Is Excel a relational database?

Table of Contents

Many people do not consider excel as a relational database, let alone a relational database. Rather, they would call it a spreadsheet application that can complement a database.
But where is the reality? Can you use excel to create a relationship between different items?
In this article, we explore the details of excels. Find out more.

Is Excel a relational database

What’s a Database? 

Databases are simply an aggregate of information – data and files in a central place. Users can easily access the information and use it accordingly.

Organizing information is essential as it allows easy access, management, and updating. Nothing does this better than a database. 

Databases allow you to present data in tables, making it easier to store data with defined relationships. Therefore, with a relational database, you can store, organize, and provide access to data points having defined relationships.

Ideally, in relational database models, the data structures, i.e., data tables, indexes, and views, are separate from the physical storage. This allows administrators to edit the physical data storage without affecting the logical data structure.

A relational model is basically an intuitive, straightforward way of representing data in tables. Every row within the table is a record and should have a unique ID – key. On the other hand, table columns hold attributes of the data, and each record has a value for each feature. So establishing relationships among data points becomes easy. 

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So, what makes a relational database? 

Relational database structures information to recognize relations among the data stored in the databases. It lets you search and retrieve specific information, view the same data set in multiple ways, and reduce data errors and redundancy. 

Before we jump to excel, let’s look at databases’ features and if excel has these properties.

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Features of databases

The significant characteristics of databases include:

  • Supporting multiple views to the user with different access levels. For instance, in a school database, students can only their reports with read-only access. At the same time, teachers can access the reports with modification rights. But the database is the same. 
  • Multiple users can access a similar database without affecting other users. For instance, teachers can update students’ marks in the Results table simultaneously without modifying other subject marks.  
  • Stores all sorts of data 
  • The ability to relate tables/entities through relation – any two tables should be connected. For example, employees within a department are related to that department. 
  • No data duplication within a database, i.e., data storage, should not allow repeating of data in multiple tables because repeating causes wastage of space. Remember, many users have access to the database, so chances of repetitions are high. With a single data repository, you can reduce redundancy and duplication.
  • Highly secure –a database allows a different level of access to the users. It is only the administrators or heads of departments who have full access to the database. They control user access; thus, making the database secure. 
  • Support the ACID property – the database ensures that the data’s real purpose doesn’t disappear while performing any transactions like insert, update, and delete.
  • Data persistence, i.e., it maintains data so long as it is not deleted. It is the user who determines the lifespan of the data.

Can Excel act as a database?

Get it right – Excel is a superpower spreadsheet but not a real database. Excel has powerful abilities to turns the multiple rows of data into attractive and comprehensive reports and charts.

Nevertheless, it is possible to create relational databases within Excel.


The organizational structure of excel lends itself accurately to how a database works.


A database is a set of related items (spreadsheet) associated to build a single record (row) within a collection of many records (Table). 

So if you have a single spreadsheet, it is a database. 

Simply put, excel can act as a database. 

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How do I use Excel as a relational database?

You can create databases using Excel, and also develop relationships between the databases.  

The latest versions of excel have powerful table tools incorporating features that ease linking charts and cells, and performing charts.

What’s more, it allows creating dynamically updated reports, just like in a relational database. 

The bottom line?

To create a relational database, you need a combination of the Master Table and all of its Child/Slave Tables

A good example is a driver’s license:

It is just a single record in a database (flat-file). And that database is on a computer in a Motor Vehicles Department. 

The driver’s license has details about the holder. Such information includes name, date of birth, gender, weight, height, color of eyes and hair, address, license issue, expiration date, and license class.

Here’s the kicker:

People can share multiple things, including names, hair color, address, date of birth, gender, height, etc. This might bring about lots of confusion.  

To eliminate that, each driver’s license as a unique number – License Number. 

While creating a database, the license number becomes the Key Field. The number is unique, and it connects one database to other similar databases.

Now, that’s creating a relational database.

