Row vs Column in Excel – What’s the Difference?

While this may be a basic question for many Excel users, I have been asked multiple times about the difference between rows and columns in Excel.

While one obvious difference is the placement of the row versus column in Excel, there is more to it.

In this article, I will cover the differences between rows and columns in Excel (starting with the most basic difference and then talking about some more nuanced aspects of it)

Difference Between Row and Column in Excel

Let’s look at some basic differences between rows and columns in Excel.

The Placement of Rows and Columns in Excel

Let me first start with the most obvious one, the placement of rows and columns in the worksheet in Excel.

An Excel worksheet is built using cells.

  • Cells that are aligned vertically are called a Column (as shown below)
Column in Excel
  • Cells that are aligned horizontally are called a Row (as shown below)
Row in Excel

Any cell in Excel would always be a part of one row and one column.

For example, the cell below is present in column three and row four.

column three and row four Excel

This construct allows us to refer to each cell with its own cell reference that would be unique to it.

Row and Columns have Different Header Labels

If you have not noticed already, let me highlight it for you.

Every row has a row label which is a number. You can find this row label at the extreme left of the row (as shown below).

Row label 2

In the above screenshot, I have highlighted row #2, where you can see the number 2 as the row label.

This is useful as it allows us to identify any cell in this specific row (as it would always have the row number as 2).

And when it comes to columns, instead of a number, they use a letter/alphabet.

For example, in the screenshot below, I have highlighted the second column where the column label is B.

Row vs Column - Column B in Excel

Any cell which is in the second column would always have its column labeled as B.

Since any cell in the worksheet can only have one row label and one column label, this is what makes the cell address of each cell unique.

For example, the cell reference of the cell highlighted in the screenshot below is B2 (because it’s present in column B and row #2)

B2 cell in Excel

Now that I have covered the basic difference between rows and columns in Excel, let’s have a look at some more advanced differences you should know about

Also read: Convert Columns to Rows in Excel

Filters Can be Applied Only to Columns

Whenever you apply filters in a data set in Excel, it would always be applied to the column headers for that data set.

There is no way for you to apply filters to the row headers.

Below I have a data set where I have the sales of different products in different months, and I’ve applied Data Filters to it.

Filters in Columns

As you can see, the filter is only applied to the month names (which are the column headers), and not the product names (which are the row headers)

But what if you want to filter your data based on the data in rows and not in columns? In that case, a workaround is to transpose your data, filter and extract what you want, and then transpose it back

Sorting is More Common with Columns (but possible with Rows)

While Excel allows you to sort your data based on columns as well as rows, sorting is mostly done using columns.

This is why sorting based on columns is also the default setting when you open the Sort dialog box in Excel (which can be done by clicking on the Data tab and then clicking on the Sort icon)

Click the Sort icon in the Data tab

When you sort your data based on the columns, the rows are rearranged while the columns stay where they are.

Excel also allows you to sort your data based on the rows (it’s called Sort Left to Right). But this is less commonly used, as most of the time, the data is arranged in columns

VLOOKUP for Columns and HLOOKUP for Rows

Based on how your data is arranged, Excel has different formulas for rows and columns.

For example, if you have your data set in a column and you want to use a lookup formula, you can use the VLOOKUP function (which stands for vertical lookup), and if your data is arranged in rows and you want to use a lookup formula, you can use the HLOOKUP function (which stands for horizontal lookup)

Here are some other examples of functions that can be used based on whether you want to use them on rows or columns:

Also read: Formula vs Function in Excel – What’s the Difference?

Selecting a Row vs. Selecting a Column

If you want to select an entire row in Excel, you need to click on the row label (which is the number at the extreme left of the row).

You can also select multiple rows by holding the control key and then clicking on the row labels.

You can also use the keyboard shortcut SHIFT + Spacebar to select a row.

To select a column, you need to click on the column letter at the top of the column (and you can also use the keyboard shortcut Control + Spacebar)

Also read: How to Copy Column Widths in Excel (Shortcut)

Some Features Only Work with Columns (Flash Fill/ Text to Columns)

Since most of the data is arranged in columns, some features are specific to data in columns.

For example, the Text to Columns feature would only work by splitting your data from one column to multiple columns (or changing the data format in columns).

Similarly, Flash Fill would only work by identifying the patterns in a column and would not work with data in rows

Different Limits for Rows and Columns in Excel

As I have already mentioned multiple times in this article, most Excel users work with data that is arranged in columns.

This often means that there is a need to have more rows as compared to columns (as they usually are less number of columns in the data set but more records in the rows).

And this is why there are fewer columns in Excel than rows.

Below are the number of rows and column in Excel that comes with a Microsoft 365 subscription:

  • Total number of Rows – 1,048,576
  • Total number of Columns – 16,386 (till column XFD)

So the question arises, why not have the same number of columns as there are rows?

That’s because having so many cells in a worksheet requires resources of the system on which your Excel application is running.

Keeping the number of columns less than the number of rows allows excel to run fast and keep the file size small.

Now that I have covered the major differences between rows and columns in Excel, below is a table that shows them in an easy-to-compare table:

A Row refers to cells arranged horizontallyA Column refers to cells arranged vertically
There are a total of 1,048,576 rows in one worksheet in ExcelThere are a total of 16,386 columns in one worksheet in Excel
Rows are labeled using numbers (such as 1 for the first row and 2 for the second row)Columns are labeled using letters (such as A for the first column and B for the second column)
You can not apply filters to row headersYou can apply filters to row headers
You can select a row by clicking on the row label (number). You can also use the shortcut Shift + SpacebarYou can select a column by clicking on the column label (letter). You can also use the shortcut Control + Spacebar
Flash Fill and Text to Columns won’t work for data in rowsFlash Fill and Text to Columns will work for data in columns

Flipping Rows and Columns (Transposing the Data)

In situations where you get your data that is in rows instead of columns, you can feel limited, given that Excel is more optimized for having tabular data in columns instead of rows.

One common scenario is when you want to create Pivot Tables. To do that, you need to have your data in a specific format where there can be multiple column headers, but the records in the rows can only have one header (such as the dates).

So if you find yourself in a situation where your data is in rows, and you want it in columns, you can use the transpose features in Excel.

You can either use the inbuilt TRANSPOSE function or the transpose functionality in Paste Special or open your data in Power Query and then transpose and import it back into your workbook.

In this tutorial, I tried to compare the differences between rows and columns in Excel and also give you some practical examples that can help further your knowledge.

Other Excel articles you may also like:

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