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How to Use VLOOKUP in Excel – Step-by-Step Guide

Unlock the power of Excel with our beginner's guide to VLOOKUP. Master exact & approximate matches, troubleshoot... read more

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John Michaloudis
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How to Use VLOOKUP in Excel - Step-by-Step Guide | MyExcelOnline How to Use VLOOKUP in Excel - Step-by-Step Guide | MyExcelOnline

Unlocking Microsoft Excel‘s full potential begins with mastering its key functions, with VLOOKUP being a standout tool for data retrieval. Short for ‘Vertical Lookup,’ VLOOKUP enables users to search for a specific value in the first column of a table and retrieve related information from another column. This function streamlines the process of locating and correlating data, making it indispensable for managing extensive spreadsheets. Here’s a beginner’s guide to understanding and utilizing VLOOKUP effectively.

Key Takeaways:

  • VLOOKUP requires four components: the lookup value, table array, column index number, and range lookup. These parameters guide Excel in locating and retrieving the desired data.
  • Setting the range lookup parameter to ‘FALSE’ ensures an exact match, while ‘TRUE’ allows for an approximate match, useful for sorted numerical data.
  • For VLOOKUP to work effectively, the lookup value must be in the first column of the table array. Proper organization of your table array ensures accurate data retrieval.
  • VLOOKUP can search across different sheets or workbooks, making it a versatile tool for comprehensive data analysis and management across multiple sources.


Unlocking Excel’s Potential: VLOOKUP for Beginners

What is VLOOKUP in Excel?

Imagine diving into a vast sea of data, trying to find that one precious piece of information hidden deep within. That’s where VLOOKUP, a treasure-finding tool in Excel, comes into play. It stands for ‘Vertical Lookup’.

Consider it your data detective that vertically scans the first column of a table until it finds a match for your specified value. Once located, it retrieves related information from another column in that same row, like pinpointing the price of bananas from a list just by knowing their name.

Understanding the Basics of VLOOKUP

Before you can master VLOOKUP, you need to get familiar with its structure and how it operates. Essentially, the function requires four pieces of information to work: the lookup value (the piece of data you want to find), the table array (where to find it), the column index number (where to look for the related information), and the range lookup (to decide if you want an exact match or not).

Think of it like telling Excel, “Here’s what I’m searching for, this is where you should search, and here’s how precise I need you to be.” With this basic understanding, you’re ready to start using VLOOKUP to make your spreadsheets more dynamic and informative.

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Let’s say you want to find the price of “Dates” using their Product ID (104).

  • Lookup Value: The value you want to search for (in this case, the Product ID “103”).
  • Table Array: The range where the search should be conducted (e.g., A3:D7).
  • Column Index Number: The column in the table array from which to retrieve the value (Price is in the 3rd column).
  • Range Lookup: Whether you need an exact match (FALSE) or an approximate match (TRUE).

The VLOOKUP formula would be structured as follows:



In this case, you would put the VLOOKUP formula in the “Lookup Price” column for the row corresponding to Product ID 104. This demonstrates how VLOOKUP can be used to dynamically search for and display data from a larger dataset, making your spreadsheets more powerful and informative.

Preparing for Your First VLOOKUP

Step 1: Identifying Your Lookup Value

Getting started with VLOOKUP begins with pinpointing your lookup value—the specific data you’re seeking to match within your table. Click on the cell housing the value you’re keen on finding companions for. It could be anything imaginable within the Excel universe, from a text string to a number, or even a hyperlink.

Simply ensure the lookup value in your source cell matches the reference data in your target spreadsheet. Consider the case where you have a list of customer names: you’d click a cell containing a customer’s name to set your VLOOKUP’s sights on their data.

Here in the example, the Lookup Value is Product ID 102:-


Step 2: Organizing Your Table Array

For VLOOKUP to function correctly, your table must be organized with the lookup value in the first column. This is the column VLOOKUP will scour top to bottom in search of a match. Make sure your table array is tidy and the cell range for the search is correctly defined—think of it as setting the playground boundaries for this game of hide and seek with your data. When setting your table array, remember to include all the columns containing data you might want to retrieve.

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For instance, if your data spans from column A to column D, but you need details from column D, your table array will be marked as “A:D”. A properly organized table array is key to a successful VLOOKUP formula.

Continuing with the example, below is the selected table array i.e., “A3:B7” from which the data will be pulled in order to find the price of the product based on its Product ID.



Crafting Your VLOOKUP Formula

Step 3: Entering the VLOOKUP Formula

It’s time to bring your VLOOKUP formula to life. First, navigate to the cell where you wish the results to appear. With a tap on the formula bar or by pressing the “Fx” function icon, type in =VLOOKUP(), and the thrilling journey begins. Inside the parentheses, you’ll soon breathe life into the formula by adding the details of your data quest.

You can also manually input the formula directly into your desired cell for a hands-on approach. Don’t forget, when the Formula Builder pops up, it’s your helpful assistant, guiding you to fill in each parameter step by step, making sure none are missed. Once all set, hit ‘Done’ and watch as Excel works its magic, fetching the information you need with the press of a key.



