Number format drop-down list in Excel

Cell Format Types in Excel – What are they and how to implement them

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This tutorial about cell format types in Excel is an essential part of your learning of Excel and will definitely do a lot of good to you in your future use of this software, as a lot of tasks in Excel sheets are based on cells format, as well as several errors are due to a bad implementation of it.

A good comprehension of the cell format types will build your knowledge on a solid basis to master Excel basics and will considerably save you time and effort when any related issue occurs.

A- Introduction

Excel software formats the cells depending on what type of information they contain.

To update the format of the highlighted cell, go to the “Home” tab of the ribbon and click, in the “Number” group of commands on the “Number Format” drop-down list.

Format of the selected cell in Excel

The drop-down list allows the selection to be changed.

Number format drop-down list in Excel

Cell formatting options include:

  • General
  • Number
  • Currency
  • Accounting
  • Short Date
  • Long Date
  • Time
  • Percentage
  • Fraction
  • Scientific
  • Text

And the “More Number Formats” option.

Clicking the option for More Number Formats brings up additional options for formatting cells, including the ability to do special and custom formatting options.

These options are discussed in detail in the below sections.

B- Cell format types in Excel

1- General format

By default, cells are formatted as “General”, which could store any type of information. The General format means that no specific format is applied to the selected cell.

When information is typed into a cell, the cell format may change automatically. For example, if I enter “4/4/19” into a cell and press enter, then highlight the cell to view details about it, the cell format will be listed as “Date” instead of “General”.

Excel automatically formats dates
Excel automatically formats dates

Similarly, we can update a cell’s format before or after entering data to adjust the way the data appears. Changing the format of a cell to “Currency” will make it so information entered is displayed as a dollar amount.

Currency format of a cell in Excel
Currency format of a cell in Excel

Typing a number into this cell and pressing enter will not just show that number, but will instead format it accordingly.

Before pressing enter, Excel shows the value which was typed: “4”.

Entering data in already formatted cell in Excel
Entering data in an already formatted cell in Excel

After pressing enter, the value is updated based on the formatting type selected.

Data formatted as currency in Excel
Data formatted as currency in Excel

Don’t let the format type showed in the illustration at the drop-down list confusing you; it is reflecting the cell below (i.e. E4), since we validated by an Enter.

2- Number format

Cells formatted as numbers behave differently than general formatted cells. By default, when a number is entered, or when a cell is formatted as a number already, the alignment of the information within the cell will be on the right instead of on the left. This makes it easier to read a list of numbers such as the below.

Numbers in Excel aligned by default to the right
Numbers in Excel aligned by default to the right

Note in the above screenshot that since we didn’t choose the “Number” format for our cells, they still have a “General” one. They are numbers for Excel (meaning, we can do calculations on them), but they didn’t have yet the number format and its formatting aspects:

You can set the formatting options for Excel numbers in the “Format Cells” dialog box.

To do that, select the cell or the range of cells you want to set the formatting options for their numbers, and go to the “Home” tab of the ribbon, then in the “Number” group of commands, click on the launcher of the dialog box (the arrow on the right-down side of the group).

Launcher of the "cell format" dialog box in Excel
Launcher of the “Format Cells” dialog box in Excel

Excel opens the “Format Cells” dialog box in its “Number” tab. Click in the “Category” pane on “Number”.

Number formatting in "Format Cells" dialog box - Excel
Number formatting in “Format Cells” dialog box – Excel
  • In this dialog box, you can decide how many decimal places to display by updating options in the “Decimal places” field.

Note that this feature is also available in the “Home” tab of the ribbon where you can go to the “Number” group of commands and click the Increase Decimal Increase decimal command in Excel or Decrease Decimal Decrease decimal command in Excel buttons.

Here is the result of consecutive increasing of decimal places on our example of data (1 decimal; 2 decimals; and 3 decimals):

Increase decimal in Excel
Increase decimal in Excel
  • You can also decide if commas should be shown in the display as a thousand separator, by updating the “Use 1000 Separator (,)” option in the “Format Cells” dialog box.

This feature is also available in the “Home” tab of the ribbon by clicking the “Comma Style” button Comma style button in Excel in the “Number” group of commands.

Note that using the Comma Style button will automatically set the format to Accounting.

Apply the thousand separator on numbers in Excel
Apply the thousand separator on numbers in Excel
  • Another option from the Format Cells dialog box is to decide how negative numbers should display by using the “Negative numbers” field.

