Six Reasons Why Your VLOOKUP or HLOOKUP Formula Does Not Work

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by Patrick G. Matthews

Introduction

VLOOKUP is a tremendously useful function that allows you to "fetch" data from a specified rectangular range (the "lookup table"); this range can be on the same worksheet, a different worksheet in the same workbook, or even in a different workbook entirely.

In a VLOOKUP call, Excel will search in the left-most column of the lookup table for a sought-for value (or if an exact match is not specified, then the closest value not exceeding that sought-for value), and then return the value in the Nth column from that row in the lookup table.

However, from time to time, you may find that your VLOOKUP formula is returning an error, or is returning an incorrect value.  In my experience, there are six main causes for this:
Data are not sorted properly
The value sought comes before the first range
No matching data found in the lookup table
Data type mismatch
Extraneous spaces
Special characters

This article will present a brief primer on VLOOKUP syntax, and then address each of these causes in turn.

Lastly, this article will also provide suggestions on how to handle errors returned by the VLOOKUP function.

Note: While VLOOKUP is the focus for this article, the same error conditions apply for the similar function HLOOKUP, which instead searches the first row of a lookup table, and then returns the value in the Nth row of the column where the match is found.  Since VLOOKUP is used more frequently than HLOOKUP, the examples in this article will use VLOOKUP.

Quick VLOOKUP Syntax Primer

The VLOOKUP function takes four arguments:
lookup_value is the value sought for in the first column of the lookup table
table_array is an array specifying the lookup table.  table_array is usually a range, and that range need not be on the same worksheet--or even in the same workbook--as the cell where you enter the formula.  table_array can also be a Name, or even an array constant
col_index_number specifies which column from the corresponding row is used for the return value.  For example, if col_index_number = 3, then the value returned is the value in the third column of the lookup table
range_lookup is an optional argument.  If this is FALSE, VLOOKUP looks for an exact match in the first column of the lookup table.  If this is TRUE or omitted, VLOOKUP looks for the greatest value that is less than or equal to the value being sought

When writing a VLOOKUP formula, please keep the following in mind:
VLOOKUP is not case sensitive.  Thus, for text matches, it does not matter whether you use lower-, upper-, or mixed case
VLOOKUP will not do data type conversions, so if the value being sought is numeric, then the first column of the lookup table should be numeric as well, and if the value being sought is text, then the first column of the lookup table should be text as well
If you omit, or use TRUE for range_lookup (i.e., you are looking for a "close match"), then you must be sure that the first column of the lookup table is sorted, ascending, or VLOOKUP may not return the correct result.  However, if you use FALSE, there is no need to sort the lookup table
If you use FALSE for range_lookup, and the sought-for value is not in the first column of the lookup table, VLOOKUP will return a #N/A error
If you use FALSE for range_lookup, and if the values in the first column of the lookup table are text, you can use wild cards in lookup_value.  To match zero or more characters use the asterisk, and to match a single character use the question mark.  Thus, "R*" would match "red" or "rojo" or even simply "r", and "r??" would match "red" but neither "rojo" nor "r".  To match the actual asterisk or question mark characters, precede them with a tilde.  Thus, to match the actual sequence "r??", you would use "r~?~?"
If col_index_number is less than 1, or if it exceeds the number of columns in the lookup table, VLOOKUP will return an error (#VALUE! or #REF!, respectively)

The image below shows a few basic examples of VLOOKUP formulae:

In that image:
In E4, E5, E8, E9, and E10, the formula returns "close" matches
In E6 and E7, while the formula is looking for a "close" match, the values sought for happen to have exact matches in the lookup table
In E15, E16, E18, E20, and E21, the formula found exact matches
In E17 and E19, the formula looked for, but did not find, exact matches

Note: Elsewhere in this article, where I refer to a so-called "close match", I am referring to VLOOKUP's behavior when range_lookup is omitted or TRUE, and thus VLOOKUP is looking for the greatest value that is less than or equal to the value being sought.

