Compare lists for common values in Excel

Use a built-in rule or a formula rule to compare two lists of Excel values.

Comparing lists for duplicates is a task that often has many variables. You can compare values in the same list or you might want to compare one list to another. Then there's the definition of duplicate you need to evaluate. How many values are necessary to satisfy the term? You'll find many solutions if you search the Internet, but you'll find no one-size-fits-all solution. You must know your data and apply an appropriate solution.

Built-in conditional formatting

In 10 cool ways to use Excel's conditional formatting feature, #5 and #6 offer conditional formatting rules for catching duplicate values. #5 compares values in the same column. #6 finds discrepancies between values in two columns (or lists). Now, suppose you want to highlight values that occur in both columns. Neither of these solutions will work, but they're close.

If you're using a ribbon version, the solution is simple: use one of the new built-in rules. To create the results shown in the images below, do the following:

  1. Select the dataset, A1: B8.
  2. On the Home tab, click Conditional Formatting in the Styles group.
  3. Choose Highlight Cells Rules and then select Duplicates Values in the subsequent menu.
  4. In the resulting dialog, select an appropriate format - I accepted the default - and click OK.



This built-in rule highlights all duplicates across the selected columns. It highlights duplicates in the same column and can handle more than two columns.

Formula conditional formatting

If you're using Excel 2003, or if the above rule provides too much coverage, you can use a formula rule to get almost the same results, as shown in the image below.


To achieve the similar results shown in the image below, do the following:

  1. Select the first column, D1:D8.
  2. On the Home tab, click Conditional Formatting in the Styles group.
  3. Choose New Rule.
  4. In the resulting dialog, select the last option in the first pane: Use A Formula To Determine Which Cells To Format.
  5. Enter the formula =COUNTIF($E$1:$E$8,D1) and then click Format.
  6. Select the appropriate options, and click OK.
  7. Click OK to return to the sheet.


Repeat the steps above, selecting the data in column E, E1:E8, and entering the formula =COUNTIF($D$1:$D$8,E1). (Don't include the period at the end; it's grammatical.)

Applying this type of conditional format can have you banging your head against the wall - so much can go wrong! In this example, the function's first argument is the same as the selected range. This arrangement says: if a value in the selected range equals any value in the other referenced column, highlight it.

This formula doesn't catch duplicates in the same column. You'd need an additional rule to cover those. In addition, this particular rule restricts you to two columns.

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