There are four options for displaying negative numbers.

  1. Display negative numbers with a negative sign before the number.
  2. Display negative numbers in red.
  3. Display negative numbers in parentheses.
  4. Display negative numbers in red and in parentheses.
Formats of negative numbers in Excel

3- Currency format

Cells formatted as currency have a currency symbol such as a dollar sign $ immediately to the left of the number in the cell, and contain two numbers after the decimal by default.

The alignment of numbers in currency formatted cells will be on the right for readability.

Excel numbers formatted with currency type

Currency formatting options are similar to number formatting options, apart from the currency symbol display.

  • As with regular number formatting, you can decide, in the “Format Cells” dialog box, how many decimal places to display by updating the field “Decimal places”.
Excel currency format in format cells dialog box

You can also find this feature in the “Home” tab of the ribbon, by going to the “Number” group of commands and clicking the Increase Decimal Increase decimal command in Excel or Decrease Decimal Decrease decimal command in Excel.

Increase and decrease decimals for currency numbers in Excel
  • You can also decide what currency symbol should be shown in the display by updating the “Symbol” field in the “Format Cells” dialog box.
  • As with regular number formatting, you can also decide how negative numbers should display by updating the “Negative numbers” field in the “Format Cells” dialog box.

There are four options for displaying negative numbers.

  1. Display negative numbers with a negative sign before the number.
  2. Display negative numbers in red.
  3. Display negative numbers in parentheses.
  4. Display negative numbers in red and in parentheses.

4- Accounting format

Like with the currency format, cells formatted as accounting have a currency symbol such as a dollar sign $; however, this symbol is to the far left of the cell, while the alignment of numbers in the cell is on the right. Accounting numbers contain two numbers after the decimal by default.

Accounting vs Currency format in Excel

Clicking the “Accounting Number Format” button Accounting number format button in Excel in the “Number” group of commands of the “Home” tab, will quickly format a cell or cells as Accounting.

The down arrow to the right of the Accounting Number Format button allows selection between common symbols used for accounting, including English (dollar sign), English (pound), Euro, Chinese, and French symbols.

Accounting formats in Excel
Accounting formats in Excel

Accounting formatting options in the “Format Cells” dialog box (“Home” tab of the ribbon, in the “Number” group of commands, click on the launcher of the “Number Format” dialog box), are similar to number and currency formatting options.

Accounting format options in Excel
  • You can decide how many decimal places to display by updating its option in the “Format Cells” dialog box.

As mentioned before in this tutorial, this feature is also available directly in the “Home” tab of the ribbon by clicking the Increase Decimal Increase decimal command in Excel or Decrease Decimal Decrease decimal command in Excel buttons in the “Number” group of commands.

  • You can also decide in the “Format Cells” dialog box, what currency symbol should be shown in the display by using the “Symbol” drop-down list.
    This dropdown gives a much broader list of options than the “Accounting Number Format” option in the “Home” tab of the ribbon.

Note that with the Accounting formatting option, negative numbers display in parentheses by default. There are not options to change this.

Negative accounting numbers in Excel

5- Date format

There are options for “Short Date” and “Long Date” in the “Number Format” dropdown list of the “Home” tab.

Date format in Excel

Short date shows the date with slashes separating month, day, and year. The order of the month and day may vary depending on your computer’s location settings.

Long date shows the date with the day of the week, month, day, and year separated by commas.

More options for formatting dates are available in the “Format Cells” dialog box (accessible by clicking in the “Number Format” dropdown list of the “Home” tab and choosing the “More Number Formats” option at the bottom).

Date formatting options in Excel
  • You can choose from a long list of available date formats.
  • You can update the location settings used for formatting the date. This will alter the list of format options in the above list and will adjust the display and potentially the order of the elements (day, month, year) within the date.
    Note the below example when we switch from English (United States) format to English (United Kingdom) format.
play changes with location

6- Time format

Cells formatted as time display the time of day. The default time display is based on your computer’s location settings.

Time formatting options are available in the “Format Cells” dialog box (accessible by choosing the “More Number Formats” option at the bottom of the “Number Format” dropdown list in the “Home” tab of the ribbon).

Time formatting options in Excel
  • You can choose from a long list of available time formats.
  • You can update the location settings used for formatting the time. This will alter the list of format options in the above list and will adjust the display.

