How to Import Data Into Your Excel Spreadsheets the Neat & Easy Way

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Excel is the king of spreadsheet programs, but sometimes you need to open a document that wasn’t formatted specifically for Microsoft programs. And other times, you’ll need to save your document in a different format so that people not using Excel can use it.

Importing and exporting data in Excel seems like a complicated process, but it’s actually pretty easy once you’ve done it a couple times. Here’s what you need to know.

How to Import Data into Excel

No matter what kind of data you’re importing, you’ll start the process in the same way. Hit File > Import to get started. You’ll see this pop-up, letting you choose the format of the original file that you’d like to import:

excel-import-dialog

This dialog gives you the option to import comma-separated value (CSV), FileMaker Pro, HTML, and text files. If you want to import another type of spreadsheet file, your best bet is to export the spreadsheet in a different format from the original program. Most programs shouldn’t have any difficulty exporting to CSV or text. I’ll be using a CSV in this example because it’s a common data format, used for everything from research data to social media contact spreadsheets.

Launch Text Import Wizard

Click Import, and you’ll see the Text Import Wizard:

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excel-text-import-wizard

Excel’s Text Import Wizard does as much as it can to make this process easy, and for the most part, it works really well. Most of the time, you’ll just hit Next > until the wizard disappears and your data shows up in the spreadsheet. As you can see in the image above, the text wizard determined that this file is delimited—each cell is separated by a comma. Because this is correct, we can just hit Next > to move on with the import (if it’s not, read on for tips on fixed-width importing).

Set Data Delimiters

Step two lets you choose a number of different options related to delimiting that will help you make sure your data gets imported correctly:

excel-text-import-delimiters

First, you can choose your delimiter. The data that I’m importing here uses commas to separate cells, so I’ll leave Comma selected. Tab is also selected, and doesn’t have an adverse effect on this import, so I’ll leave it alone. If your spreadsheet uses spaces or semicolons to differentiate between cells, just select that option. If you want to split up the data on another character, like a slash or a period, you can enter that character in the Other: box.

The Treat consecutive delimiters as one box does exactly what it says; in the case of commas, having two commas in a row would create a single new cell. When the box isn’t checked, which is the default, that would create two new cells.

The Text qualifier box is an important one; when the wizard imports a spreadsheet, it will treat some of the cells as numbers and some as text. The character in this box will tell Excel which cells should be treated as text. Normally, there will be quotes (” “) around text, so this is the default option. The text qualifiers will not be displayed in the final spreadsheet. You can also change it to single quotes (‘ ‘) or none, in which case all of the quotes will remain in place when they’re imported into the final spreadsheet.

Set Data Formats

Once everything looks good, hit Next > to go to the final step, which allows you to set data formats for imported cells:

excel-import-data-formats

The default value for the Column data format is General, which converts data automatically to numerical, date, and text formats. For the most part, this will work just fine. If you have specific formatting needs, though, you can select Text or Date:. The date option also lets choose the format that the date is imported in. And if you want to skip specific columns, you can do that too.

Each of these options is applied to a single column, or multiple columns if you shift-click to select more than one. It can take a long time to go through all of the columns this way if you have a giant spreadsheet, but it might save you time in the long run if all of your data is correctly formatted when you first import it.

The last option in this dialog is the Advanced menu, which lets you adjust the settings used for recognizing numerical data. The default uses a period as the decimal separator and a comma as the thousands separator, but you can change this if your data is formatted differently.

advanced-text-import-excel

After those settings are dialed to your liking, just hit Finish and the import is done.

Use Fixed Width Instead of Delimited

If Excel gets your data delimiting wrong, or you’re importing a text file with no delimiters, you can choose Fixed width instead of Delimited in the first step. This allows you to separate your data into columns based on the number of characters in each column. For example, if you have a spreadsheet full of cells that contain codes with four letters and four numbers, and you’d like to split the letters and numbers between different cells, you can choose Fixed width and set the split after four characters:

text-wizard-import-fixed

To do this, select Fixed width and click Next >. In the following dialog, you can tell Excel where to split the data into different cells by clicking in the displayed data. To move a split, just click and drag the arrow at the top of the line. If you want to delete a split, double-click the line.

After selecting your splits and hitting Next >, you’ll get the same options as you would have in the delimited import; you can select the data format for each column. Then hit Finish and you’ll get your spreadsheet.

excel-imported-fixed-text

In addition to importing non-delimited files, this is a good way to split up text and numbers from files you’re working with. Just save the file as a CSV or text file, import that file, and use this method to split it up however you want.

Importing HTML is the same as importing CSV or text files; select the file, go through the same choices as above, and your HTML document will be transformed into a spreadsheet that you can work with (you might find this useful if you want to download HTML tables from a website, or if web form data is saved in HTML format).

Exporting Data from Excel

Exporting data is much simpler than importing it. When you’re ready to export, hit File > Save As… (or use a handy Excel keyboard shortcut), and you’ll be presented with a number of options. Just choose the one you need.

excel-export-options

Here’s a breakdown of a few of the most common:

  • .xlsx / .xls: standard Excel formats.
  • .xlt: Excel template.
  • .xlsb: an Excel format written in binary instead of XML, which allows for the saving of extremely large spreadsheets faster than standard formats.
  • .csv: comma-separated value (as in the first import example used above; can be read by any spreadsheet program).
  • .txt: a number of slightly different formats that use tabs to separate the cells in your spreadsheet (when in doubt, select Tab Delimited Text instead of another .txt option).

When you select a format and hit Save, you may get a warning that looks like this:

excel-export-warning

If you’re looking to save your file as something other than .xlsx or .xls, this is likely to happen. Unless there are specific features that you really need in your spreadsheet, just hit Continue and your document will be saved.

One Step Closer to Excel Mastery

For the most part, people just use Excel-formatted spreadsheets, and it’s really easy to open, modify, and save them. But every once in a while you’ll get a different kind of document, like one extracted from the web or generated in a different Office suite. Knowing how to import and export different formats can make working with these kinds of sheets a lot more convenient.

Do you import or export Excel files on a regular basis? What do you find it useful for? Do you have any tips to share or specific problems that you haven’t found a solution for yet? Share them below!

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