Formulas & functions

Overview of formulas in Excel

Overview of formulas in Excel

Get started on how to create formulas and use built-in functions to perform calculations and solve problems.

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Important: The calculated results of formulas and some Excel worksheet functions may differ slightly between a Windows PC using x86 or x86-64 architecture and a Windows RT PC using ARM architecture. Learn more about the differences.

Create a formula that refers to values in other cells

  1. Select a cell.

  2. Type the equal sign =.

    Note: Formulas in Excel always begin with the equal sign.

  3. Select a cell or type its address in the selected cell.

    select cell

  4. Enter an operator. For example, – for subtraction.

  5. Select the next cell, or type its address in the selected cell.

    next cell

  6. Press Enter. The result of the calculation appears in the cell with the formula.

To see a formula

  1. When a formula is entered into a cell, it also appears in the Formula bar.

    Formula Bar
  2. To see a formula, select a cell, and it will appear in the formula bar.

    See formula bar

Enter a formula that contains a built-in function

  1. Select an empty cell.

  2. Type an equal sign = and then type a function. For example, =SUM for getting the total sales.

  3. Type an opening parenthesis (.

  4. Select the range of cells, and then type a closing parenthesis).

    range

  5. Press Enter to get the result.

Download our Formulas tutorial workbook

We've put together a Get started with Formulas workbook that you can download. If you’re new to Excel, or even if you have some experience with it, you can walk through Excel’s most common formulas in this tour. With real-world examples and helpful visuals, you’ll be able to Sum, Count, Average, and Vlookup like a pro.

Formulas in-depth

You can browse through the individual sections below to learn more about specific formula elements.

A formula can also contain any or all of the following: functions, references, operators, and constants.

Parts of a formula   

Parts of a formula

1. Functions: The PI() function returns the value of pi: 3.142...

2. References: A2 returns the value in cell A2.

3. Constants: Numbers or text values entered directly into a formula, such as 2.

4. Operators: The ^ (caret) operator raises a number to a power, and the * (asterisk) operator multiplies numbers.

A constant is a value that is not calculated; it always stays the same. For example, the date 10/9/2008, the number 210, and the text "Quarterly Earnings" are all constants. An expression or a value resulting from an expression is not a constant. If you use constants in a formula instead of references to cells (for example, =30+70+110), the result changes only if you modify the formula. In general, it's best to place constants in individual cells where they can be easily changed if needed, then reference those cells in formulas.

A reference identifies a cell or a range of cells on a worksheet, and tells Excel where to look for the values or data you want to use in a formula. You can use references to use data contained in different parts of a worksheet in one formula or use the value from one cell in several formulas. You can also refer to cells on other sheets in the same workbook, and to other workbooks. References to cells in other workbooks are called links or external references.

  • The A1 reference style

    By default, Excel uses the A1 reference style, which refers to columns with letters (A through XFD, for a total of 16,384 columns) and refers to rows with numbers (1 through 1,048,576). These letters and numbers are called row and column headings. To refer to a cell, enter the column letter followed by the row number. For example, B2 refers to the cell at the intersection of column B and row 2.

    To refer to

    Use

    The cell in column A and row 10

    A10

    The range of cells in column A and rows 10 through 20

    A10:A20

    The range of cells in row 15 and columns B through E

    B15:E15

    All cells in row 5

    5:5

    All cells in rows 5 through 10

    5:10

    All cells in column H

    H:H

    All cells in columns H through J

    H:J

    The range of cells in columns A through E and rows 10 through 20

    A10:E20

  • Making a reference to a cell or a range of cells on another worksheet in the same workbook

    In the following example, the AVERAGE function calculates the average value for the range B1:B10 on the worksheet named Marketing in the same workbook.

    Sheet reference example

    1. Refers to the worksheet named Marketing

    2. Refers to the range of cells from B1 to B10

    3. The exclamation point (!) Separates the worksheet reference from the cell range reference

    Note: If the referenced worksheet has spaces or numbers in it, then you need to add apostrophes (') before and after the worksheet name, like ='123'!A1 or ='January Revenue'!A1.

  • The difference between absolute, relative and mixed references

    1. Relative references    A relative cell reference in a formula, such as A1, is based on the relative position of the cell that contains the formula and the cell the reference refers to. If the position of the cell that contains the formula changes, the reference is changed. If you copy or fill the formula across rows or down columns, the reference automatically adjusts. By default, new formulas use relative references. For example, if you copy or fill a relative reference in cell B2 to cell B3, it automatically adjusts from =A1 to =A2.

