What to do if your CSV is too large to open

It's not uncommon - you have received a CSV file (whether it be from a colleague, or from an app or database export), and you have trouble opening the file. It may be that you receive an error message saying it exceeds the row limit your program has, or your computer may just go into the dreadful "deep freeze". Either way, you know your file is too big, and you're not sure where you can go from here.

First up, it's important to know a few basics on the size limits for the most common programs to open CSV files (remember, CSV is just a file format; size limits come from the program you use to open the file). We covered this in our previous article on row limits and CSV files, but we'll review the quick facts here again:

  • Excel: 1,048,576 row limit
  • Numbers: 1,000,000 row limit
  • Google Sheets: 5,000,000 cell limit (this is a combination of columns and rows)
  • OpenOffice and LibreOffice: 1,048,576 row limit
  • Text Editors (programs like WordPad, TextEdit, etc.): no row or cell limit

Simply put, you can reference the list above to select the best program to meet your needs, depending on the size of your file. And you can also rest assured that each of the programs listed above will provide you with an error notification if your file exceeds their limit. So even if you don't know how many rows are in your CSV beforehand, you can give it a try and see if it will work with your preferred program.

It's important to note, that with any of these options, you'll still be limited by what your computer is capable of handling. Regardless of the program you use, your file size may push the limit of your computer's memory (RAM), and you still may experience issues opening a large file anyway.

If you know you're short on RAM, or perhaps you can't stand to work in a text editor and your file exceeds the limit of spreadsheet programs - you aren't without options. There are some online tools you can opt for that work with large files. Those include CSV Opener, or Delimitware and others. Some of these options offer free versions or trials, but are at the core, paid options for dealing with large files.

One additional option for those of you who are eager to try out some CSV "tricks", is to split the CSV file into more manageable parts. We'll cover that in our upcoming article, so read on!