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.


  • lookup_value - The value to look for in the first column of a table.
  • table_array - The table from which to retrieve a value.
  • column_index_num - The column in the table from which to retrieve a value.
  • range_lookup - [optional] TRUE = approximate match (default). FALSE = exact match.


=VLOOKUP(lookup_value, table_array, column_index_num, [range_lookup])

How to use 

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


VLOOKUP is probably the most famous function in Excel, for reasons both good and bad. On the good side, VLOOKUP is easy to use and does something very useful. For new users in particular, it is very satisfying to watch VLOOKUP scan a table, find a match, and return a correct result. Using VLOOKUP successfully is a rite of passage for new Excel users.

On the bad side, VLOOKUP is limited and has dangerous defaults. Unlike INDEX and MATCH (or XLOOKUP), VLOOKUP needs a complete table with lookup values in the first column. This makes it hard to use VLOOKUP with multiple criteria. In addition, VLOOKUP's default matching behavior makes it easy to get incorrect results. Fear not. The key to using VLOOKUP successfully is mastering the basics. Read on for a complete overview.


VLOOKUP takes four arguments: lookup_value, table_array, column_index_num, and range_lookup:


Lookup_value is the value to look for, and table_array is the range of vertical data to look inside. The first column of table_array must contain the lookup values. The column_index_num argument is the column number of the value to retrieve, where the first column of table_array is column 1. Finally, range_lookup controls match behavior. If range_lookup is TRUE, VLOOKUP will perform an approximate match. If range_lookup is FALSE, VLOOKUP will perform an exact match.

Important: VLOOKUP will perform an approximate match by default. See below for more information.

V is for vertical

The purpose of VLOOKUP is to look up information in a table like this:

VLOOKUP is for vertical data

With the Order number in column B as the lookup_value, VLOOKUP can get the Cust. ID, Amount, Name, and State for any order. For example, to get the name for order 1004, the formula is:

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

Note: to look up horizontal data, you can use HLOOKUP, INDEX and MATCH, or XLOOKUP.

VLOOKUP is based on column numbers

When you use VLOOKUP, imagine that every column in the table_array is numbered, starting from the left. To get a value from a given column, provide the number for column_index_num. For example, to retrieve the first name below we use 2:

VLOOKUP is based on column numbers

By changing only column_index_num, you can look up columns 2, 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

Note: normally, we would use an absolute reference for H3 ($H$3) and B4:E13 ($B$4:$E$13) to prevent these references from changing when the formula is copied. Above, the references are relative to make them easier to read.

VLOOKUP only looks right

VLOOKUP can only look to the right. In other words, you can only retrieve data to the right of the column that holds lookup values:

VLOOKUP can only look to the right

To look up values to the left, see INDEX and MATCH, or XLOOKUP.

Match modes

VLOOKUP has two match modes, exact and approximate, controlled by the fourth argument, range_lookup. 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. When range_lookup is FALSE, VLOOKUP performs an exact match, as in the example above.

Important: range_lookup is optional defaults to TRUE. This means approximate match mode is the 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

Tip: always supply a value for range_lookup as a reminder of your intended behavior.

Note: You can also supply zero (0) for an exact match, and 1 for an approximate match. Excel will evaluate 0 as FALSE and 1 as TRUE in function arguments. 0 and 1 are therefore more compact equivalents.

Exact match example

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 the movie title, is:

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

VLOOKUP uses the value in H4 ("Toy Story") to match the 4th row in the table and returns 1995.

Approximate match example

In some cases, you will need an approximate match lookup instead of an exact match lookup. For example, below we want to find the correct commission percentage in the range G5:H10 based on the sales amount in column C. Here, 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: The table_array must be sorted in ascending order by lookup value to use an approximate match. If table_array is not sorted by the first column in ascending order, VLOOKUP may return incorrect or unexpected results.

First match only

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

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

VLOOKUP returns first match

Tip: To retrieve all matches with a lookup operation, see the FILTER function.

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 information from a table with a partial lookup_value and wildcard. To use wildcards with VLOOKUP, you must provide FALSE or zero for range_lookup. In the screen below, the formula in H7 retrieves the first name, "Michael", after typing "Aya" into cell H4. Notice the asterisk (*) wildcard is concatenated to the lookup value inside the VLOOKUP formula:


VLOOKUP wildcard match

Read a more detailed explanation here.

Two-way lookup

Inside the VLOOKUP function, column_index_num is normally hard-coded as a static number. However, you can create a dynamic column index by using the MATCH function to locate the needed 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 like this:


VLOOKUP two-way lookup

MATCH locates "Feb" in the range B4:E4 and returns 3 to VLOOKUP as the column number. 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. For a more advanced, flexible approach, see this example.

Note: INDEX and MATCH and XLOOKUP are better for 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 simply 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

The #N/A error is useful because tells you something is wrong. The reason for #N/A might be:

  • 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

To "trap" the NA error and return a custom value, you can 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

You can also use the IFERROR function to trap VLOOKUP #N/A errors. However, use caution with IFERROR, because it will catch any error, not just the #N/A error. Read more: VLOOKUP without #N/A errors 


VLOOKUP in exact match mode can be slow on large data sets. On the other hand, VLOOKUP in approximate match mode is very fast, but dangerous if you need an exact match because it might return an incorrect value. If you have data sorted by lookup value, it is possible to create a fast exact match formula by using VLOOKUP twice.

Notes: (1) This approach is overkill unless performance is a problem. (2) newer functions like XLOOKUP have built-in support for a fast binary search.

More about VLOOKUP

Other notes

  • VLOOKUP performs an approximate match by default.
  • VLOOKUP is not case-sensitive.
  • Range_lookup controls the match mode. FALSE = exact, TRUE = approximate (default).
  • If range_lookup is omitted or TRUE:
    • VLOOKUP will match the nearest value equal to or less than the lookup_value.
    • Column 1 of table_array must be sorted in ascending order.
  • If range_lookup is FALSE or zero for an exact match:
    • VLOOKUP will perform an exact match.
    • The table_array does not need to be sorted.
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Dave Bruns

Hi - I'm Dave Bruns, and I run Exceljet with my wife, Lisa. Our goal is to help you work faster in Excel. We create short videos, and clear examples of formulas, functions, pivot tables, conditional formatting, and charts.