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Excel VLOOKUP Function

Excel VLOOKUP function

VLOOKUP is an Excel function to look up data in a table organized vertically. VLOOKUP supports approximate and exact matching, and wildcards (* ?) for partial matches. Lookup values must appear in the first column of the table passed into VLOOKUP.

Lookup a value in a table by matching on the first column
Return value 
The matched value from a table.
=VLOOKUP (value, table, col_index, [range_lookup])
  • value - The value to look for in the first column of a table.
  • table - The table from which to retrieve a value.
  • col_index - The column in the table from which to retrieve a value.
  • range_lookup - [optional] TRUE = approximate match (default). FALSE = exact match.
Usage notes 

VLOOKUP is an Excel function to get data from a table organized vertically. Lookup values must appear in the first column of the table passed into VLOOKUP.  VLOOKUP supports approximate and exact matching, and wildcards (* ?) for partial matches. 

Vertical data | Column Numbers | Only looks right | Matching Modes | Exact Match | Approximate Match | First Match | Wildcard Match | Two-way Lookup | Multiple Criteria | #N/A Errors | Videos

V is for vertical

The purpose of VLOOKUP is to get information from a table organized like this:

VLOOKUP is for vertical data

Using the Order number in column B as a lookup value, VLOOKUP can get the Customer ID, Amount, Name, and State for any order. For example, to get the customer name for order 1004, the formula is:

=VLOOKUP(1004,B5:F9,4,FALSE) // returns "Sue Martin"

For horizontal data, you can use the HLOOKUP, INDEX and MATCH, or XLOOKUP.

VLOOKUP is based on column numbers

When you use VLOOKUP, imagine that every column in the table is numbered, starting from the left. To get a value from a particular column, provide the appropriate number as the "column index". For example, the column index to retrieve the first name below is 2:

VLOOKUP exact match example

The last name and email can be retrieved with columns 3 and 4:

=VLOOKUP(H3,B4:E13,2,FALSE) // first name
=VLOOKUP(H3,B4:E13,3,FALSE) // last name
=VLOOKUP(H3,B4:E13,4,FALSE) // email address

VLOOKUP only looks right

VLOOKUP can only look to the right. The data you want to retrieve (result values) can appear in any column to the right of the lookup values:

VLOOKUP can only look to the right

If you need to lookup values to the left, see INDEX and MATCH, or XLOOKUP.

Exact and approximate matching

VLOOKUP has two modes of matching, exact and approximate. The name of the argument that controls matching is "range_lookup". This is a confusing name, because it seems to have something to do with cell ranges like A1:A10. Actually, the word "range" in this case refers to "range of values" – when range_lookup is TRUE, VLOOKUP will match a range of values rather than an exact value. A good example of this is using VLOOKUP to calculate grades.

It is important to understand that range_lookup defaults to TRUE, which means VLOOKUP will use approximate matching by default, which can be dangerous. Set range_lookup to FALSE to force exact matching:

=VLOOKUP(value, table, col_index) // approximate match (default)
=VLOOKUP(value, table, col_index, TRUE) // approximate match
=VLOOKUP(value, table, col_index, FALSE) // exact match

Note: You can also supply zero (0) instead of FALSE for an exact match.

Exact match

In most cases, you'll probably want to use VLOOKUP in exact match mode. This makes sense when you have a unique key to use as a lookup value, for example, the movie title in this data:

VLOOKUP exact match with movies

The formula in H6 to find Year, based on an exact match of movie title, is:

=VLOOKUP(H4,B5:E9,2,FALSE) // FALSE = exact match

Approximate match

In cases when you want the best match, not necessarily an exact match, you'll want to use approximate mode. For example, below we want to look up a commission rate in the table G5:H10. The lookup values come from column C. In this example, we need to use VLOOKUP in approximate match mode, because in most cases an exact match will never be found. The VLOOKUP formula in D5 is configured to perform an approximate match by setting the last argument to TRUE:

VLOOKUP approximate match commission rate

=VLOOKUP(C5,$G$5:$H$10,2,TRUE) // TRUE = approximate match

VLOOKUP will scan values in column G for the lookup value. If an exact match is found, VLOOKUP will use it. If not, VLOOKUP will "step back" and match the previous row.

