Understanding Priority Queues in Java: A Detailed Guide

In the world of programming, managing collections of objects efficiently is crucial for developing high-performance applications. Java, with its rich API, offers various data structures to cater to different needs. Among these, the PriorityQueue holds a special place for scenarios requiring sorted access based on priority. This blog post delves into the nuances of PriorityQueue and compares it with sorting arrays, elucidating their uses with practical examples.

What is a PriorityQueue?

A PriorityQueue in Java is a specialized queue that orders its elements based on their priority. Priorities can be natural ordering (numbers, alphabetical order) or custom-defined through a Comparator. Unlike a standard queue that operates on a First-In-First-Out (FIFO) principle, a PriorityQueue ensures that the element with the highest priority is always at the front.

Under the hood, Java implements PriorityQueue using a binary heap data structure, a complete binary tree that maintains the heap property: the key stored in each node is either greater than or equal to (max-heap) or less than or equal to (min-heap) the keys in the node’s children.

PriorityQueue in Action: A Real-World Example

Consider an application for a hospital’s emergency department, where patients are triaged based on the severity of their condition. Patients with more severe conditions should be attended to before those with less critical conditions.

import java.util.PriorityQueue;
import java.util.Comparator;

class Patient {
    String name;
    int conditionSeverity; // The higher the number, the more severe the condition

    Patient(String name, int conditionSeverity) { = name;
        this.conditionSeverity = conditionSeverity;

    public String toString() {
        return name + " (Severity: " + conditionSeverity + ")";

class SeverityComparator implements Comparator<Patient> {
    public int compare(Patient p1, Patient p2) {
        return, p1.conditionSeverity);

public class HospitalEmergencyQueue {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        PriorityQueue<Patient> emergencyQueue = new PriorityQueue<>(new SeverityComparator());

        emergencyQueue.add(new Patient("Alice", 5));
        emergencyQueue.add(new Patient("Bob", 2));
        emergencyQueue.add(new Patient("Charlie", 8));

        while (!emergencyQueue.isEmpty()) {

In this example, patients are added to a PriorityQueue with a custom comparator (SeverityComparator) that prioritizes patients based on the severity of their condition. This setup ensures that patients in dire need are served first, demonstrating how a PriorityQueue can be applied in a dynamic, real-world scenario.

Sorting Arrays for Static Collections: A Comparative Example

Now, let’s consider a scenario where a library wants to organize books by their publication year in ascending order. Since the collection of books is static (not frequently updated), sorting an array of books might be more straightforward and efficient.

import java.util.Arrays;
import java.util.Comparator;

class Book {
    String title;
    int publicationYear;

    Book(String title, int publicationYear) {
        this.title = title;
        this.publicationYear = publicationYear;

    public String toString() {
        return title + " (" + publicationYear + ")";

public class LibraryBookSorter {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        Book[] books = {
            new Book("Book A", 1980),
            new Book("Book B", 1995),
            new Book("Book C", 1975)

        Arrays.sort(books, Comparator.comparingInt(b -> b.publicationYear));

        for (Book book : books) {

In this example, an array of Book objects is sorted by publication year using Arrays.sort with a lambda expression for the comparator. This approach is ideal for the library’s static collection, allowing efficient access to books in order of publication.

Dynamic vs. Static Collections: Choosing the Right Data Structure

  • Dynamic Collections: When dealing with collections that undergo frequent modifications (additions/removals), a PriorityQueue is invaluable. It automatically adjusts priorities with each operation, making it ideal for scenarios like task scheduling, emergency services, or any situation where the “next” element must be dynamically determined based on priority.
  • Static Collections: For collections that remain relatively unchanged and require full sorting, using arrays or lists with Comparators is more efficient. This method suits use cases like organizing static datasets, where the order of elements does not change dynamically.


Choosing between a PriorityQueue and sorting an array depends on your application’s specific needs. For dynamic collections with elements that need to be processed based on priority, `



About Author

As Neelabh Singh, I am a Senior Software Engineer with 6.6 years of experience, specializing in Java technologies, Microservices, AWS, Algorithms, and Data Structures. I am also a technology blogger and an active participant in several online coding communities.

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