What Is a CSV File?

By Justin H. Pot

If you find or receive a .csv file on your computer you might not know what it is. A .csv file, or "comma separated values," is a very simple database format. The information inside could be a spreadsheet, a contact list or just about any data set that can be arranged in columns and rows. Essentially, there are a lot of different things that a .csv file could be.

What Is it?

A .csv file is actually simple in structure; as the name suggests, it consists of data separated by commas. Because of this, it's a good idea to not include any commas in files intended to be exported to .csv, because this will mess with the file structure. Using this simple comma format, .csv files manage to organize data in a way readable by a variety of programs.

What Uses It?

Many programs provide the option to "export to CSV" or "import from CSV." In fact, so many programs include this feature that listing them here is impossible, but common examples include Microsoft Excel, which allows spreadsheets to be exported, and Microsoft Outlook, which allows for the export of contact lists in .csv form.

Why?

The file format .csv is not meant to be one in which people store data long-term; rather, it is meant to be a way to move data from one program to another. Consider it an international cargo truck, if that helps. For example, if you had a large number of contacts built up in Microsoft Outlook but wanted to use these contacts in another email application like Gmail or Mozilla Thunderbird, you could export the contacts to .csv and then import them with your new program. Keep reading if you're not sure what "importing" or "exporting" is.

Exporting

Exporting a file to .csv means taking a given set of data---a spreadsheet, for example---and saving it as a .csv file. This is typically done when one needs to move data from one program for another, but is sometimes also done to back up data. In most programs, exporting to .csv is as simple as clicking "File" and then "Export to CSV." After users export a set of data, they create a .csv file on their computer, which can then be imported.

Importing

If you want to import a .csv, first you must determine whether the given program is capable of importing in this manner. Check the "File" menu for an "import from CSV" function; if you don't find anything, consult the software's manual. After importing a .csv file, make sure the data did not corrupt in any way during the transfer---ensure all information is in the proper categories and that all information is present. If information didn't come over perfectly, try the process again; if that doesn't work, you may need to edit some things manually.