Data Not Sorted

As noted above, if the optional fourth argument, range_lookup, is omitted or is TRUE, then VLOOKUP will look for a "close" match in the first column of the lookup table.  Specifically, VLOOKUP will look for the greatest value that is less than or equal to the value being sought, and then return the value in the Nth column of that corresponding row.

This will work, and allows the user to set up a lookup table to accommodate a single return value for a range of sought-for values.  However, as noted in the Quick VLOOKUP Syntax Primer section above, the data in the first column of the lookup table must be sorted ascending in order for this to work.

Consider the examples below:

In the first block, the items in the lookup table are not sorted correctly: code 7, violet, is listed out of order, and thus the formulae in G6 and G10 return an incorrect result.  In the second block, the formulae all return the correct results, because that lookup table lists the items in the correct order.

To avoid this error, if you are using VLOOKUP to find a "close" match, always make sure that your lookup table is sorted properly.

Note: In these examples, if we used FALSE for range_lookup, then the sort order of the lookup table would not have mattered, and all the formulae would have returned the correct results.  That is, when you set VLOOKUP to look for an exact match, the lookup table does not have to be sorted: it can be in any order, and VLOOKUP will return the correct result assuming an exact match exists (or an #N/A error if there is no match).

Value Sought Is before First Range

If you set VLOOKUP to use a "close" match (by omitting range_lookup, or setting it to TRUE), VLOOKUP will look for the greatest value in the first column of the lookup table that is less than or equal to the value being sought.  However, if the value being sought is less than every value in that first column of the lookup table, VLOOKUP will return a #N/A error.  I term this failure "value sought is before first range", and the example below illustrates how it can occur.

In this case, in the first block, VLOOKUP returns an error when it looks for zero in the lookup table: the smallest value in the lookup table's first column is 1, and zero is less than 1.

In the second block, the formulae all return the correct answer, this time because all of the values being sought have a value in the lookup table less than or equal to themselves.

To avoid this error, if you are using VLOOKUP to find a "close" match, always make sure that your lookup table is sorted properly, and that the  smallest value in your lookup table is less than or equal to the smallest value you could conceivably pass to VLOOKUP for the first argument (lookup_value).

No Match in Lookup Table

If you use FALSE for the optional fourth argument (range_lookup), VLOOKUP will look for an exact match in the lookup table.  If it finds an exact match, then it will return a value from the Nth column of the corresponding row; if not, VLOOKUP will return an #N/A error.  The example below illustrates the result when you seek an exact match for a value that is not in the lookup table.

In this case, the value 26 does not exist in the lookup table, and so VLOOKUP returns an error in G7.

A possible fix for this situation would be to omit the fourth argument, and thus revert to a "close" match, as is done in the second group.  After doing this, VLOOKUP will return "violet" in G18:
The sought-for value is 26
The greatest value in the lookup table that is less than or equal to 26 is the last, 7
The second column from that row of the lookup table contains "violet"

(Of course, while that construction avoids the #N/A value, it does not follow that that was in fact the "correct" result: the user may still have needed an exact match.)

To avoid this error, first be sure to determine whether or not you do in fact need an exact match--if you do not truly need an exact match, then omit range_lookup or use TRUE to allow a "close" match (and then be sure that the lookup table is sorted properly).  If you really do need to have an exact match, avoid this error by making sure that your lookup table contains every conceivable value that VLOOKUP may look for.

Data Type Mismatch

VLOOKUP is sensitive to data types, and so the data type for the lookup_value must match the data type for the values in the first column of your lookup table.  If these data types are not consistent, your VLOOKUP formula will fail, and VLOOKUP will return an #N/A error.  Consider the examples below.

