A CSV or .csv is a comma separated values file that separates data values using commas or another common delimiter. These files are simple, portable lists that can transport data between different computer programs. The content of CSV files is plain text and doesn’t have complicated formatting, so it’s compatible with the vast majority of spreadsheet or database applications.

CSV files store data so that each entry of data is clearly related to the others. For example, a company’s customer data will likely have a row in a spreadsheet for each customer with different pieces of information about them, such as last name, first name, and phone number. Each customer has their own row in a CSV, so that the next program knows their information belongs together, and each section of data is separated by a comma.

Within one CSV file, each row of data must include the same fields (for example, last name, first name, phone number); one row cannot have “Social Security number” when the others do not.

CSVs can be created in either text editors or spreadsheet programs. They’re useful for exporting large amounts of data from a spreadsheet or a database. For example, if a company needs to switch CRM software, they could export customer data from a spreadsheet within the old software using a CSV file.

Different software will require certain data fields within a spreadsheet, so a CSV being exported into that software will need to name all the required fields (i.e., an email address).

How to create a CSV in Google Sheets

To create a CSV file using Google‘s spreadsheet platform, Sheets, first open a new sheet and begin entering data. The image below shows a spreadsheet with names and personal information.

a spreadsheet to be converted to a CSV file.

When using existing data, select the File tab in the top left corner. Under Download, a list of options for format includes Comma-separated values. Select that option.

the process of converting a spreadsheet to a CSV file.

The following image shows the CSV file’s contents in macOS. Every value is separated by a comma, and each person’s data is separated by its own line. This file can then be exported into another spreadsheet program, such as Microsoft Excel.

a CSV file on a Mac computer.

When Excel imports the data, it “sees” that this information is related, and creates a spreadsheet or table that is four columns wide (Last Name, First Name, Email Address, Phone Number) and three rows (or records) deep.

Comma separated values vs. character separated values

A comma or other character that separates information is known as a delimiter in computer programs. Not all CSVs use commas as the main delimiter. Some use semicolons or tabs. But CSV is the commonly used phrase that encompasses all such plain text data separation.

The term “character separated values” is used by some computer experts. It mostly means the same thing, but it more widely references the different delimiters that CSV files can use.

There are different types of CSV files, and formats differ in how the pages are coded.

Jenna Phipps
Jenna Phipps
Jenna Phipps is a writer for Webopedia.com, Enterprise Storage Forum, and CIO Insight. She covers data storage systems and data management, information technology security, and enterprise software solutions.
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