want.

When not to use regex for validation?

Many cases are better handled with PHP’s filter_var function. For example validating emails should be done with PHP built-in filters:


Regex validation

For starting and ending regex you use anchors:

  • ^ - the hat that indicates start of the string
  • $ - the dollar sign that indicates end of string
if (!preg_match("%^[0-9]{1,2}[dwmy]$%", $_POST["subscription_frequency"])) {
    $isError = true;

Negated character classes

  • [^abc] - anything except a,b, or c, including new lines.

Example that ensures input only contains alphanumeric, dash, dot, underscore

if (preg_match("/[^0-9a-z-_.]/i", $productCode)) {
    $isError = true;

Searching and replacing

Most common PCRE functions for performing search and replace are preg_replace() and preg_replace_callback(). But there are also preg_filter() and preg_replace_callback_array() to do almost the same. Note that preg_replace_callback_array() is available since PHP7.

Replace words in the list with something

$subject = 'I want to eat some apples.';
echo preg_replace('/apple|banana|orange/', 'fruit', $subject);


I want to eat some fruits.

If you have subpatterns (patterns in parentheses) in your pattern, you can use $N or \N (where N is an integer >= 1) in replacement, this is called ‘backreference’.

Swap two numbers

$subject = '7/11';
echo preg_replace('/(\d+)\/(\d+)/', '$2/$1', $subject);



Change date formatting

$subject = '2001-09-11';
echo preg_replace('/(\d+)\-(\d+)\-(\d+)/', '$3/$2/$1', $subject);



Simple example of replacing URL with <a> tag

$subject = 'Please visit for more articles.';
echo preg_replace(
    '<a href="$1" target="_blank">$2</a>',


Please visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a> for more articles.

Sometimes you may want to perform complex search and replace like filtering/sanitizing before replacing. This is a situation where preg_replace_callback() may come into play.

In previous example our regex can replace only URLs begin with http or https and now we want it to be able to replace URLs begin with www. too. Someone might think we can simply change https?\:// into subpattern like (?:https?\://|www\.) but this will not work in most browsers because they will interprete www.domain as a relative path.

So we need to do some works before replacing, by prepending http:// if a URL begins with www..

function add_protocol_if_begins_with_www($matches)
    $url = strtolower($matches[1]) === 'www.'
        ? 'http://' . $matches[0]
        : $matches[0];
    return "<a href=\"{$url}\">{$matches[2]}</a>";

$subject = 'Please visit for more articles.';
echo preg_replace_callback(


Please visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a> for more articles.

Problem: Link @mentions and #tags

Goal: /\B@([\w]{2,})/i

See also