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What is a Relationship?

You need two requirements to create a relationship: 

  • A common column with two or more data tables. However, the fields (columns) don’t need to have a similar name.
  • The shared column should contain unique entries in one of the tables. 

Relational databases, e.g., SQL and Access, work on this kind of relationship basis, and they hold hundreds of tables. 

But Excel also comes with a Data Model feature that allows you to create a basic relational database structure.

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Why create a Relationship?

Usually, a single data table doesn’t have all the information necessary for creating a decent report. Therefore, creating a relationship provides a way of extracting data from multiple tables to create a complete report.

Keep in mind that in Excel, columns equate to fields in a database. 

Creating Relational Databases in Excel 

As earlier indicated, creating a relation database will involve creating a Master Table, the main Table, and multiple records.

This Table rarely changes unless it is absolutely necessary – when you need to add or remove an individual. It has unique records like names, city, address, etc. 

You’ll also need to create Detail Tables. These tables are also called Child or Slave Tables, and they contain multiple records too. However, Detail Tables’ data change frequently. 

Here’s the main point: 

Detail tables have multiple records linking back to the master table. Thus, creating a relationship – one-to-many.

Let’s create the necessary Table for building a relationship:

Creating the Master Table

Before you begin creating a master table, you should have your records ready. 

So it great to find an example – License Number, Date of Birth, Name, Address, City, State, Zip, Expiration Date, and Gender.

  • Click twice on the tagline labeled sheet 1 and then type Master. 
  • Navigate to cell A1 and type the name Master. 
  • In cells A2 through J3, type column headers: License Number, Address, Date of Birth, Name, State, Zip, City, Expiration Date, and Gender.
  • In cells A3 through A12, type License Number – find unique ten numbers, e.g., FT-1223R. The unique value is the License Number. 
  • Enter Date of Birth, Name, Address, City, State, Zip, Expiration Date, and Gender and fill in respective data. 
  • Once you enter all the data, highlight A2 through J12, together with their headers. Go to Styles group and click on Format as Table. Select the color & format that you like from the dropdown. A dialog box will appear, and it displays table range. Click on the small box to accept headers on the tables. Finally, click OK.
  • When the Table is still highlighted, the Design Tab (Table Tools) appears. Now go to the far left, and locate the Table Name. In the blank space, type Master.


Look adjacent to each field name; you’ll notice that each one has a down arrow. When you click on the arrow, a dialogue box appears, and it has a sort option. This lets you show particular information according to the filters you specify.  


Note that at times the records may disappear – they’re not gone. Instead, they are just hidden. You can access them again by clicking the down-arrow adjacent the fields, and then click All– immediately they become visible.

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Creating the detail or Slave Tables table

Creating a slave table is equally easy:

  • Click the plus (+) sign on the current spreadsheet. This inserts a to insert a new sheet. You can add as many slave tables as you like. But that depends on your need. Double click and name it Violations.
  • Type the license number in A1. You repeat the license number in this example because the slave table is a one-to-many – multiple records for one drive. So the license number is the key field. If you are creating numerous slave tables, it easier to just recopy them.
  • Name other column headers – Violation Type, Date, Fee, Expiration Date, and Fee Paid Date.
  • Fill in respective detail. Enter 20; repeat license numbers in some cases, i.e., you can make a single license number appear twice or more.  
  • Highlight the whole table, including column headers and click on the Insert tab and select Table
  • A dialogue box – Create a Table that appears, and it has a query: Where is the data for your Table? Click the small box to allow headers, and finally click OK.  
  • Navigate to the top-left corner – Table Name, and name your Table, in this case, type Violations and press entre.
  • Again, click on the down arrow adjacent to the columns and experiment with various sorting and filter parameters.

Try creating another slave table – this time, name it addresses. Go to the Master table and then copy Address, State, City, Zip, and place them in respective columns as headers. In column A, type License Number.

