How to Prove Fermat’s Little Theorem

The following article was prompted by a question from one of my mentees on the Senior Mentoring Scheme. A pdf version is also available.

Background Ramble

When students first meet problems in number theory, it often seems rather different from other topics encountered at a similar time. For example, in Euclidean geometry, we immediately meet the criteria for triangle similarity or congruence, and various circle theorems. Similarly, in any introduction to inequalities, you will see AM-GM, Cauchy-Schwarz, and after a quick online search it becomes apparent that these are merely the tip of the iceberg for the bewildering array of useful results that a student could add to their toolkit.

Initially, number theory lacks such milestones. In this respect, it is rather like combinatorics. However, bar one or two hugely general ideas, a student gets better at olympiad combinatorics questions by trying lots of olympiad combinatorics questions.

I don’t think this is quite the case for the fledgling number theorist. For them, a key transition is to become comfortable with some ideas and notation, particularly modular arithmetic, which make it possible to express natural properties rather neatly. The fact that multiplication is well-defined modulo n is important, but not terribly surprising. The Chinese Remainder Theorem is a `theorem’ only in that it is useful and requires proof. When you ask a capable 15-year-old why an arithmetic progression with common difference 7 must contain multiples of 3, they will often say exactly the right thing. Many will even give an explanation for the regularity in occurrence of these which is precisely the content of the theorem. The key to improving number theory problem solving skills is to take these ideas, which are probably obvious, but sitting passively at the back of your mind, and actively think to deploy them in questions.

Fermat’s Little Theorem

It can therefore come as a bit of a shock to meet your first non-obvious (by which I mean, the first result which seems surprising, even after you’ve thought about it for a while) theorem, which will typically be Fermat’s Little Theorem. This states that:

\text{For a prime }p,\text{ and }a\text{ any integer:}\quad a^p\equiv a\mod p. (1)


  • Students are typically prompted to check this result for the small cases p=3, 5 and 7. Trying p=9 confirms that we do really need the condition that p be prime. This appears on the 2012 November Senior Mentoring problem sheet and is a very worthwhile exercise in recently acquired ideas, so I will say no more about it here.
  • Note that the statement of FLT is completely obvious when a is a multiple of p. The rest of the time, a is coprime to p, so we can divide by a to get the equivalent statement:

\text{For a prime }p,\text{ and }a\text{ any integer coprime to }p:\quad a^{p-1}\equiv 1\mod p. (2)

  • Sometimes it will be easier to prove (2) than (1). More importantly, (2) is sometimes easier to use in problems. For example, to show a^{p^2}\equiv a \mod p, it suffices to write as:

a^{p^2}\equiv a^{(p-1)(p+1)+1}\equiv (a^{p-1})^{p+1}\times a\equiv 1^{p+1}\times a \equiv a.

  • A word of warning. FLT is one of those theorems which it is tempting to use on every problem you meet, once you know the statement. Try to resist this temptation! Also check the statement with small numbers (eg p=3 ,a=2) the first few times you use it, as with any new theorem. You might be surprised how often solutions contain assertions along the lines of

a^p\equiv p \mod (a-1).


I must have used FLT dozens of times (or at least tried to use it – see the previous remark), before I really got to grips with a proof. I think I was daunted by the fact that the best method for, say, p=7, a careful systematic check, would clearly not work in the general case. FLT has several nice proofs, and is well worth thinking about for a while before reading what follows. However, I hope these hints provide a useful prompt towards discovering some of the more interesting arguments.

Induction on a to prove (1)

  • Suppose a^p\equiv a\mod p. Now consider (a+1)^p modulo p.
  • What happens to each of the (p+1) terms in the expansions?
  • If necessary, look at the expansion in the special case p=5 or 7, formulate a conjecture, then prove it for general p.

Congruence classes modulo p to prove (2)

  • Consider the set \{a,2a,3a,\ldots,(p-1)a\} modulo p.
  • What is this set? If the answer seems obvious, think about what you would have to check for a formal proof.
  • What could you do now to learn something about a^{p-1}?

Combinatorics to prove (1)

  • Suppose I want a necklace with p beads, and I have a colours for these beads. We count how many arrangements are possible.
  • Initially, I have the string in a line, so there are p labelled places for beads. How many arrangements?
  • Join the two ends. It is now a circle, so we don’t mind where the labelling starts: Red-Green-Blue is the same as Green-Blue-Red.
  • So, we’ve counted some arrangements more than once. How many have we counted exactly once?
  • How many have we counted exactly p times? Have we counted any arrangements some other number of times?

Group Theory to prove (2)

This is mainly for the interest of students who have seen some of the material for FP3, or some other introduction to groups.

  • Can we view multiplication modulo p as a group? Which elements might we have to ignore to ensure that we have inverses?
  • What is \{1,a,a^2,a^3,\ldots\} in this context? Which axiom is hardest to check?
  • How is the size of the set of powers of a modulo p related to the size of the whole group of congruences?
  • Which of the previous three proofs is this argument is most similar to this one?
  • Can you extend this to show the Fermat-Euler Theorem:

\text{For any integer }n,\text{ and }a\text{ coprime to }n:\quad a^{\phi(n)}\equiv 1 \mod n,

where \phi(n) counts how many integers between 1 and n are coprime to n.

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