In these examples, the first VLOOKUP formula in each group returns an #N/A error because of a data type mismatch:
In G4, VLOOKUP returns an error because the lookup_value is "1" and not the number 1; since the values in the lookup table are numeric, there is a data type mismatch
In G15, VLOOKUP returns an error because the lookup_value is the number 1 and not "1"; since the values in the lookup table are text, there is a data type mismatch

To avoid this error, always make sure that you use consistent data types for your lookup_value and the first column of your lookup table.  Be especially careful when copying and pasting values from another application, or importing/exporting values from another application, as such values may often appear to be true numeric or date values, but actually be stored as text by Excel.  Values that appear to be numbers or dates can be coerced into numbers or dates, such as by using the VALUE or DATEVALUE functions, or by using Paste Special to multiply each cell in a range by 1.

Extraneous Spaces

Extraneous spaces--leading spaces, trailing spaces, or additional spaces in between words--either in the lookup_value or in the values in the first column of the lookup table, can also cause VLOOKUP to return errors or unexpected values.  Consider these examples below:

In each case, an extraneous leading or trailing space, either in the lookup_value or in the lookup table, causes VLOOKUP to fail to find an exact match, and thus return an #N/A error.  (In these cases, the "extraneous spaces" failure is thus a special case of the more general "no match" failure discussed previously.)

Extraneous spaces can also cause VLOOKUP to fail when using a "close" match, as extraneous spaces can:
Force what was intended to be a numeric value into a text value (and thus trip the "data type mismatch" failure);
Cause the lookup table to not be sorted correctly;
Lead VLOOKUP to incorrectly compare text strings (and thus return an expected value, or trigger the "before first range" failure
Et cetera.

To avoid this error, always make sure not to include leading or trailing spaces in your values, and to be consistent in hpw many spaces are used in between words in text entries.  Extraneous spaces can be removed by using the TRIM function.

Special Characters

Occasionally, your lookup_value or the values in your lookup table may contain one or more "special" characters: characters in the ANSI character set that do not typically relate to a symbol (or forced white space) in printed output.  The most commonly encountered "special characters" in this sense are the tab (ANSI 9), linefeed (ANSI 10), carriage return (ANSI 13), and  non-breaking space (ANSI 160).  The presence of any of these can cause your VLOOKUP formulae to fail, as in the examples below.

In each case, the presence of one of these special characters caused an exact match to fail.  In addition, as with extraneous spaces, special characters can also cause VLOOKUP to return an #N/A error or an unexpected result when looking for a close match.

To avoid this error, be careful not to include special characters in your lookup_value or in the lookup table.  Be especially careful with text copied and pasted from a web page, as such content frequently uses non-breaking spaces.  The CLEAN function will remove most special characters from a string, but will not remove the non-breaking space.  Thus, you may have to use a formula such as this to remove special characters from a string:

=TRIM(CLEAN(SUBSTITUTE(A2,CHAR(160)," ")))

In this case, CLEAN removes most special characters, and SUBSTITUTE replaces any non-breaking spaces with regular spaces; the TRIM function finishes the job by removing any extraneous spaces that SUBSTITUTE may have introduced.

Error Handling for VLOOKUP

In some cases, avoiding an #N/A error in your VLOOKUP formula may not be feasible, but at the same time, you may still need to "handle" the error, either by preventing its display the error in your workbook, or by substituting another value for the error.  The latter is especially important for cases in which other formulae may refer to the result of your VLOOKUP formula, as passing an error value to a dependent formula will cause that formula, and its dependents, to also produce errors.

In the first case, in which we want to "hide" an error value from view, perhaps the easiest way is through Conditional Formatting.  In this case, we would use a formula-based rule to check the cell for an #N/A value.  Thus, if the cell being checked is A2, then we would use the following formula:

=ISNA(\$A\$2)

If, on the other hand, we needed to check every cell in the range A2:A100, then we would apply the following formula:

=ISNA(A2)

The relative range reference in that formula ensures that the Conditional Formatting rule applied to each cell refers to itself.

To "hide" the error, set the formatting such that the font color is the same as the cell's background color.

