Spring Boot and Spring MVC: how to handle controller exceptions properly

TL;DR In depth explanation of exception handling for Spring MVC in a Spring Boot application: exception handler types, handlers ordering, available customization means.

Table of contents

Spring Boot auto-configuration for error handling

Spring Boot application has a default configuration for error handling - ErrorMvcAutoConfiguration.

What it basically does, if no additional configuration provided:

  • it creates default global error controller - BasicErrorController
  • it creates default ‘error’ static view ‘Whitelabel Error Page’.

BasicErrorController is wired to ‘/error’ view by default. If there is no customized ‘error’ view in the application, in case of an exception thrown from any controller, the user lands to /error whitelabel page, filled with information by BasicErrorController.

Error page customization

As we saw earlier, Spring MVC’ default error page is /error. Default controller behind /error endpoint is BasicErrorController. Let’s look how we can customize error handling.

Customizing global error handler

BasicErrorController is a basic error controller rendering ErrorAttributes. It can either render an html page or provide a serialized ErrorAttributes object.

There are several ways to customize the behavior of error handling and/or the contents of the error view:

  1. The Spring Boot application can provide its own error handling controller. It must implement ErrorController interface to automatically replace BasicErrorController.
  2. The application can provide custom view servlet server page(s) and custom view content. For an html view, the page format can be either jps or html with Thymleaf to render model attributes filled by the error controller.
  3. The application can do both: customize the behavior by implementing ErrorController and customize the error page view and/or error model object.

Customizing error view page

The default error page, which you already saw perhaps, is a ‘Whitelabel error page’ static view (created in the code directly) configured within ErrorMvcAutoConfiguration. It is served by default by /error endpoint.

You can keep the endpoint and just replace the static view by a custom page. For it to be picked automatically without any configuration, the page must be called error.html and it must be placed in src/main/resources/templatesfolder.

And here is an example of a view we could come up to:

<!DOCTYPE html>
        <h1>Oups! An error has occurred trying to process your request. </h1>
        <h2>No panic. We are already working on it!</h2>
        <a href="/">Back to Home</a>

:bulb: once you have replaced the default static view, you can disable id with server.error.whitelabel.enabled=false in the application.properties.

:bulb: if you with to name your global error page differently, you can use server.error.path application property. For example: server.error.path=/oups, which should have the corresponding oups.html view.

Another approach for error handling is to have several error views, each for a particular error. It is always preferable to provide error details as accurate as possible for user to understand and to respond accordingly. For example, we can provide pages for particular errors: 400.html, 404.html, 500.html and a generic error.html view.

In this case we can either redirect to these pages from the error controller:

CustomizedErrorController implements ErrorController {
    @GetMapping(produces = MediaType.TEXT_HTML_VALUE)
    public String handleError(HttpServletRequest request, Model model) {
        //retrieving http error status code set by the underlying container
        Object status = request.getAttribute(RequestDispatcher.ERROR_STATUS_CODE);

        if (status != null) {
            HttpStatus httpStatus = HttpStatus.resolve((int) status);
            switch(httpStatus) {
                case HttpStatus.BAD_REQUEST:
                    return "400";
                case HttpStatus.NOT_FOUND:
                    return "404";
                case HttpStatus.INTERNAL_SERVER_ERROR:
                    return "500";
        return "error";

Or we can redirect from our application business controllers directly, if the expected result is a page:

UserController implements ErrorController {
    @GetMapping(produces = MediaType.TEXT_HTML_VALUE)
    public String getUser(HttpServletRequest request, Model model) {
        User user = getUser();
        if(user == null) {
            return "404";
        model.addAttribute("user", user);
        return "user"; // user information page

More customization: fine grained exception handlers

BasicErrorController or ErrorController implementation is a global error handler. To handle more specific errors, Spring documentation suggest to use @ExceptionHandler method annotations or @ResponseStatus exception class annotations.

So we have a global error handler, @ExceptionHandler methods and @ResponseStatus exception classes working together. But in which order? Which one has the effect first?

Let’s see in details how it works.

Spring MVC exception handlers standard configuration

WebMvcConfigurationSupport provides configuration behind the Spring MVC Java config, which is enabled by @EnableWebMvc.

This class registers several beans including the exception handler bean - HandlerExceptionResolverComposite. The composite exception resolver delegates exception handling to the the list of handlers it holds. Exception is passed through the list of handlers until one of them returns a result (something which is not null). This result is considered as the final result of error processing. WebMvcConfigurationSupport adds the following exception handlers into HandlerExceptionResolverComposite in the following order:

  1. ExceptionHandlerExceptionResolver - for handling exceptions through @ExceptionHandler annotated methods.
  2. ResponseStatusExceptionResolver - for exceptions annotated with @ResponseStatus
  3. DefaultHandlerExceptionResolver - for resolving known Spring exception types (e.g. HttpRequestMethodNotSupportedException)

If none of these handlers returns a result, the exception is passed to the underlying container.

The underlying container forwards the exception to the registered error page. In our case this is \error. Starting from this point we already know how the exception is handled afterwards. Great!

Here is a diagram summarizing Spring MVC default behavior for handling application exceptions:

Spring MVC exception handling - default configuration
Spring MVC exception handling - default configuration

Convenient base class for centralized exception handling

To simplify exception handling using @ExceptionHandler, Spring proposes ResponseEntityExceptionHandler

A convenient base class for @ControllerAdvice classes that wish to provide centralized exception handling across all @RequestMapping methods through @ExceptionHandler methods. This base class provides an @ExceptionHandler method for handling internal Spring MVC exceptions.

In other words, if we want centralized exception handling, e.g. everything in one class, we can use ResponseEntityExceptionHandler as a base class. We can use as is or override Spring MVC exception handlers provided by ResponseEntityExceptionHandler. For our custom class to work, it must be annotated with @ControllerAdvice.

Classes annotated with @ControllerAdvice can be used at the same time as the global error handler (BasicErrorController or ErrorController implementation). If our @ControllerAdvice annotated class (which can/or not extend ResponseEntityExceptionHandler) doesn’t handle some exception, the exception goes to the global error handler.


If application has a controller implementing ErrorController it replaces BasicErrorController.

If any exception occurs in error handling controller, it will go through Spring exception handlers filter and finally if nothing is found this exception will be handled by the underlying application container, e.g. Tomcat. The underlying container will handle the exception and show some error page/message depending on its implementation.

Spring exception handlers default order:

  1. First Spring searches for an exception handler (a method annotated with @ExceptionHandler) within the classes annotated with @ControllerAdvice. This behavior is implemented in ExceptionHandlerExceptionResolver.
  2. Then it checks if the thrown exception is annotated with @ResponseStatus or if it derives from ResponseStatusException. If so it is handled by ResponseStatusExceptionResolver.
  3. Then it goes through Spring MVC exceptions’ default handlers. These are in DefaultHandlerExceptionResolver.
  4. And at the end if nothing is found, the control is forwarded to the configured error page view with the global error handler behind it. This step is not executed if the exception comes from the error handler itself.
  5. If no error view is found (e.g. global error handler is disabled) or step 4 is skipped, then the exception is handled by the container.