Enter data in the respective fields. One license number might have changed addresses a few times. So indicate it as repeated license numbers.

Again, name the addresses table the same way as you named the Violations table. 

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Setting up a Relationship

You can set a relationship using Pivot Tables. However, you must know how to use the Pivot Tables. Ideally, the cardinal rule in Pivot Table is to define relationships within the Pivot Table. 

Use the steps below:

  • Navigate to the Violations table and then highlight the whole table, and then click Insert. At the far left is Pivot Table. Click on it. 
  • A dialogue box appears – Select  Range/TableTable Range, i.e., violations. You can import data from another program; let’s say Access.  
  • Choose the location to place your Pivot report. There are two options: New Worksheet, for Tables on a separate sheet, and Existing Worksheet to retain the report in the existing worksheet. 
  • There is an option to analyze multiple tables. Just click add data to the data model and then OK. 

From here, building a report depends on what you want. You can choose parameters from the Pivot table dialogue box. Excel will make connections and then display the data on your screen.

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What is the difference between a spreadsheet and a relational database? 

Spreadsheets and databases have different technologies, with databases having more advanced technology. However, they share some similar characteristics – for instance, both offer a way of accessing data. 

The most common spreadsheets programs are Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. These programs are available free on computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Most databases reside in serves except for Microsoft Access and clones like LibreOffice Base. 

The significant differences between the two include:

  1. Reporting

It is the owner who determines the content, formatting, structure, and appearance of the spreadsheet. In most cases, they present grid information. Look, a spreadsheet is the information as well as the presentation layer. Such an approach streamlines simple reports – calculations are transparent to all people. 

By contrast, databases have a formalized structure, and they separate the information from its appearance. All information is tabular, and if you need to format the output, it should be done in a spreadsheet or other programs.

So a spreadsheet has a customizable appearance, easy to create graphs, and has rich formatting features. Databases, on the other hand, offer a formalized appearance, streamline reports, and tabular report format.

  1. Volume of data

Spreadsheets cant store data for a long. Instead, they are excellent at analyzing data and sorting list items. Ideally, use your favorite spreadsheet to crunch numbers. But they can also keep inventory, statistical data modeling, and computing data.

However, if you have a large amount of data, consider using databases – especially when two or more people share the information. With databases, you need little data duplication. Besides, any changes made to the data do not corrupt the programming, unlike in spreadsheets.

  1. Data Location

Spreadsheets reside in individual computers or file servers – and they are self-contained. By contrast, most databases require dedicated database servers.

What does this mean? 

Creating databases require more effort and skills. However, once it’s done, accidentally deleting or misfiling is impossible.

It is possible to create a password to protect your information on spreadsheets. However, it is difficult to know the people who edit view the document. This is not the case with databases because you need permission to view and edit data. A database will log any viewing and edits.

Keep in mind that the design of spreadsheets allows opening and editing by one person while databases support multiple logged-in users simultaneously.

  1. Processing

While both spreadsheets and databases have processing functions, they differ significantly in the scope of work they can do.

Both can manipulate, sort, and filter data. However, Databases offer a more comprehensive range of complexity regarding data manipulation – expressed in programming or SQL code. 

But if you are looking for basic data processing, spreadsheets offer a range of automated functions, which do not require much technical experience. 

Keep in mind: 

A spreadsheet offers a predefined data model in a row and column format. But the information doesn’t relate to each other. Besides, spreadsheets do not require rules and do not have sophisticated summarization and reporting tools.

On the other hand, databases have a structured fashion, and by default, they enforce rules and relationships about data entering and information leaving. Additionally, they support automatic rapid reading and writing content, unlike a spreadsheet that requires manual entry.

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Can Excel be used as a database?

You can use excel as a database. Nevertheless, Excel doesn’t have the database capabilities of other tools like MS Access, Oracle, or MySQL. Excel has all the properties and facilities you need to create a database. 

