What Is a CSV File and How Do They Work?

October 19, 2023 • Zachary Amos


CSV files have been around for a long time. Many people and companies still use them to this day. If your job entails that you work with spreadsheets, you might have come across them or even a colleague could have sent them to you.

While the file format is old, they are still useful and have benefits that make them an essential tool for many businesses. Here is more about CSV files, how to open them with different programs and why businesses use them.

What Is a CSV File?

Comma Separated Value(CSV) files are a type of format that spreadsheets are often saved in. The .CSV refers to the kind of file extension. With spreadsheets, the value and information entered are separated by columns, cells and tables, but with a CSV, they are separated by commas, as the name implies.

In other words, CSV files are what goes on behind the scenes of spreadsheets. What makes them so useful is their accessibility. Most spreadsheet programs can open these files. CSV formats provide a simplistic look at the data and information contained in the file.

When opened with a spreadsheet program, they become easier to read and more manageable. The reason for this is that while CSVs provide a simplistic look, it can become chaotic if many values and information are entered. Spreadsheet applications like Excel converts them in tables and rows, which makes them easier to understand.

Understanding The CSV File Format

The CSV format can be opened in any text editor program to allow the user to make changes. These files follow a simplistic layout. Normally the person would start with entering the names of the columns. Afterward, the values are added below the headings.

Note that these files can use different delimiters — the character or symbol used to separate the values. While CSV files mostly use commas, they can utilize various characters to separate the values, such as a space or a semi-colon. Here is an example of what a CSV file will look like when opened in a text editor.

Product, Color, Material, Price

Table, Brown, Wood, $100

Shirt, Red, Cloth, $15

Chair, White, Wood, $50

Why do Businesses Use CSV Files?

CSV files are used for inputting and outputting information. Many business programs utilize CSV files to import the data of an organization. For example, an e-commerce company might need to save its list of product Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) — a unique identifier the manufacturer has assigned to the items — as a CSV file format to allow them to import it to an inventory management application.

As mentioned, the accessibility of these files makes them so widely used. CSV files are also not unique to any specific device — both Mac and Windows systems can access them. They provide businesses with an easy way to quickly import information and data to an application they use.

How To Open a CSV File

Depending on which application you use, this process will differ. To open and edit the CSV in a text editor such as Notepad, you can simply right-click on the file and select ‘open with Notepad.’

One of the most widely used spreadsheet applications is Google Sheets and Mircosoft Excel. Unlike a text editor, when a spreadsheet application opens a CSV file, it is formatted to display in cells, columns and tables. Here are the steps to open a CSV file with these two programs.

In Google Sheets:

  1. Go to file and select open.
  2. A separate view will display and from here navigate to the upload tab. Find the CSV file on your computer and simply drag and drop it.
  3. The file will open and you can now edit it in Google Sheets.

In Microsoft Excel:

  1. The same as Google Sheets, select the file tab and click on open.
  2. Select browse and navigate to where the CSV file is stored on your system. In some cases, you might need to select ‘All files’ in the bottom right corner of the view that opened to find your CSV file.
  3. Next, a Text Import Wizard tab will appear. Simply follow the instructions to open the file. Ensure you select the correct delimiter your CSV file uses — the character that separates the value, which is usually a comma.
  4. When you have completed all the instructions and selected the necessary option to display your file correctly, simply click on finish and the CSV will display in the spreadsheet.

How To Create a CSV File

There are two main ways to create a CSV file. In a text editor application such as Notepad, start with inputting the names of the columns and then the values. When everything has been entered into the text editor, save it under the .CSV file extension.

As mentioned, sometimes if there are many values in the document, it might become chaotic or you might run into values that already use commas. For this scenario, add quotation marks around the entered information, ensuring the system does not register it as two separate data entries.

Creating a CSV in a spreadsheet application such as Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel follows the same process. Enter the values as usual and when finished, save it under the .CSV file extension the same way as you would with the text editor.

Note that while a CSV file can be opened with any spreadsheet application and text editor, an Excel file can only be opened with Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. Also, while images can display in an Excel file, a CSV does not possess this ability.

What Are The Benefits of CSV Files?

These files have many associated benefits that make them useful to many working professionals and organizations. One of the biggest advantages of a CSV is that many programs or individuals use this file type. This makes them widely accessible.

Also, the only requirement to open this file is a text editor, which most people have access to. This makes CVS the perfect file type when many people will need to work with different company data and if multiple programs are used to import the information. This is because this file type is easily accessed and most business programs use it for importing information.

Here is a summary list of some of the benefits CSV files offer:

  • Works on any system — Windows and Mac
  • Business software uses it for importing and exporting information.
  • The file type is widely recognized.
  • It can be opened with a spreadsheet application or a text editor.
  • They are easy to access and make edits on.

Utilizing CSV File Types

CSV files are highly versatile, which makes them the ideal choice for many organizations. They provide a quick and easy way to access information from any device and are compatible with most enterprise software. When looking at all the advantages this file type offers, it is easy to understand why it is still used today despite its age.