CSV vs Excel: Key Differences

Do you know the main differences between a CSV file and an Excel file?

When it comes to storing data in a tabular format, two file formats that come to mind are CSV and Excel. Both formats have their pros and cons. It’s important to understand the differences to choose the right format for your needs.

CSV (Comma-Separated Values) is a simple file format used for storing tabular data. CSV files contain plain text data separated by commas. Each line in the file represents a record and each comma represents the start of a new field.

Excel files are XML-based and store data in a tabular format using rows and columns. They are capable of handling more complex features such as formatting, data analysis, calculations, graphs, and more.

Both formats can be used for storing data in a tabular format, but they have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to memory usage, file size, formatting options, calculations, and more. Choosing the right format will depend on your specific needs

This article will explore the differences between CSV and Excel files and help you decide which one is the best fit for your data.

What is a CSV File?

A CSV file is a file format used for storing data in a tabular format. CSV stands for comma-separated values, which means that the values in the file are separated by commas.

A CSV file is a plain text file that can be opened with any text editor or even a spreadsheet software such as Excel.

Each line in a CSV file represents a row, and each comma-separated value represents a column. CSV files are widely used for data exchange between different software applications and databases.

CSV files are commonly used for exchanging data between different software applications. They are often used for storing data that can be easily imported or exported to other software applications.

CSV files have a .csv extension, which is a standard file extension for this file format. The file extension indicates that the file is a CSV file and can be opened with software applications that support this file format.

What is an Excel File?

An Excel file is a proprietary file format used by the Microsoft Excel application.

Excel files are XML-based and can be used to store data in row and column structures. An Excel file allows for more advanced features such as formatting, calculations, charts, pivot tables, and more.

Each Excel file can contain multiple worksheets, each of which can be used to organize and analyze your data.

Excel files are widely used in businesses and organizations for various purposes such as budgeting, project management, financial analysis, and other projections.

Common Excel File Type Extensions

Excel offers many file formats with different extensions. Some of the common file type extensions used for Excel files include the following.

  • .xls: This is the standard file format used for Excel files created with versions of Microsoft Excel 2003 or before.
  • .xlsx: This is the default file format used for Excel files since Microsoft Excel 2007 and later.
  • .xlsb: This is a binary file format used for Excel files.
  • .xlsm: This is a file format used for Excel files that contain macros written in VBA code.

Differences Between CSV and Excel

When it comes to storing data in tabular format, CSV and Excel files are two of the most commonly used file formats. While both of these formats can be used for storing data, there are several differences between them.

Here are some of the key differences between CSV and Excel files.

File Format.csv.xls, .xlsx, .xlsb, .xlsm, and more.
Data TypesTextText, Numbers, Dates, Boolean, Images
MultidimensionalOnly supports a single tabular datasetAllows for multiple tabular datasets with multiple sheets
Data SizeNo limitMaximum 1,048,576 rows and 16,384 columns per sheet
FormattingNoneFonts, colors, borders, etc.
Advanced FeaturesNoneFormatting, Formulas, Pivot Tables, Charts, etc.
CompatibilityAll text editors, Excel, Google Sheets, and many other applicationsExcel, Google Sheets, and Many other applications

CSV files are simple files that lack the advanced features and formatting options provided by Excel files.

Choosing Between CSV and Excel

When it comes to choosing between CSV and Excel, there are a few things that you should consider.

One of the main advantages of CSV files is that they are simple. CSV files are just text files with values separated by commas. This means they can be opened and edited in any text editor.

Excel files are more complex and offer a wider range of features. Excel files can handle more complex data, including formulas, charts, and more.

When deciding between CSV and Excel, it’s important to consider the complexity of your data and the features that you need.

Reasons to Use a CSV File

Here are some reasons why you should use a CSV file.

  1. Portability: CSV files are lightweight and can be easily transferred between different platforms and applications, making them an ideal choice for sharing data.
  2. Compatibility: CSV files can be opened and edited by a wide range of programs, including Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, and many others.
  3. Structured data: CSV files allow you to store data in a structured format, with each row representing a single record and each comma representing a field or attribute.
  4. Easy to read and edit: CSV files are easy to read and edit, even for non-technical users, since they are simply text files containing data separated by commas.
  5. Large data sets: CSV files are ideal for handling large data sets since they are efficient and fast to load and process.
  6. Automation: CSV files can be easily generated and processed using scripting languages like Python, making them a popular choice for automating data processing tasks.
  7. Standardization: CSV files are a widely accepted standard for exchanging data between different systems and applications, making them a reliable choice for data integration.

CSV files are a versatile and widely used format for storing data and offer a number of benefits.

Reasons to Use an Excel File

Here are some reasons why you should use an Excel file.

  1. Data analysis and visualization: Excel offers a wide range of tools for analyzing and visualizing data, including formulas, charts, and pivot tables, making it ideal for data-driven decision-making.
  2. Organizing and managing data: Excel provides a flexible and customizable way to organize and manage data, including sorting, filtering, and searching, as well as the ability to create multiple sheets within a single workbook.
  3. Collaboration: Excel allows multiple users to work on the same file simultaneously, making it easy to collaborate on projects and share data with others.
  4. Automation: Excel can be used to automate repetitive tasks using either VBA or Office Scripts.
  5. Integration: Excel can be integrated with a wide range of other software applications, including databases, accounting software, and ERP systems.
  6. Accessibility: Excel is widely used and supported, making it easy to find resources and support for learning and using the software.

Excel is a versatile and widely used tool for managing and analyzing data.

If you only need to store a single tabular dataset and don’t need any advanced features, then CSV might be the better choice.

Otherwise, if you need to perform calculations, create charts, or work with multiple datasets, then Excel might be the better option.


CSV and Excel are popular file formats for managing and storing data.

While CSV is a lightweight format, Excel offers more advanced features and functionality for data analysis and manipulation.

CSV files are ideal for storing single tabular datasets. They are simple and can be opened using any text editor. However, they lack any advanced features.

Excel files are more complex and offer a wide range of features for data analysis and manipulation. Excel files can be used to create complex solutions.

Which do you prefer, CSV or Excel? Let me know in the comments!

About the Author

John MacDougall

John MacDougall

John is a Microsoft MVP and qualified actuary with over 15 years of experience. He has worked in a variety of industries, including insurance, ad tech, and most recently Power Platform consulting. He is a keen problem solver and has a passion for using technology to make businesses more efficient.


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