Note: data must be sorted in ascending order by lookup value when you use approximate match mode with VLOOKUP.

First match

In the case of duplicate values, VLOOKUP will find the first match when the match mode is exact. In the screen below, VLOOKUP is configured to find the price for the color "Green". There are three entries with the color Green, and VLOOKUP returns the price for the first entry, $17. The formula in cell F5 is:

=VLOOKUP(E5,B5:C11,2,FALSE) // returns 17

VLOOKUP returns first match

Wildcard match

The VLOOKUP function supports wildcards, which makes it possible to perform a partial match on a lookup value. For instance, you can use VLOOKUP to retrieve values from a table after typing in only part of a lookup value. To use wildcards with VLOOKUP, you must specify the exact match mode by providing FALSE or 0 for the last argument, range_lookup. The formula in H7 retrieves the first name, "Michael", after typing "Aya" into cell H4:


VLOOKUP wildcard match

Read a more detailed explanation here.

Two-way lookup

Inside the VLOOKUP function, the column index argument is normally hard-coded as a static number.  However, you can also create a dynamic column index by using the MATCH function to locate the right column. This technique allows you to create a dynamic two-way lookup, matching on both rows and columns. In the screen below, VLOOKUP is configured to perform a lookup based on Name and Month. The formula in H6 is:


VLOOKUP two-way lookup

For more details, see this example.

Note: In general, INDEX and MATCH is a more flexible way to perform two-way lookups.

Multiple criteria

The VLOOKUP function does not handle multiple criteria natively. However, you can use a helper column to join multiple fields together, and use these fields like multiple criteria inside VLOOKUP.  In the example below, Column B is a helper column that concatenates first and last names together with this formula:

=C5&D5 // helper column

VLOOKUP is configured to do the same thing to create a lookup value. The formula in H6 is:


VLOOKUP with multiple criteria

For details, see this example.

Note: INDEX and MATCH and XLOOKUP are more robust ways to handle lookups based on multiple criteria.

VLOOKUP and #N/A errors

If you use VLOOKUP you will inevitably run into the #N/A error. The #N/A error just means "not found". For example, in the screen below, the lookup value "Toy Story 2" does not exist in the lookup table, and all three VLOOKUP formulas return #N/A:

VLOOKUP #N/A error example

One way to "trap" the NA error is to use the IFNA function like this:

VLOOKUP #N/A error example - fixed

The formula in H6 is:

=IFNA(VLOOKUP(H4,B5:E9,2,FALSE),"Not found")

The message can be customized as desired. To return nothing (i.e. to display a blank result) when VLOOKUP returns #N/A you can use an empty string like this:

=IFNA(VLOOKUP(H4,B5:E9,2,FALSE),"") // no message

The #N/A error is useful because it tells you something is wrong.  In practice, there are many reasons why you might see this error, including:

  • The lookup value does not exist in the table
  • The lookup value is misspelled, or contains extra space
  • Match mode is exact, but should be approximate
  • The table range is not entered correctly
  • You are copying VLOOKUP, and the table reference is not locked

Read more: VLOOKUP without #N/A errors 

More about VLOOKUP

Other notes

  • Range_lookup controls whether value needs to match exactly or not. The default is TRUE = allow non-exact match.
  • Set range_lookup to FALSE to require an exact match and TRUE to allow a non-exact match.
  • If range_lookup is TRUE (the default setting), a non-exact match will cause the VLOOKUP function to match the nearest value in the table that is still less than value.
  • When range_lookup is omitted, the VLOOKUP function will allow a non-exact match, but it will use an exact match if one exists.
  • If range_lookup is TRUE (the default setting) make sure that lookup values in the first row of the table are sorted in ascending order. Otherwise, VLOOKUP may return an incorrect or unexpected value.
  • If range_lookup is FALSE (require exact match), values in the first column of table do not need to be sorted.

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