7- Percentage format

Cells formatted as percentage display a percent sign to the right of the number. You can change the format of a cell to a percentage using the “Number Format” dropdown list, or by clicking the “Percent Style” button Percent style button in Excel. Both options are accessible from the “Home” tab of the ribbon, in the “Number” group of commands.

Note that updating a number to a percentage will expect that the number already contains the decimal. For example:

A cell containing the value 0.08, as a percentage, will show 8%.

A cell containing the value 8, as a percentage, will show 800%.

Percentage formatting options are available in the “Format Cells” dialog box, accessible by clicking on “More Number Formats” of the “Number Format” dropdown list in the “Home” tab of the ribbon.

Percentage formatting options in Excel

8- Fraction format

Cells formatted as a fraction display with a slash symbol separating the numerator and denominator.

Fraction formatting options are available in the “Format Cells” dialog box, accessible by clicking in the “Home” tab of the ribbon, on “More Number Formats” of the “Number Format” dropdown list.

Fraction formatting options in Excel
  • Note that when selecting the format to use for a fraction, Excel will round to the nearest fraction where the formatting criteria can be met.

As an example, if the formatting option selected is “Up to one digit”, entering a fraction with two digits will cause rounding to occur. For example, with the setting of “Up to one digit”,

If we enter a value of 7/16, the value displayed will be 4/9, as converting to 9ths was the option with only one digit which required the least amount of rounding.

For another example, if the formatting option selected is “As quarters”, entering a fraction that cannot be expressed in quarters (divisible by four) will also cause rounding to occur.

If we enter a value of 5/8, the value displayed will be 3/4. Excel rounded up to 6/8, or 3/4, which was the closest option divisible by four.

Fraction value display in Excel depends on fraction type chosen
  • Also note that for the formatting options with “Up to x digits”, Excel will always round down to the lowest exact equivalent fraction when possible.

For example, if we enter a value of 2/4 with one of these formatting options active, the value displayed will be 1/2, as this is the mathematical equivalent. This behavior will not take place for formatting options “As…”, since these specifically determine what the denominator should be.

  • Fractions listed as more than a whole (meaning the numerator is a higher number than the denominator), such as 7/4 will automatically be adjusted into a whole number and a fraction 13/4, where the fraction follows the formatting rules selected.

9- Scientific format

Scientific format, otherwise known as Exponential Notation, allows very large and small numbers to be accurately represented within a cell, even when the size of the cell cannot accommodate the size of the numbers.

The way exponential notation works is to theoretically place a decimal in a spot that would make the number shorter, then describe where to move that decimal to return to the original number.

Examples with large numbers, where the decimal is moved to the left:

Scientific format with decimal moved to the left

For the number 300 to be expressed in exponential notation, Excel moves the decimal from after the whole number 300.00 to between the 3 and the 00. This is typed out as E+02 since the decimal was moved two places to the left. The other examples are similar, where the decimal was moved 6 and 12 places to the left.

Examples with small numbers, where the decimal is moved to the right:

Scientific format with decimal moved to the right

For the number 0.2 to be expressed in exponential notation, Excel moves the decimal to create a whole number 2. This is typed out as E-01 since the decimal was moved one place to the right. The other examples are similar, where the decimal was moved 4 and 10 places to the right.

Scientific formatting options are listed in the “Format Cells” dialog box, accessible by going to the “Home” tab of the ribbon, and clicking the “More Number Formats” option of the “Number Format” dropdown list.

Scientific format in Excel

The only option available is to alter the number of decimal places shown in the number prior to the scientific notation.

For example, for the value 11.43 formatted with the scientific format, if we change the Decimal places from 2 to 1, the display will change as follows.

Two decimals: at in Excel with 2 decimal places 

One decimal:  Scientific format in Excel with 1 decimal place  

10- Text format

Cells can be formatted as Text through the “Number Format” dropdown list, in the “Number” group of commands of the “Home” tab.

Using the Text format in Excel allows values to be entered as they are, without Excel changing them per the above formatting rules.

In general, when entering a text in a cell, you won’t need to set its type to “Text”, as the default format type “General” is sufficient in most cases.

This may be useful when you want to display numbers with leading zeros, want to have spaces before or after numbers or letters, or when you want to display symbols that Excel normally uses for formulas.

Below are examples of some fields formatted as Text.

