How do I convert an Excel file to an older version?

Converting an Excel file to an older version is often necessary for compatibility reasons. Newer versions of Excel contain features that are not supported in older versions. When sharing files with others, it is common to need to save your file in an older format that can be opened by all users.

Why Would You Need to Convert to an Older Excel Version?

There are a few common scenarios in which converting to an older Excel version may be required:

  • Sharing files with others – If you need to share a spreadsheet with someone using an older version of Excel, you’ll need to save it in a compatible format.
  • Opening files in older versions of Excel – If you need to open and edit a spreadsheet in an older version of Excel you have installed, you’ll need to convert the file to that format.
  • Compatibility issues – Newer versions of Excel sometimes have compatibility issues opening older files. Converting the file to the appropriate legacy version can resolve this.
  • VBA macro issues – Macros and VBA code may not function correctly or at all in newer versions of Excel. Converting to the legacy version can allow macros to run as intended.
  • Opening files on different operating systems – Excel formats changed after Excel 2003. Converting to the legacy format can allow Excel files to be properly opened on Mac, Linux, and older Windows operating systems.

The older .xls Excel format has more compatibility across different operating systems and Excel versions. Converting to this legacy format increases the chances your Excel files can be opened and edited universally.

What Are the Different Excel File Formats?

Excel has used different file formats over the years. The main formats you’re likely to encounter include:

  • .xls – Legacy Excel format used in Excel 2003 and earlier versions. Limited functionality but maximum compatibility with older Excel versions.
  • .xlsx – Default Excel format for Excel 2007 and newer versions. Supports more features but can cause compatibility issues with older versions of Excel.
  • .xlsm – Excel macro-enabled format. Similar to .xlsx but includes VBA macro support. Won’t work on older Excel versions.
  • .xlsb – Excel binary format introduced in Excel 2007. Optimizes file size and performance but not backward compatible.

The .xls format is the only legacy option out of these, and the one you’ll need to use when converting Excel files for compatibility with older versions.

Convert Excel Files Using Save As

The easiest way to convert an Excel file to an older .xls format is by using the Save As command:

  1. Open the Excel file in a newer version of Excel, like Excel 2016 or Excel 365.
  2. Click File > Save As in the top menu.
  3. Browse to the folder where you want to save the converted file.
  4. In the Save as type dropdown, choose Excel 97-2003 Workbook (*.xls).
  5. Click Save to convert and save the file in the old .xls Excel format.

This will launch Excel’s conversion tool, which will automatically check for any features that are incompatible with the selected file format and prompt you to make adjustments if necessary.

Adjust Incompatible Content

When converting to legacy Excel formats, there may be newer features that can’t be preserved. Excel’s conversion tool will prompt you regarding any incompatible content so adjustments can be made before finalizing the conversion.

Some things to keep in mind when going through Excel’s conversion prompts:

  • Incompatible features may be removed or converted to static values that can no longer be edited.
  • Worksheets over the legacy 256 column limit may be split into separate sheets.
  • Charts and images may lose formatting and need to be reinserted.
  • Data validation rules and conditional formatting will be stripped.
  • Scripts, macros, and VBA code may be disabled or removed.

Address any conversion warnings or errors Excel identifies before finalizing the save to prevent losing important data or formatting. The converted file will match the original as closely as possible within the limitations of the selected legacy format.

Other Excel Conversion Options

In addition to Save As, there are a few other ways you can convert Excel files to older compatible formats:

Export to Excel 97-2003 Workbook

The Export command works similarly to Save As. With your file open in Excel:

  1. Click File > Export > Change File Type.
  2. Choose Excel 97-2003 Workbook (*.xls) as the file type.
  3. Select a folder to save the converted file and click Export.

Use the Excel Converter Tool (Windows)

Older versions of Windows included a dedicated Excel converter tool you can use to batch convert multiple Excel files:

  1. Browse to C:\Program Files\Common Files\microsoft shared\OFFICE[version]\ExcelConv.exe where [version] matches yourOffice version.
  2. Double click ExcelConv.exe to launch the converter.
  3. Select the files you want to convert.
  4. Choose Excel 97-2003 as the output format and click Convert.

Third-Party File Conversion Tools

For batch converting a large number of Excel files, a dedicated file conversion tool may be easier than Excel’s built-in options. Some popular conversion tools include:

  • ABBYY FineReader – Scans files and converts them to various formats.
  • CometDocs File Converter – Web and desktop app for converting office documents.
  • Cogniview PDF2XL – Converts PDF files to Excel format.
  • Docs.Zone – Online tool for converting between Excel formats as well as Word, PDF, and Images.
  • Nitro PDF – Has desktop apps to convert PDF and Excel files.

VBA Macros and Excel Backward Compatibility

One major consideration when converting Excel files to legacy formats is the handling of VBA macros. VBA and macro support was heavily restricted in Excel 2003 and earlier, so getting your macros to function properly requires some workarounds.

Methods to Deal with VBA Macro Compatibility

Here are some options for handling macros when converting Excel files to legacy formats:

  • Leave macros intact – Basic macros may continue functioning if left as-is during conversion.
  • Remove macros – Completely stripping macros from the file is the safest conversion option.
  • Disable macros – Macros can be retained but disabled so they don’t impact use of the file.
  • Split worksheet – Divide macros and data across two workbooks – one for macros and one data-only.
  • Use XLSB format – The binary .xlsb format retains macro capabilities for older Excel versions.

