All About Binary Search

May 4, 2020

A binary search is an algorithm that finds the position of a target value in a sorted list. It has several uses in practice:

  • Finding entries in sorted arrays, including sorted collections from language libraries like Java, .NET, C++ STL;
  • Hunting for errors during the debugging process, which is faster than single-stepping large parts of the code (even Git has a git-bisect command);
  • Retrieving 3D game displays according to position and camera.


  1. Compare target to middle number, since the last is sorted – this tells us whether the target will be in the left or right half of the list.
  2. We now ignore the other half of the list, seeing as we have divided the problem in half.
  3. Repeat the same process, with the middle of the new half of the list we are using, until finding the target value, or not finding it in the list.


  • Reduces time complexity of linear search from O(n) to O(log n) in sorted list – this is because the search interval decreases by a power of two each time (halving the lists).
  • Includes cost of insert(), delete(), and lookup()
  • Space complexity is O(1), meaning it requires constant time to perform operations, as we just need to store three values (upper, middle, and lower bounds)
  • More efficient for searching for specific target from large input
  • Simple to program for lists

Fun fact: You could search all the names in the world (written in order) and find a specific name in a maximum of 35 iterations


  • It only works on sorted lists that are kept sorted
  • More complicated to implement than a linear search – it requires a three-way update of low and high index, and potentially an additional check if the target wasn’t found
  • Overkill for smaller lists
  • The recursive implementation requires more stack space
  • Loss of efficiency if the list does not support random-access

Additionally, using interpolating search to predict where to start searching when the elements are distributed evenly gets us to our destination more quickly than a binary search tree, i.e. O(log(log(n))) instead of O(log(n)); and there are further improvements over binary search for sorted arrays that are uniformly distributed (sorted but unindexed on-disk datasets). However, when list size increases exponentially, interpolation search time complexity is O(log(n)), the worst case, as it has to go to different locations according to the value of what is being searched.


def binary_search(target, input):
    # We use variables low and high as bounds around our target
    low = -1 # set low as -1 to start bound to the left of 0th index
    high = len(input)
    # We know the target must not be in the input when there isn't
    # at least one element between low and high indices
    while low + 1 < high:
        # calculate middle index by taking average of bounds
        distance = high - low
        # integer division used so we don't get a 'half index'
        # flors result
        middle = distance // 2
				# move new guess index by adding middle to low index
        guess_index = low + middle
        guess_value = input[guess_index]
        if guess_value == target:
            return True
        if guess_value > target:
            # target is to the left, so move high index to the left
            high = guess_index
            # target is to the right, so move low index to the right
            low = guess_index
    return False

Python-Specific Modules and Features

The above implementation takes a target and a set of elements as an input. What if our target was a string value and we wanted to search by index instead? In that case, you can use an index parameter:

def binary_search(target, input, index = identity):

By using the index parameter, we lose the ability to search by value. We could assign index a default value of None and then check whether it was supplied, but a simpler solution uses an inline function:

def binary_search(target, input, index = lambda x: x)

Here we use lambda to create an anonymous function (one not bound to an identifier). Instead of including a “return” statement like a regular function, it returns an expression.

  • lambda: shortcut for declaring small anonymous functions; can take many arguments but return only one expression

In addition, there are useful functions and modules we can use to implement binary search in Python such as:

  • recursive(): an inner function that can access both elements and value parameters even though they’re defined in the enclosing scope

This is potentially useful when manually implementing a recursive binary search algorithm.

  • bisect(): a build-in module that helps you find an index of an element or add a new element in an already sorted list, via insort(), insort_left(), or insort_right()

This helps avoid having to sort the list after each insertion.

Example using bisect():

>>> def grade(score, breakpoints=[60, 70, 80, 90], grades='FDCBA'):
        i = bisect(breakpoints, score)
        return grades[i]
>>> [grade(score) for score in [33, 99, 77, 70, 89, 90, 100]]
['F', 'A', 'C', 'C', 'B', 'A', 'A']

About the author

Sophia Raji

Sophia R. is a junior in computer science at Columbia University. She takes particular interest in full-stack web development and Bitcoin programming. When she is not working on side projects, she teaches coding to middle school and high school students and writes a satire website.

This article was contributed by a student member of Section's Engineering Education Program. Please report any errors or innaccuracies to