Examples of cells formatted as text in Excel

Note that when a number is formatted as Text, Excel will display a symbol showing that there could be a possible error Excel shows error symbol with number formatted as text.

Clicking the cell, then clicking the pop-up icon will show what the error may be and offer suggestions for resolution.

Error of Excel number formatted as text

11- Special format

Special format offers four options in the “Format Cells” dialog box, accessible by going to the “Home” tab of the ribbon, and clicking the “Number Format” launcher arrow in the “Number” group of commands.

Special format in Excel
  • Zip Code

When less than five numbers are entered in Zip Code format, leading zeros will be added to bring the total to five numbers.

When more than five numbers are entered in Zip Code format, all numbers will be displayed, even though this does not meet the format criteria.

Zip code in Excel
  • Zip Code + 4

Zip Code + 4 format automatically creates a dash symbol before the last four numbers in the zip code.

When less than nine numbers are entered in Zip Code + 4 format, leading zeros will be added to bring the total to nine numbers.

When more than nine numbers are entered in Zip Code + 4 format, extra numbers are displayed prior to the dash symbol .

Zip code + 4 in Excel
  • Phone Number

Phone Number format automatically creates a dash before the last four numbers in the phone number. This format also adds parentheses ( ) around the area code when an area code is entered.

When less than the expected number of digits are entered in Phone Number format, only the entered digits will be displayed, starting from the end of the phone number, as shown on the third and fourth lines, below.

When more than the expected number of digits are entered in Phone Number format, extra numbers are displayed within the area code parentheses.

Note that Phone Number format in Excel does not handle the number 1 before an area code. This entry would be treated like any other extra number.

Phone number in Excel
  • Social Security Number

Social Security Number format automatically creates a dash before the last four numbers in the social security number and a dash before the last six numbers in the social security number.

When less than nine numbers are entered in Social Security Number format, leading zeros will be added to bring the total to nine numbers.

When more than nine numbers are entered in Social Security Number format, extra numbers are displayed prior to the first dash .

Social security number in Excel

12- Custom format

Custom formats can be used or added through the “Format Cells” dialog box, accessible from the “Number” group of commands in the “Home” tab of the ribbon by clicking the “Number Format” launcher arrow.

This can be useful if the above formatting options do not work for your needs. Custom number formats can be created or updated by typing into the “Type” field of the “Format Cells” dialog box.

When creating a new custom format, be sure to use an existing custom format that you are okay with changing.

Custom format in Excel

Custom number formats are separated, at maximum, into four parts separated by semicolons ; .

  • Part 1: How to handle positive number values
  • Part 2: How to handle negative number values
  • Part 3: How to handle zero number values
  • Part 4: How to handle text values

Note that if fewer parts are included in the custom format coding, Excel will determine how best to merge the above options: As an example, if two parts are listed, positive and zero values will be grouped.

Note that Excel may update the formatting of some fields to Custom automatically depending on what actions are taken on the field.

C- Examples of common issues caused by wrong cell format types in Excel

1- Common issues due to wrong cell format types

The most common problems you may encounter with a wrong cell format type in Excel are of 3 types:
– Getting a wrong value
– Getting an error
– Formula displayed as-is and not calculated

Let’s illustrate these 3 cases with some examples:

  • Getting a wrong value

This may occur when you enter a value in an already formatted cell with an inappropriate format type, or when you apply a different format to a cell already containing a value.

The following table details some examples:

Wrong values due to wrong cell format in Excel
Wrong values due to wrong cell format in Excel
  • Getting an error

This occurs when you enter a text preceded with a symbol of a dash, or plus, or equal, as an element of a list.

Error of a text recognized as formula in Excel
Error of a text recognized as a formula in Excel

Excel wrongly interprets the text as a formula and show the error “The formula contains unrecognized text”.

  • Formula displayed as-is and not calculated

In the following example, we tried to calculate the total of prices from cell B2 to B6 using the Excel SUM function, but Excel doesn’t calculate our formula and just displayed it as-is.

Excel formula displayed as is and not calculated

The source of the problem is that the result cell, B7, was previously formatted as text before entering the formula.

2- How to correct the wrong cell format type issues

To correct these issues, you need to apply the right format from the “Number Format” drop-down list, and sometimes, in addition to that, you need even to enter the content of the cell one more time.

For cells containing formulas displayed as text, you would choose the “General” format, then re-enter them again (or just, double click in the cell and press Enter).


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