How to add a drop-down list to an Excel cell

Drop-down lists can greatly facilitate data entry. Here's a look at how to use Excel's data validation feature to create handy lists within your worksheets.

Video: Add a drop-down list to a cell in Microsoft Excel In forms, it can be useful to limit the choices for a selection with a simple drop-down list. This is also possible in an Excel spreadsheet, but the process isn't well known or intuitive.

In web forms, surveys, and polls, it can be very useful to limit the choices for a selection with a simple drop-down list. This is also possible in an Excel spreadsheet, but the process isn't very well known or very intuitive.

In Access, you can limit user entries by forcing users to choose a value from a list control. Office applications use the same functionality in built-in drop-down lists. For instance, the Highlight and Font Color controls on most Formatting toolbars use this flexible tool. Simply click the small triangle to the right of the icon to display a list of choices.

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You can create the same type of control for your users in an Excel sheet, but the process isn't intuitive. The option is in the Data Validation feature. Fortunately, once you know the feature exists, it's easy to implement. You need only two things: a list and a data entry cell. The following sheet shows a simple drop-down list in an Excel sheet.

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Users click the drop-down arrow to display a list of items from A1:A4. If a user tries to enter something that isn't in the list, Excel rejects the entry. To add this drop-down list to a sheet, do the following:

  1. Create the list in cells A1:A4. Similarly, you can enter the items in a single row, such as A1:D1.
  2. Select cell E3. (You can position the drop-down list in most any cell or even multiple cells.)
  3. Choose Validation from the Data menu.
  4. Choose List from the Allow option's drop-down list. (See, they're everywhere.)
  5. Click the Source control and drag to highlight the cells A1:A4. Alternately, simply enter the reference (=$A$1:$A$4).
  6. Make sure the In-Cell Dropdown option is checked. If you uncheck this option, Excel still forces users to enter only list values (A1:A4), but it won't present a drop-down list.
  7. Click OK.

You can add the drop-down list to multiple cells. Select the range of data input cells (step 2) instead of a single cell. It even works for noncontiguous cells. Hold down the Shift key while you click the appropriate cells.

A few quick notes:

  1. You can only see the drop-down if you click on the cell.
  2. Your users can now only choose one of the options in the drop-down. If they try to enter their own data, then they'll receive an error message.
  3. You can copy-and-paste this drop-down cell to any other cells in your spreadsheet, and you can create as many different drop-downs like this as you'd like.

SEE: 10 Excel time-savers you might not know about (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

A bonus Microsoft Excel tip

From the article 10 things you should never do in Excel by Susan Harkins:

Sluff off backups

If you try to exit without saving changes, Excel reminds you. However, Excel won't remind you to create a backup. This is probably the most egregious decision users make. If you don't have an automated backup process, consider implementing one. In the meantime, save locally or to an intranet destination as you normally do. Then, create a second copy on a thumb drive or in the cloud. If using a thumb drive, be sure to store it offsite or in a fireproof safe. It sounds like overkill—that is, until you need it.

This bonus Excel tip is also available in the free PDF 30 things you should never do in Microsoft Office.

Editor's note on April 19, 2019: This Excel article was first published in June 2008. Since then, we have included a video tutorial, added a bonus tip, and updated the related resources.

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By Susan Harkins

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.