How to recover an Excel file

When you suddenly lose an important Excel workbook, many hours of painstaking work are often wasted. In many cases, you lose your data as soon as the spreadsheet application crashes or the file is accidentally overwritten. However, we can show you how to recover unsaved Excel files (or overwritten ones), similar to the options for recovering Word documents.

In this tutorial, we’ll explain the different ways of solving this problem and walk you through the steps for recovering an Excel file.

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Recovering an overwritten Excel file from an Excel backup

In earlier versions of Excel, every time a file was saved, a backup copy was automatically created. This backup copy served as protection against accidental changes, as it allowed users to recover the most recent version of the Excel workbook in an emergency. This feature still exists in newer versions of Excel, but it’s hidden. You now have to make a separate setting for each file to specify whether you want to create a backup copy when the file is saved. You can adjust this setting as follows:

  1. Click the “File” tab and then “Save as”.
  2. In the next window select “Browse” and choose the folder where you want to save the file.
  3. In the “Save As” dialog box, click on “Tools” and then “General Options”.
  4. In this dialog box, check the “Always create backup” box and click on “OK” to confirm.

Now a backup copy with the extension XLK will be automatically created each time you save the file.

There are two ways of recovering this backup file: You can replace the file extension of the backup file with XLSX and then open it in the usual way. Or you can select the “File” tab in Excel and click “Open”. Click the “Browse” button and go to the folder where the file is located. In the drop-down list box at the bottom right, select “Backup files” instead of “All Excel files”. You’ll now see all backup files in this folder. You can then open, edit, and save them as Excel files again.


You can also access the “Open” dialog box by using the Excel keyboard shortcut [Ctrl] + [O].

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Recovering overwritten data in Excel from a OneDrive backup

You automatically have backups of your most recently saved versions if you save Excel files on OneDrive to share them with coworkers, collaborate on documents, or use files on multiple devices. OneDrive has a simple version control feature that allows you to recover the most recent backups of all files at any time. To do this, simply follow these steps:

  1. Right-click the file you want to recover in the OneDrive folder (via the File Explorer).
  2. In the context menu, select “Version history”. You will see the most recent backups of the file.
  3. Click the three dots next to the version you want to restore. You can then restore the Excel file with its original name or download and save it with a different name to compare the two versions.

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Recovering an overwritten Excel workbook with Windows File History

The optional File History feature in Windows 10 saves all files to a separate user directory on an external drive at regular intervals (and when you make major changes). File History not only protects against loss of data due to hard drive failures or viruses, it also lets you recover accidentally overwritten files. External USB storage media or a network drive is required for the backup.

If you’ve already enabled File History, you can restore a previous version of an Excel workbook as follows:

  1. In the File Explorer, select the file and click on the “History” button on the “Home” tab.
  2. A new window opens showing the most recently saved version of this file. You can scroll back and forth between older file versions using the left and right arrow buttons at the bottom of the window. This way, you can easily find the version of the file you’re looking for.
  3. To restore a version, click the circular arrow in the center at the bottom of the window. This overwrites the existing version of the file. Alternatively, click the gear icon in the top right corner and select “Restore to” from the drop-down menu. Now, you can select the directory where you want to restore the old version of the file.

There’s an even easier way to find previous versions of a particular Excel file: Right-click the file in the File Explorer and select “Properties” from the context menu. In the next dialog box, you’ll see a list of all saved versions in the “Previous versions” tab. You can then choose “Restore” to recover the file or save a copy to another folder.

Setting up File History

To use the method described above, you first have to set up File History in Windows:

  1. In the Settings app, go to “Update and security” and choose “Backup”.
  2. Click on “Add a drive” and select the backup drive you want to use. If Windows finds an external hard drive or a network drive that can be used for File History, that drive is suggested automatically.
  3. Activate “Automatically back up my files”.
  4. Once you activate this option, version history is enabled in the background.
  5. Click on “More options” and then “Backup now” to start copying data to the backup drive. Otherwise data will not be copied until the next change.

Selecting folders to back up

File History backs up files that would not be recoverable if lost, but it does not back up applications or operating system files. It selects commonly backed up folders in your user profile automatically for backup. Under “Backup options”, you can add any other folders such as project folders that are not in your user profile folder on the hard drive.

Recovering an unsaved Excel file

If Excel crashes while you’re working or if there’s a power failure, the file you’re currently editing usually is not lost. As a rule, it can still be recovered, even if you didn’t save it before the application quit. That’s because all Microsoft Office applications have an automatic backup feature. If Excel stops responding and crashes, you can recover an Excel file from the automatic backup as soon as you restart Excel after it quits unexpectedly.

On the Home tab, you can then recover the Excel file as follows:

  1. Click on “Show Recovered Files” to display a list of all recently opened and unsaved files with the most recent save date.
  2. Click a file to restore it.
  3. Always remember to save the backup as an Excel file because the auto-recovered file will be deleted when you close Excel after saving your work.

You can also recover an unsaved Excel file at a later point in time:

  1. To do this, click “File” on the ribbon, go to the “Info” section, and choose “Manage Workbook”.
  2. Choose “Recover Unsaved Workbooks” to display and recover unsaved Excel files. Excel saves unsaved files to the folder C:\Users\\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Office\UnsavedFiles. You can also access the files from this folder.

Auto-saving protects against data loss

Excel has its own backup feature that automatically saves your documents at regular intervals while you work. However, you need to enable this feature:

  1. To do this, go to the “File” tab and click on “Options”.
  2. In the next window, go to the “Save” section and check the “Save AutoRecover information every...” box.
  3. Specify how often you want Excel to save your data.
  4. Select “Keep the last autosaved version if I close without saving”. This makes it easier to recover your most recent Excel file if the program unexpectedly exits.

Learn more about "Excel: track changes" in our Digital Guide article on the topic.

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