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What Is a CSV File? Guide to Uses and Benefits

Sheila Lahar

Posted 12/16/2020

A CSV file is a commonly used file extension when it comes to spreadsheets. Even software programs that don’t look and feel like a spreadsheet application will frequently offer a CSV as an output file for downloading a data set, such as a report of results, actions, or contacts. Why? Because CSVs are so easy to edit and share. 

In this post, we dive deeper into what (exactly) is a CSV file, how they’re used in different types of software applications, as well as how to edit, create, and import them.

Table of contents:

What is a CSV file?

A CSV file refers to the CSV file extension, meaning any file that ends in “.csv.” This file extension stands for “comma separated value file” and it is one of the most common outputs for any spreadsheet program

Comma separated value file means that the data is actually input as data that is separated by commas. The spreadsheet application converts those comma-separated pieces of data into cells in tables and columns to make it easier to read and edit. 

In Windows, you can click on any file to see a preview of it in the file explorer folder on the right. If we click on an Excel CSV file, we actually see what it looks like behind the scenes: a mess of data separated by commas. Thank goodness for programs like Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets, which make this data a lot more manageable than just a block of text. 

The types of software that use the CSV file format

Many types of software use the CSV file format. The two most common ways that a CSV file would be used are for inputting and outputting. On the input side, the CSV file would be imported to bring in data that will be utilized within the software program. As for the output function, a CSV file is a common output because a software user can easily edit and share a CSV file report or data set. 

To better understand the way that software utilizes CSV files, let’s take a look at some examples. 

Common use cases for importing CSV files

One of the most common reasons to import a CSV file in the professional and business world is to upload a list of customer contacts. You might do this if onboarding to a new email marketing software like Active Campaign.

uploading contacts via CSV into ActiveCampaign

Another software that could require you to upload a list of customer contacts would be a CRM like Hubspot or Nutshell. Or a referral marketing software like GrowSurf could also require you to upload customers. You can use the data to add them to your referral program so they can generate a unique referrer link to share your business with their friends.

Of course, there are other types of data you might upload into a software besides customer lists. For example, if you’re an ecommerce company, you could need to upload a list of your product SKUs to an inventory management system or order fulfillment software.

Common use cases for exporting CSV files

Not only do many software programs intake CSVs, they also output them as well. A CSV file is a common exporting format because it’s so well-recognized and widely used. 

It’s simplicity has led it to become adopted by so many programs that few software want to stray with a different file format when it comes to exporting spreadsheet data. Some programs will give you the option of CSV or PDF such as Gusto’s custom report builder, but when it comes to spreadsheet data, just a CSV export is the most common.

generating a CSV report from Gusto

Benefits of CSV files

Why use CSV files? Let’s take a look at the most important benefits.

  • Widely adopted by other users - Other people within your business or organization will likely be accustomed to using CSV files. Most importantly, this file type is not unique to Mac or PCs, but can be used by any desktop device and any operating system. 
  • Easy to organize and edit - CSV files are editable and the changes are not locked, unless of course a user locks a certain set of cells from editing. The good news is that unlike PDF downloads of spreadsheet data, CSVs can be changed later. 
  • Utilized by many different business software programs - Many types of enterprise software programs rely on CSV imports for onboarding user data. At the same time, plenty of programs have CSVs as their main output for reports.
  • Used by major spreadsheet applications - When you use CSV files, you can edit and create them in Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets.

How to open and edit a CSV file

Microsoft Excel is the most commonly used spreadsheet application for opening and editing CSV files. You can download a CSV file from many software programs. If you have Microsoft Excel installed on your computer, your computer will automatically default to it as your spreadsheet application. So after downloading the CSV file, just double click to open it in Excel. If you already have it in a file folder, you can simply double click to open it. 

To edit any piece of data, just click once on that cell. You can edit the cell content directly in that cell or in the area called fx, which stands for “Excel Functions.” In this area, you can write standard characters and text, or write any functions and formulas you want to use.

How to create a CSV file

Want to create a brand new CSV file? Here’s how. 

Open up Microsoft Excel and save a new file as a CSV. You can then edit it and it will continue to save as a CSV whenever you click save. 

The most common way to get started is to create the headings for your columns. Let’s say you want to create a list of the contact information of the people on your team. You can make one column for first names, another for last names, another for phone numbers, and another for email addresses.

How to import a CSV file

There are thousands of software programs that utilize CSV files. The CSV import process will differ slightly for each one, but due to the consumerization of enterprise tech, even business programs should have easy-to-use CSV import features. 

Most CSV importers follow this process:

  1. Select the file you want to upload - From your computer, select the correct CSV file that you want to import to your software program. 
  2. Match the columns to the appropriate fields - The next step is to match the headings in your CSV columns to the data fields used and understood by your software. Data validation is a key step towards making sure your imported CSV data is usable. 
  3. Address any errors - A quality CSV importer should be able to give you very clear explanations should anything go wrong. This way you can make edits to the data and try the import again. Without details on the CSV import issues, it’s very hard for users to know how to fix them. Unfortunately, many software programs do lack quality CSV importers that provide troubleshooting

Other file formats used for spreadsheets (besides CSV)

Besides CSV files, there are a few other types of file formats that can either be read and understood by spreadsheet programs, or can be used to download data sets from a spreadsheet program. 

When working in Google Sheets, you can download the file in a few different formats, other than CSV:

  • Microsoft Excel (.xlsx)
  • OpenDocument format (.ods)
  • PDF document (.pdf)
  • Web page (.html)
  • Tab-separated values (.tsv)

file types for spreadsheets

As for Microsoft Excel, there are even more file formats available for saving data from your spreadsheet (aside from CSV):

  • Excel Workbook (.xlsx)
  • Excel Macro-Enabled Workbook (.xlsm)
  • Excel Binary Workbook (.xlsb)
  • Excel 97-2003 Workbook (.xls)
  • XML Data (.xml)
  • Single File Web Page (.mht or .mhtml)
  • Web Page (.htm or .html)
  • Excel Template (.xltx)
  • Excel Macro-Enabled Template (.xltm)
  • Excel 97-2003 Template (.xlt)
  • Text tab delimited (.txt)
  • Unicode text (.txt)
  • XML Spreadsheet 2003 (.xml)
  • Microsoft Excel 5.0/95 Workbook (.xls)
  • Formatted Text space delimited (.prn)
  • Text Macintosh (.txt)
  • Text Ms-DOS (.txt)
  • CSV Macintosh (.csv)
  • CSV MS-DOS (.csv)
  • DIF (.dif)
  • SYLK (.slk)
  • Excel Add-in (.xlam)
  • Excel 97- 2003 Add-in (.xla)
  • PDF Document (.pdf)
  • XPS Document (.xps)
  • Strict Open XML Spreadsheet (.xlsx)
  • OpenDocument Spreadsheet (.ods)

file formats for spreadsheets

CSV files are popular for a reason. They’re simple, minimalistic, and widely understood and utilized by many different types of software. 

Flatfile is a CSV importer for software companies that want to offer amazing data onboarding experiences at a fraction of the cost of inhouse development.

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