      Copied formula with relative reference   

      Copied formula with relative reference

    2. Absolute references    An absolute cell reference in a formula, such as $A$1, always refer to a cell in a specific location. If the position of the cell that contains the formula changes, the absolute reference remains the same. If you copy or fill the formula across rows or down columns, the absolute reference does not adjust. By default, new formulas use relative references, so you may need to switch them to absolute references. For example, if you copy or fill an absolute reference in cell B2 to cell B3, it stays the same in both cells: =$A$1.

      Copied formula with absolute reference   

      Copied formula with absolute reference
    3. Mixed references    A mixed reference has either an absolute column and relative row, or absolute row and relative column. An absolute column reference takes the form $A1, $B1, and so on. An absolute row reference takes the form A$1, B$1, and so on. If the position of the cell that contains the formula changes, the relative reference is changed, and the absolute reference does not change. If you copy or fill the formula across rows or down columns, the relative reference automatically adjusts, and the absolute reference does not adjust. For example, if you copy or fill a mixed reference from cell A2 to B3, it adjusts from =A$1 to =B$1.

      Copied formula with mixed reference   

      Copied formula with mixed reference

  • The 3-D reference style

    Conveniently referencing multiple worksheets    If you want to analyze data in the same cell or range of cells on multiple worksheets within a workbook, use a 3-D reference. A 3-D reference includes the cell or range reference, preceded by a range of worksheet names. Excel uses any worksheets stored between the starting and ending names of the reference. For example, =SUM(Sheet2:Sheet13!B5) adds all the values contained in cell B5 on all the worksheets between and including Sheet 2 and Sheet 13.

    • You can use 3-D references to refer to cells on other sheets, to define names, and to create formulas by using the following functions: SUM, AVERAGE, AVERAGEA, COUNT, COUNTA, MAX, MAXA, MIN, MINA, PRODUCT, STDEV.P, STDEV.S, STDEVA, STDEVPA, VAR.P, VAR.S, VARA, and VARPA.

    • 3-D references cannot be used in array formulas.

    • 3-D references cannot be used with the intersection operator (a single space) or in formulas that use implicit intersection.

    What occurs when you move, copy, insert, or delete worksheets    The following examples explain what happens when you move, copy, insert, or delete worksheets that are included in a 3-D reference. The examples use the formula =SUM(Sheet2:Sheet6!A2:A5) to add cells A2 through A5 on worksheets 2 through 6.

    • Insert or copy    If you insert or copy sheets between Sheet2 and Sheet6 (the endpoints in this example), Excel includes all values in cells A2 through A5 from the added sheets in the calculations.

    • Delete     If you delete sheets between Sheet2 and Sheet6, Excel removes their values from the calculation.

    • Move    If you move sheets from between Sheet2 and Sheet6 to a location outside the referenced sheet range, Excel removes their values from the calculation.

    • Move an endpoint    If you move Sheet2 or Sheet6 to another location in the same workbook, Excel adjusts the calculation to accommodate the new range of sheets between them.

    • Delete an endpoint    If you delete Sheet2 or Sheet6, Excel adjusts the calculation to accommodate the range of sheets between them.

  • The R1C1 reference style

    You can also use a reference style where both the rows and the columns on the worksheet are numbered. The R1C1 reference style is useful for computing row and column positions in macros. In the R1C1 style, Excel indicates the location of a cell with an "R" followed by a row number and a "C" followed by a column number.

    Reference

    Meaning

    R[-2]C

    A relative reference to the cell two rows up and in the same column

    R[2]C[2]

    A relative reference to the cell two rows down and two columns to the right

    R2C2

    An absolute reference to the cell in the second row and in the second column

    R[-1]

    A relative reference to the entire row above the active cell

    R

    An absolute reference to the current row

    When you record a macro, Excel records some commands by using the R1C1 reference style. For example, if you record a command, such as clicking the AutoSum button to insert a formula that adds a range of cells, Excel records the formula by using R1C1 style, not A1 style, references.

    You can turn the R1C1 reference style on or off by setting or clearing the R1C1 reference style check box under the Working with formulas section in the Formulas category of the Options dialog box. To display this dialog box, click the File tab.

    Top of Page

Need more help?

You can always ask an expert in the Excel Tech Community, get support in the Answers community, or suggest a new feature or improvement on Excel User Voice.

See Also

Switch between relative, absolute and mixed references for functions

Using calculation operators in Excel formulas

The order in which Excel performs operations in formulas

Using functions and nested functions in Excel formulas

Define and use names in formulas

Guidelines and examples of array formulas

Delete or remove a formula

How to avoid broken formulas

Find and correct errors in formulas

Excel keyboard shortcuts and function keys

Excel functions (by category)

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