Step 4: Specifying Column Number and Match Type

Now that your VLOOKUP is in motion, it’s crucial to specify the column index number—tell VLOOKUP from which column to fetch the answer. Count from your table’s first column, which holds the lookup value, to the column of the data you’re after. Remember, this counting starts at 1, not 0, and includes your lookup value column.

Next, define your match type. Inputting “FALSE” ensures an exact match; it’s like saying, “I want what I want, no substitutes!” Alternatively, “TRUE” opts for an approximate match; this grants VLOOKUP permission to find the closest fit, useful when dealing with sorted numerical ranges.

As you seek your favorite colors (housed in column 2 of your table), gently nestle a 2 in your formula followed by ‘FALSE’ for an exact match, completing your hunt with certainty.


Troubleshooting Common VLOOKUP Issues

Dealing with #N/A Errors

The dreaded #N/A error in VLOOKUP signals that the requested value is playing hard to get – it’s simply not found. But sometimes, the error might be a false alarm caused by tiny discrepancies. Here’s a quick guide to troubleshoot these tricky situations:

  • Check for Sneaky Typos: Verify that your lookup value spells match, character for character, with data in your table. Even an innocent space can throw everything off!
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  • Inspect Your Table Array: Make sure your VLOOKUP’s searching grounds include the right cells — it’s easy to mistype a range.


  • Keep Your Table Anchored: As you replicate your VLOOKUP, lock the table range with the $ symbol to prevent your references from wandering away.


  • The Type-Mismatch Tango: Is your VLOOKUP supposedly looking for numbers dressed as text or vice versa? Apply the TEXT or VALUE function to get everything in sync.

And perhaps a pro tip: Implement Excel’s IFNA function or wrap your VLOOKUP in an IFERROR to replace #N/A with a friendlier message or alternative result, keeping your spreadsheet neat and panic-free.

Ensuring Accurate Data Retrieval

To achieve precise outcomes from your VLOOKUP mission, put on your data detective hat and follow these protocols:

  1. Exactness in Ambiguity: Even the smallest variance can lead to mismatched results; ensure your lookup values and table data are consistently formatted.
  2. Define the Dimensions: Set your table array with absolute references (using the $ symbol); guarantee the same range is used as the formula is copied elsewhere.
  3. Order in the Data Court: If opting for an approximate match (when TRUE or 1 is used), confirm your data is sorted in ascending order; VLOOKUP assumes it so, don’t throw it off the scent.

As always, vigilance saves the day; review your data after performing VLOOKUP to catch any strays. Sound, accurate data retrieval ensures credibility — and peace of mind.

FAQ: Your VLOOKUP Questions Answered

How do I use VLOOKUP to search for an exact match?

Set the final argument in your VLOOKUP function to ‘FALSE’ to search for an exact match. For example: =VLOOKUP(lookup_value, table_array, col_index_num, FALSE). This instructs Excel to pinpoint the exact value that corresponds to your lookup value. Perfect for when precision is key! Remember, if there’s no perfect match, VLOOKUP will greet you with an #N/A error.

What is the VLOOKUP function used for?

The VLOOKUP function is your go-to Excel companion for bridging the gap between data points. It searches vertically in the first column of your table to snag a value that matches your lookup value. Once found, it nimbly hops across to the column you specify, retrieving the associated piece of information you’re after. Use it to link names to phone numbers, products to prices, or any other data pairing that simplifies your spreadsheet life.

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Can VLOOKUP return a value from another workbook or sheet?

Absolutely! VLOOKUP can find values across different sheets or even fetch data from an entirely separate workbook. Just make sure to include the workbook name in square brackets, the sheet name, and the cell range in the table array parameter. For instance: =VLOOKUP(A2, [WorkbookName.xlsx]SheetName!$A$1:$B$10, 2, FALSE). Excel will stretch its arms wide to grab that data for you.

What should I do if my VLOOKUP formula isn’t working?

If your VLOOKUP formula is playing hard to crack, first breathe, then double-check the basics—correct syntax, matching values, and right table array. Confirm both sheets in the formula are spelled correctly too. Also, ascertain that your column index is pointing to the correct data set. For ruthless errors like #N/A, consider using IFERROR or IFNA to keep things user-friendly. Keep a keen eye, the solution might be just a cell away!

Why would you use VLOOKUP instead of find?

VLOOKUP comes into its own when linking related data isn’t just about finding a needle in a haystack but delivering the haystack’s neighbor too. Unlike the basic ‘Find’ feature, VLOOKUP can autonomously pull related details from anywhere within your table. Use it for organized, complex data tasks where pinpointing data is only the first step, and retrieving associated values is the end goal.

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How to Use VLOOKUP in Excel - Step-by-Step Guide | MyExcelOnline How to Use VLOOKUP in Excel - Step-by-Step Guide | MyExcelOnline
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John Michaloudis is a former accountant and finance analyst at General Electric, a Microsoft MVP since 2020, an Amazon #1 bestselling author of 4 Microsoft Excel books and teacher of Microsoft Excel & Office over at his flagship Academy Online Course.

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