Test converted files thoroughly to ensure macros behave as expected or are safely deactivated. Leaving complex macros in place often leads to problems in the converted workbook.

Macro-Specific Conversion Considerations

Be aware of the following macro handling issues when converting Excel files:

  • Long macro names may be truncated in compatible formats.
  • Password protected VBA projects may cause file corruption in converted format.
  • Dynamic named ranges don’t work when converted.
  • Formula macros will be disabled and converted to their underlying values.

In summary, expect to redo at least some aspects of your macros and VBA code to maintain full backward compatibility with legacy Excel formats.

Tips for Smoother Excel File Conversion

Follow these tips to help ensure your Excel files convert smoothly and avoid common formatting or data issues:

  • Clean up your data before converting – Remove unused columns/rows, delete blank cells, verify formulas.
  • Watch for worksheet limits – Older Excel formats have lower worksheet limits that can require splitting data across multiple sheets after conversion.
  • Remove features not supported in legacy versions – Don’t rely extensively on newer conditional formatting, data validation, etc. as these can’t convert.
  • Check page setup – Print settings may change during conversion, especially adjusting for legacy row/column limits.
  • Use an appropriate legacy format – .xls is best for Excel 2003, but .xlsb preserves more features if targeting Excel 2007/2010 compatibility.
  • Retain the original – Keep a copy of the original modern Excel file in case you need to refer to or restore content that changed during conversion.

Testing your files in the actual target Excel version is important to confirm full compatibility. Just because a file converts doesn’t guarantee older versions of Excel will handle it perfectly.

Potential Issues Caused by Excel File Format Conversions

Be on the lookout for these common issues that can occur when converting to legacy Excel formats:

  • Loss of formatting – Fonts, colors, borders, and other formatting may not appear correctly after conversion.
  • Charts convert as images – Charts and graphs can lose interactive functionality and revert to static images.
  • Merged cells separate – Merged cells can unmerge back into individual cells in the converted format.
  • Image compression/loss – High resolution images may be compressed or need to be removed entirely in the legacy format.
  • Worksheet hiding doesn’t convert – Very hidden sheets may unhide when converted to some legacy formats.
  • Limited conditional formatting – Many newer conditional formatting rules aren’t supported in the legacy .xls format.
  • Lost features – Newer features like data validation, sheet protection, etc. will be removed when saving in the legacy format.

Testing your converted files thoroughly in the target Excel version can help identify any issues early so they can be addressed.

Can Excel Files Be Converted Perfectly to Legacy Formats?

It’s not realistic to expect a perfect conversion that maintains full fidelity with the original modern Excel document. There are inherent limitations in the legacy formats that require accepting some degree of change in exchange for backward compatibility.

When converting Excel files to versions 2003 or earlier:

  • Expect to lose some newer features and formatting.
  • Data itself will remain intact, but layouts may change.
  • Complex macros likely won’t function without modification.
  • Worksheets over the 256 column limit will need to split.
  • Some images and charts may convert to static versions.

Perfect conversion isn’t the goal – focusing on maintaining the critical data, structure, and key layout elements as closely as the legacy format allows is a more realistic target.

Should I Just Use the .XLSX Format for All Excel Workbooks?

Using the modern .xlsx Excel format exclusively instead of legacy .xls does avoid conversion hassles. However, that may not be practical or even possible in all situations for a few reasons:

  • You may need to share and collaborate with people using older Excel versions that require .xls.
  • Many organizations mandate use of legacy formats for improved compatibility.
  • Workbooks with VBA macros may depend on the older .xls format.
  • Some software systems can only interface with the legacy Excel formats.

Maintaining two format versions of important spreadsheets is advisable where possible:

  • A master version in .xlsx to take advantage of all modern Excel features.
  • A .xls legacy version for backward compatibility when required.

This provides the benefits of both formats while minimizing manual conversion effort.

Should I Upgrade Old Excel Formats to .XLSX?

Upgrading old legacy .xls Excel files to the modern .xlsx format can make sense in these cases:

  • You need to use advanced features only available in .xslx.
  • Collaboration no longer requires backward compatibility.
  • Converting to .xslx avoids the possibility of corrupted legacy files.
  • Workbooks have outgrown the legacy format’s row and column limits.

However, retaining the original legacy versions may still be advisable for these reasons:

  • The files may still need to be opened in older Excel versions at times.
  • You want to retain the original files for archival purposes.
  • Macros work differently and would need to be migrated and tested.
  • Converting may disrupt layouts, formatting, and content.

Migrating to .xslx risks losing backward compatibility, so assess whether the benefits outweigh the downsides for your specific workbooks.


Converting Excel files to legacy formats like .xls involves some compromises and potentially lost functionality. But for sharing files with users of older Excel versions, it’s a necessary process in many scenarios.

Using Excel’s built-in conversion tools provides the most control over the process. Expect to lose some newer features, and review all changes carefully before finalizing the converted workbook.

With strategic format choices for your workbooks and conversions tailored to the target Excel version, you can achieve good backward compatibility without too much disruption.