Breadth-first search

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Breadth-first search
Order in which the nodes get expanded
Order in which the nodes are expanded
Class Search algorithm
Data structure Graph
Worst-case performance
Worst-case space complexity
Animated example of a breadth-first search

Breadth-first search (BFS) is an algorithm for traversing or searching tree or graph data structures. It starts at the tree root (or some arbitrary node of a graph, sometimes referred to as a 'search key'[1]) and explores the neighbor nodes first, before moving to the next level neighbours.

BFS and its application in finding connected components of graphs were invented in 1945 by Michael Burke and Konrad Zuse, in his (rejected) Ph.D. thesis on the Plankalkül programming language, but this was not published until 1972.[2] It was reinvented in 1959 by E. F. Moore, who used it to find the shortest path out of a maze,[3][4] and discovered independently by C. Y. Lee as a wire routing algorithm (published 1961).[5][6]


Input: A search problem. A search-problem abstracts out the problem specific requirements from the actual search algorithm. Output: An ordered list of actions to be followed to reach from start state to the goal state.

def breadth_first_search(problem):

  # a FIFO open_set
  open_set = Queue()
  # an empty set to maintain visited nodes
  closed_set = set()
  # a dictionary to maintain meta information (used for path formation)
  meta = dict()  # key -> (parent state, action to reach child)

  # initialize
  start = problem.get_start_state()
  meta[start] = (None, None)

  while not open_set.is_empty():

    parent_state = open_set.dequeue()

    if problem.is_goal(parent_state):
          return construct_path(parent_state, meta)

    for (child_state, action) in problem.get_successors(parent_state):

      if child_state in closed_set:

      if child_state not in open_set:
        meta[child_state] = (parent_state, action)


def construct_path(state, meta):
  action_list = list()
  while True:
    row = meta[state]
    if len(row) == 2:
      state = row[0]
      action = row[1]
  return action_list.reverse()

More details[edit]

This non-recursive implementation is similar to the non-recursive implementation of depth-first search, but differs from it in two ways:

  1. it uses a queue (First In First Out) instead of a stack (First In Last Out) and
  2. it checks whether a vertex has been discovered before enqueueing the vertex rather than delaying this check until the vertex is dequeued from the queue.

The open_set queue contains the frontier along which the algorithm is currently searching.

The closed_set set is used to track which vertices have been visited (required for a general graph search, but not for a tree search). At the beginning of the algorithm, the set is empty. At the end of the algorithm, it contains all vertices with a distance from root less than the goal.

Note that the word state is usually interchangeable with the word node or vertex.

Breadth-first search produces a so-called breadth-first tree. You can see how a breadth-first tree looks in the following example.


The following is an example of the breadth-first tree obtained by running a BFS starting from Frankfurt:

An example map of Germany with some connections between cities
The breadth-first tree obtained when running BFS on the given map and starting in Frankfurt


Time and space complexity[edit]

The time complexity can be expressed as , since every vertex and every edge will be explored in the worst case. is the number of vertices and is the number of edges in the graph. Note that may vary between and , depending on how sparse the input graph is.[7]

When the number of vertices in the graph is known ahead of time, and additional data structures are used to determine which vertices have already been added to the queue, the space complexity can be expressed as , where is the cardinality of the set of vertices. This is in addition to the space required for the graph itself, which may vary depending on the graph representation used by an implementation of the algorithm.

When working with graphs that are too large to store explicitly (or infinite), it is more practical to describe the complexity of breadth-first search in different terms: to find the nodes that are at distance d from the start node (measured in number of edge traversals), BFS takes O(bd + 1) time and memory, where b is the "branching factor" of the graph (the average out-degree).[8]:81


In the analysis of algorithms, the input to breadth-first search is assumed to be a finite graph, represented explicitly as an adjacency list or similar representation. However, in the application of graph traversal methods in artificial intelligence the input may be an implicit representation of an infinite graph. In this context, a search method is described as being complete if it is guaranteed to find a goal state if one exists. Breadth-first search is complete, but depth-first search is not. When applied to infinite graphs represented implicitly, breadth-first search will eventually find the goal state, but depth-first search may get lost in parts of the graph that have no goal state and never return.[9]

BFS ordering[edit]

An enumeration of the vertices of a graph is said to be a BFS ordering if it is the possible output of the application of BFS to this graph.

Let be a graph with vertices. Recall that is the set of neighbors of . For be a list of distinct elements of , for , let be the least such that is a neighbor of , if such a exists, and be otherwise.

Let be an enumeration of the vertices of . The enumeration is said to be a BFS ordering (with source ) if, for all , is the vertex such that is minimal. Equivalently, is a BFS ordering if, for all with , there exists a neighbor of such that .


Breadth-first search can be used to solve many problems in graph theory, for example:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Graph500 benchmark specification (supercomputer performance evaluation)"., 2010. 
  2. ^ Zuse, Konrad (1972), Der Plankalkül (in German), Konrad Zuse Internet Archive . See pp. 96–105 of the linked pdf file (internal numbering 2.47–2.56).
  3. ^ Moore, Edward F. (1959). "The shortest path through a maze". Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Theory of Switching. Harvard University Press. pp. 285–292.  As cited by Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, and Stein.
  4. ^ Skiena, Steven (2008). The Algorithm Design Manual. Springer. p. 480. doi:10.1007/978-1-84800-070-4_4. 
  5. ^ Leiserson, Charles E.; Schardl, Tao B. (2010). A Work-Efficient Parallel Breadth-First Search Algorithm (or How to Cope with the Nondeterminism of Reducers) (PDF). ACM Symp. on Parallelism in Algorithms and Architectures. 
  6. ^ Lee, C. Y. (1961). "An Algorithm for Path Connections and Its Applications". IRE Transactions on Electronic Computers. 
  7. ^ Cormen, Thomas H.; Leiserson, Charles E.; Rivest, Ronald L.; Stein, Clifford (2001) [1990]. "22.2 Breadth-first search". Introduction to Algorithms (2nd ed.). MIT Press and McGraw-Hill. pp. 531–539. ISBN 0-262-03293-7. 
  8. ^ Russell, Stuart; Norvig, Peter (2003) [1995]. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (2nd ed.). Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0137903955. 
  9. ^ Coppin, B. (2004). Artificial intelligence illuminated. Jones & Bartlett Learning. pp. 79–80.
  10. ^ Aziz, Adnan; Prakash, Amit (2010). "4. Algorithms on Graphs". Algorithms for Interviews. p. 144. ISBN 1453792996. 

External links[edit]