If you have Excel 2013, then you have an application that can help you create relational databases in Excel.

Excel is an excellent tool for tabular data or rudimentary forms. In some cases, you can use it as a simple database. Undoubtedly, is Excel has a simple spreadsheet but powerful functionalities. 

With excel, you get a number of ways to set up data. This way, your reports as well analyses can use excel easily as a reliable data source. 

Typically, you can arrange your spreadsheet to use it as a database with your worksheet formulas.

But keep in mind that Excel comes with some limitations, including:

  • Limitation in Amounts of Data it holds: compared to real databases, Excel has massive limitations. It has a limited number of records per sheet besides performance issues when you have lots of data.
  • Complex Workflows: excel will only work well for work processes that are linear and with straightforward input. When it comes to displaying information that requires showing relations, it becomes hectic for excel.
  • Security: excel lacks security or user permission. Though you can protect files with passwords, it is a delicate process and requires a deeper understanding of excel. Worse, some features aren’t compatible with all OS. Besides, there are some tools that people can use to unlock passwords. 
  • Collaboration: there isn’t support for collaborating when it comes to Excel. You can enable multi-user editing and store your Excel file on a shared server. However, the process is error-prone and may result in people overwriting each other’s work. Additionally, it is difficult to edit an excel file out of office, and sending it through email is equally tricky.
  • Increased Customization: excel has little scalability. So if you need to customize some features to fit your business’s need, excel may just not be the right tool. 

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What type of database is Excel?

Excel can be categorized under relational databases or a simple database management system. 

Here is the thing:

An Excel workbook is made up of spreadsheets. This is similar to a relational database, as it is made up of tables. The tables have rows and columns similar to a spreadsheet. But the difference is you can’t interact with each cell/value individually. Rather, you have to delete the entire row.

Databases have a rigid structure, and that’s why you can change the values as you wish. Ideally, values in one row are tied together to form a single unit. And each column has a unique name with a specific type of data.

Database vs. spreadsheet

By now, it is clear that spreadsheets store data in cells, and there are multiple cells, which are represented in a system of rows and columns. On the other hand, a database typically stores data values in tables.

A spreadsheet is ubiquitous, flexible and user-friendly. While this may sound great, the flexibility of excel might lead to glaring inefficiencies. Each cell is its own entity. Thus, this gives you much freedom to merge cells, add footnotes, format tables, make graphs and add comments, or plot out a needlepoint pattern.

That ability to manipulate cells easily is what casts doubt on the integrity of the spreadsheets. Simply put, such massive flexibility makes it somewhat impossible to enforce consistency and accuracy when you are dealing with large datasets. 

What more, relying on spreadsheets might cause longer waiting times, reduced accuracy as well as more versioning. 

By contracts, the structure of databases is rigorous. As a result, it can be difficult to manipulate data – thus, your data retains its integrity as long as it is necessary. That means there are low chances of having inconsistencies and errors. 

The data values in a database are ​​in records, i.e., tables. These named tables have at least a column and rows. Each column has a value for a single record. 

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Excel is a simple type of relational database. You can set up such a database by creating a Master Table, the main Table, and multiple records Detail Tables. Detail tables are also called Child or Slave Tables, and they contain changing records, unlike the master table.

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Luis Gillman
Luis Gillman

Hi, I Am Luis Gillman CA (SA), ACMA
I am a Chartered Accountant (SA) and CIMA (SA) and author of Due Diligence: A strategic and Financial Approach.

The book was published by Lexis Nexis on 2001. In 2010, I wrote the second edition. Much of this website is derived from these two books.

In addition I have published an article entitled the Link Between Due Diligence and Valautions.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that the information published on this website is accurate, the author and owners of this website take no responsibility  for any loss or damage suffered as a result of relience upon the information contained therein.  Furthermore the bulk of the information is derived from information in 2018 and use therefore is at your on risk. In addition you should consult professional advice if required.