To instead substitute another value in the case of an error, we must adjust our basic VLOOKUP formula.  Consider the following VLOOKUP formula:

=VLOOKUP(A2,Sheet2!A1:Z100,26,FALSE)

If Excel 2003 and earlier, if we want to make that formula return an alternate value in the event the lookup_value is not found in the lookup table, we could adjust that formula to use an IF expression to test for an error condition:

In this formula, we first test for the error condition, and if it exists we return the alternate text "not found"; if there is no error, then we get the result of the VLOOKUP expression.

In Excel 2007 and later, this is somewhat simplified by using the new function IFERROR:

In that construction, Excel returns the value in the first argument (in this case, a VLOOKUP expression) unless it is an error, in which case it returns the value in the second argument.

Sample File

The sample file below contains all of the illustrated examples referred to in the various sections of this article.

VLOOKUP-Failure.xls

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label that is just below and to the right of this text.   Thanks!
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69
LVL 61

Expert Comment

Very nicely done, Patrick!
Voted "Yes" above.
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LVL 5

Expert Comment

Good !
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LVL 61

Expert Comment

Patrick,

Great article!

Organized, well organized and easy to follow, even to this Access person :)
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Expert Comment

Patrick.

Very good article.

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LVL 93

Author Comment

Thank you, curtiswong!

That was certainly the idea behind writing the article :)

Cheers,

Patrick
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Expert Comment

Very thorough and glad to know where to find it. Thank you!
0

Expert Comment

Yes, an excellent article, Patrick; thus my 50 pt.s above.  Question, though... I'm having difficulty using a Vlookup with date ranges.  For example, based on a lookup_value which is a date, I want my return the label for the period within which the date falls; say Qtr-1 if the dates between 1/1/YYY and 3/31/YYY.  Can Vlookup accomdate this or can you point me to another resource (my searches haven't been successful.)?
Appreciated!
MCN
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Author Comment

mcn,

A VLOOKUP can be constructed for something like that, but if your quarters are the traditional ones (Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, etc) then there is a much easier way.  Assuming A2 has a date...

=INT(0.9+MONTH(A2)/3)                  gives the quarter number
="Qtr-"&INT(0.9+MONTH(A2)/3)       gives Qtr-N, where N is a quarter number.

If your need is more detailed than that, I encourage you to start a new question.

Patrick
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Expert Comment

Wow this is excellent!

I've had a lot of instances when trying to solve VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP issue of getting rid of them all together and using INDEX in conjection with MATCH. This combination is great if you want to bypass the sorting and only return a single result from a list.

=INDEX([Returned Range], MATCH([Criteria Value], [Criteria Range])
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hi Patrick,

Great article, I think I'll be pointing a few people towards it :-)

re handling #N/A errors with an If statement as a wrapper:
``````=IF(ISNA(VLOOKUP(A2,Sheet2!A1:Z100,26,FALSE)),"not found",VLOOKUP(A2,Sheet2!A1:Z100,26,FALSE))
``````

I know the duplicated calculation in the above example won't have a huge (perhaps not even noticeable impact) on the 100x26 array used in the vlookup. However, if the size of the array is increased into thousands of rows (or more with the "big grid") then calculation speed could be impacted quite severely. To overcome the duplicated calculations, I would recommend adding a second column & using the following formulae:

in the first column (eg column D) change the formula to:
``````=VLOOKUP(\$A2,Sheet2!\$A\$1:\$Z\$100,26,FALSE)
``````
and in a second column (eg column E) refer to the result from the first column (eg column D) using:
``````=IF(ISNA(\$D2),"not found",\$D2)
``````
In effect, this mimics the new function, "In Excel 2007 and later, which has the new function IFERROR" that only requires the value/result for testing to be provided once.

Here is a very informative link on Charles William's site which shows a similar example based on the principle of eliminating duplicated calculations:
http://www.decisionmodels.com/optspeede.htm
plus some other suggestions: http://decisionmodels.com/calcsecrets.htm, (note the frame links across the top of the window)
Okay, okay so I'm a fan of Charles's website, if readers are so inclined, I recommend reading every page on his site!

