Comma-separated values

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Comma separated list
Comma-separated values
Filename extension .csv or .txt
Internet media type text/csv
(deprecated)[citation needed]
Type of format multiplatform, serial data streams
Container for database information organized as field separated lists
Standard(s) RFC 4180

A comma-separated values (CSV) file is used for the digital storage of data structured in a table of lists form, where each associated item (member) in a group is in association with others also separated by the commas of its set. Each line in the CSV file corresponds to a row in the table. Within a line, fields are separated by commas, each field belonging to one table column. Since it is a common and simple file format, CSV files are often used for moving tabular data between two different computer programs, for example between a database program and a spreadsheet program.


Technical background

A file format is a particular way to encode information for storage in a computer file. Particularly, files encoded using the CSV format are used to store tabular data. The format dates back to the early days of business computing and is widely used to pass data between computers with different internal word sizes, data formatting needs, and so forth. For this reason, CSV files are common on all computer platforms.

CSV is one implementation of a delimited text file, which uses a comma to separate values (where many implementations of CSV import/export tools allow an alternate separator to be used). However CSV differs from other delimiter separated file formats in using a " (double quote) character around fields that contain reserved characters (such as commas or newlines). Most other delimiter formats either use an escape character such as a backslash, or have no support for reserved characters. The benefit of CSV is that they allow for the transfer of data across different applications.[citation needed]

In computer science terms, this type of format is called a "flat file" because only one table can be stored in a CSV file. Most systems use a series of tables to store their information, which must be "flattened" into a single table, often with information repeated over several rows, to create a text file.


Comma-separated value lists are very old technology and predate personal computers by more than a decade; the IBM Fortran (level G) compiler under OS/360 supported these in 1967, and they were not a new idea even then. Comma-separated value lists were often easier to type into punched cards than fixed-column-aligned data, and were less prone to producing incorrect results if a value was punched one-column-off from its intended location.

The comma separated list (CSL) is a data format originally known as comma-separated values (CSV) in the oldest days of simple computers. In the personal computer industry (then more commonly known as a "Home Computer"), the early most common use was by small businesses for generating solicitations using boilerplate form letters, via mailing lists.

Some early software applications, such as word processors, allowed a stream of "variable data" to be merged between two files: a form letter, and a CSL of names, addresses, and other data fields, and still do, simply because tasks requiring human input (construction of lists) is natural and easy using comma separation delimiting. CSL/CSVs were also used to exchange data between desktop computers of different architectures, and for simple database uses.



Comma separated lists date from before the earliest personal computers, but were widely used in the earliest pre-IBM PC era personal computers for tape storage backup and interchange of database information from machines of two different architectures. In that day, affordable hard drives did not exist, and many small businesses tried to achieve the benefits of computing using floppy disk based software. [1]

No general standard specification for CSV exists. Variations between CSV implementations in different programs are quite common and can lead to interoperation difficulties. For Internet communication of CSV files, an Informational IETF document (RFC 4180 from October 2005) describes the format for the "text/csv" MIME type registered with the IANA. Another relevant specification is provided by Fielded Text which also covers the CSV format.

Many informal documents exist that describe the CSV format. How To: The Comma Separated Value (CSV) File Format provides an overview of the CSV format in the most widely used applications and explains how it can best be used and supported.

Basic Rules

The basic rules from a lot of these specifications are as follows:

CSV is a delimited data format that has fields/columns separated by the comma character and records/rows separated by newlines. Fields that contain a special character (comma, newline, or double quote), must be enclosed in double quotes. However, if a line contains a single entry which is the empty string, it may be enclosed in double quotes. If a field's value contains a double quote character it is escaped by placing another double quote character next to it. The CSV file format does not require a specific character encoding, byte order, or line terminator format.

  • Each record is one line terminated by a line feed (ASCII/LF=0x0A) or a carriage return and line feed pair (ASCII/CRLF=0x0D 0x0A), however, line-breaks can be embedded.
  • Fields are separated by commas (although in locales where the comma is used as a decimal point, the semicolon is used instead as a delimiter, inducing some drawbacks when CSV files are exchanged e.g. between France and USA)
  • In some CSV implementations, leading and trailing spaces or tabs, adjacent to commas, are trimmed. This practice is contentious and in fact is specifically prohibited by RFC 4180, which states, "Spaces are considered part of a field and should not be ignored."
1997,   Ford   , E350
same as
  • Fields with embedded commas must be enclosed within double-quote characters.
1997,Ford,E350,"Super, luxurious truck"
  • Fields with embedded double-quote characters must be enclosed within double-quote characters, and each of the embedded double-quote characters must be represented by a pair of double-quote characters.
1997,Ford,E350,"Super ""luxurious"" truck"
  • Fields with embedded line breaks must be enclosed within double-quote characters.
1997,Ford,E350,"Go get one now
they are going fast"
  • Fields with leading or trailing spaces must be enclosed within double-quote characters. (See comment about leading and trailing spaces above.)
1997,Ford,E350,"  Super luxurious truck    "
  • Fields may always be enclosed within double-quote characters, whether necessary or not.
  • The first record in a csv file may contain column names in each of the fields.


1997FordE350ac, abs, moon3000.00
1999ChevyVenture "Extended Edition" 4900.00
1999ChevyVenture "Extended Edition, Very Large" 5000.00
1996JeepGrand CherokeeMUST SELL!
air, moon roof, loaded

The above table of data may be represented in CSV format as follows:

1997,Ford,E350,"ac, abs, moon",3000.00
1999,Chevy,"Venture ""Extended Edition""","",4900.00
1999,Chevy,"Venture ""Extended Edition, Very Large""","",5000.00
1996,Jeep,Grand Cherokee,"MUST SELL!
air, moon roof, loaded",4799.00

This CSV example illustrates that:

  • fields that contain commas, double-quotes, or line-breaks must be quoted.
  • a quote within a field must be escaped with an additional quote immediately preceding the literal quote.
  • a quote and a comma within a field must be escaped with an extra additional quote preceding the literal quote.
  • space before and after delimiter commas may not be trimmed. This is required by RFC 4180.
  • a line break within an element must be preserved.

Line break handling within CSV files

It is noteworthy to say that many applications will not handle a line break within a cell as in the example above. Such applications may interpret the line break as a delimiter and call for a new cell to begin. In this case, the layout of the CSV file will be disrupted or broken.[2]

Application support

The CSV file format is very simple and supported by almost all spreadsheets and database management systems. Many programming languages have libraries available that support CSV files. Even modern software applications support CSV imports and/or exports because the format is so widely recognized. In fact, many applications allow .csv-named files to use any delimiter character.

Microsoft Excel supports a .csv format that uses tabs instead of commas as the delimiter. If you copy "hello<tab>goodbye" into the clipboard and paste it into Excel, it goes into two cells. "hello,goodbye" pasted into Excel goes into one cell, including the comma.

See also


External links

de:CSV (Dateiformat) es:CSV eo:CSV fr:Comma-separated values it:Comma-separated values lb:.csv (Dateiformat) lt:CSV nl:Kommagescheiden bestand ja:Comma-Separated Values pl:CSV (format pliku) pt:Comma-separated values ru:CSV fi:CSV sv:Comma-separated value uk:CSV zh:CSV

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