Rob
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Author Comment

Rob,

Thanks for your comment, and I am pleased that you liked the article, and even more pleased that you think it's good enough to recommend to other people.

I like that alternative to the =IF(ISNA(VLOOKUP(...),"Replacement",VLOOKUP(...)) construction.  Of course, I hope that the movement away from Excel 2003 and earlier to the newer versions will accelerate and thus make the whole thing moot.

:)

I've come to love Excel 2010, BTW, after having just middling feelings for Excel 2007.  PowerPivot, Sparklines, Slicers, a UI for customizing the Ribbon... Love it!

Patrick
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Expert Comment

hi Patrick,

hmmm, I'm still stuck in a grumble zone with excel 2007, due to the fact that some of my keyboard shortcuts no longer work, chart formatting by both UI & code seems more painful* & that there is a great big ribbon of stuff hovering at the top of the screen. One of my new favourite shortcuts is now [ctrl + F1] for !
* To the extent that I've taken the easy (in fact, it was pretty much, "the only remaining") option once recently & relied on Teylyn's expertise when I felt like there was a brick wall between me & a particular custom chart that I was trying to build.

Yes, I suspect the movement away from older versions will accelerate but, unless MS does something drastic, there could still be exceptions for a few years (esp in smaller companies). About 20 months ago, one of my workmates in my last job said "hey Rob, your code is causing errors" which caused me some consternation. My consternation was because I had used it as an exercise and had coded defensively to the full extent of my imagination & experience (even though it was only a simple template file for searching/comparison)!
I got my clue at first glance when I visited my workmate's desk and saw she was still in excel '97. My defensive code was written in excel 2003 & I didn't/don't have different versions for testing. My memory's fading now but I think it was crashing due to something as simple as an optional parameter in a particular code method/property that didn't exist in excel '97. Anyway, my point is that older versions might be around for a while yet.

I haven't yet had the pleasure of playing in excel 2010, but from what I've read, I will enjoy it when I get the chance - hopefully it will get me out of my '07 grumble zone which is  gradually turning into disappointed acceptance, and let me be reborn with the same passion I had for excel 2003 and that you express for 2010 :-)

Rob
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Expert Comment

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LVL 1

Expert Comment

Thanks for a great article, it's helped me a lot today.

One other error I would add is this one.  I had a situation this morning where my VLookup was returning a #N/A.  The lookup_value I was trying to find in the table was a cell with a formula in it.  The value displayed was 1.21.   I could see 1.21 in the table I was looking up and couldn't figure out why I was getting a not found.  If I replaced the cell in the VLookup statement with the actual value of 1.21, the lookup worked.

It turned out that when I increased the # of decimals being displayed (it was set on 2) on the lookup_value cell its value wasn't 1.21 but rather 1.2078.  Enclosing the lookup_value in the ROUND formula did the trick.

So, if you are getting #N/A on an exact match vlookup, check to see if the value of the cell which you are trying to lookup in the table is the actual true value or if it's being rounded for viewing purposes.

Thanks again for a great article!

Rich
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Author Comment

Rich,

Glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for including that tip!

Patrick
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LVL 31

Expert Comment

Very good. Summarizes nicely the pitfalls that almost everyone that uses lookups will have come across.
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LVL 2

Expert Comment

Great overview!

My most annoying bug is that the vlookup will not refresh when copying the formula.

The lookup cell has changed, yet a number of records in the middle of my sheet do not update to the correct value!

Refresh does nothing...

Most annoying.
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Expert Comment

Very nice overview. Great job.
Regards, Andreas
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LVL 18

Expert Comment

Great article. Even after 15+ years of using vlookups in Excel, I learnt something (the wildcard match and escape characters). Thanks for publishing.
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Expert Comment

I just found a case when VLOOKUP might fail: when in Excel Options -> Formulas -> Calculation options, the Manual is checked (without my knowledge in my case). Setting to Automatic solved my issue.

Calin
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