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Steps to Recovering
a Corrupt Excel File

By Paul Pruitt - MCP, CompTIA A+, CompTIA Net+, HDI Helpdesk Analyst

Excel file can't open because it's corrupt error.

Preliminary Considerations

You would be well advised to at least take a look at Microsoft's articles on the subject first. If you want to skip straight to software choices to solve your problem, go to step #11 or try Excel Recovery. The official Microsoft Excel 2002/2003 corrupt workbook recovery advice or the same for Excel 2007/2010 offer a lot of good though perhaps tedious advice.

A couple programmers and I created a piece of freeware now called Excel Recovery, that allows you to easily carry almost all of the steps mentioned in the two articles, excepting the chart macro recovery method. It also adds four methods of its own, two of which consist of those used in an earlier freeware of mine, Corrupt xlsx2csv also mentioned later. It works pretty simply. You load the file interested in, and just click on buttons to try things.

Steps to Recovering a
Corrupt Excel File

Warning: Always work from a copy of your
file so you don't make things worse! If you
can't make a copy of the file, see step 7.

  1. Close down Excel, reopen it and try to open the file again.

  2. If this doesn't work, restart the computer, open up Excel and try to open the file again.

  3. Apparently Excel saves temporary files to "C:\ Documents and Settings\<username>\Local Settings\Temp" if you have Windows 2000 or XP and probably here in Vista or Windows 7: C:\Users\<username>\AppData\Local\Temp". You are looking for files named "~DF????.TMP" where the question marks are letters or numbers, so the files are named "~DF" and then any 4 numbers and digits, ending with the extension "TMP", although these are probably hex numbers so you might not see any letter further than "F" in the alphabet. These temporary files include installed add-ins and other files made into temporary files when you open up any Excel files, so most of the files won't contain your data. Anyway, try changing each one to extension xls or xlsx and xls if you have Excel 2007, then try opening the files.

  4. Entering launch command for Excel Safe ModeIf this doesn't work, open Excel in Safe Mode. This will disable VBA and Add-ins. Click on Start then Run or just type in the Search field for Vista and Windows 7, then enter including /s extension: EXCEL.EXE /s. Once Excel is open in safe mode, try to open the file.

  5. If this doesn't work, be sure to scan the file for viruses. Make sure your macro heuristics scanning option is turned on. Ask your IT administrator how to do this, if you don't know how. If you discover a virus, see if your antivirus program can fix it.

  6. If you don't find a virus, try to open the file in Word or WordPad. Word 2003 will sometimes open Excel files as Word tables. Word 2007 and 2010 seem to have lost that ability and will just load the machine binary code like WordPad. You can however, still get the text strings out that way if it is an xls (but not an xlsx) file. Note before you do this, you will probably have to make another copy because Word sometimes destroys the binary structure of Excel.

  7. If this doesn't work, try to determine if the file is unrecoverable on the disk. If you haven't done so yet, open the file in Explorer and try to copy it to another location. If you can copy the file to move on to step 8, if not the actual sectors on the disk may be physically damaged and corrupted due to dust on the disk, a disk head crash or other problems (by thomas at testsforge). If the data is valuable enough to you, there are several labs that can recover files off damaged disks.

    Damaged hard disk file recovery is not easy to do successfully on your own. If you would like to try there are some free tools here: http://www.s2services.com/diskimagingfreeware.htm. Try Roadkil's Unstoppable Copier and recoverdm. There are several programs you can buy too, one for as little as 40$. A good list is here: http://www.snapfiles.com/shareware/

    Bad floppy recovery is easier though just like damaged hard disk recovery often doesn't work. An excellent free Windows based program for floppies can be found at: http://www.simtel.net/pub/pd/60018.html.

  8. Try to open the file in a more recent version of Excel. As the version numbers increase, their ability to recover corrupt files increases.

  9. If this doesn't work or such a version of Excel is not available, see if some other spreadsheet application can open your file.

    A hopefully exhaustive list of spreadsheets is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spreadsheets. Most of the spreadsheets here will have filters to allow the opening of Excel files. Most commercial spreadsheets like those found Corel's 2 office suites, will have a fully functional trial versions.

  10. I have a new free Excel data recovery web service the unfortunately at the time of updating this article, June 22, 2012, is down. However I'm working on it. The address won't change: http://www.saveofficedata.com/.

  11. If Microsoft can't help you and you've exhausted all the free methods above for damaged disk recovered or copiable files, there are a number of excellent commercial applications which will recover your files almost immediately. I have tried most of the programs in the list and frankly don't like to say too much bad about any of them because somebody is making a living from them. However as they say in this business "Try before your buy!" Always try the free demos first.

    Broadly speaking RecoverMyFiles and XLS Regenerator are more labor intensive and don't have the intuitive turnkey features. They require you to undelete a large number of deleted older and temporary version of your file and then weed through the results looking for a payoff. This is more effective sometimes than the others, but more time consuming.

    The others may do somewhat equivalent jobs, although my tope four, not in any order of effectiveness would be Recoveronix Recovery for Excel, Cimaware's ExcelFix, Recovery Toolbox eRecovery Excel and Kernel Excel Recovery.

    • Excel Recovery has pretty much superseded my earlier program Corrupt xlsx2csv and Corrupt Office Extractor 3.2, although people are still using the older programs widely. These simpler programs are faster because they don't offer format recovery, just data. Excel Recovery works on xls and xlsx files Corrupt xlsx2csv and Corrupt Office Extractor 3.2 only works on xlsx ones.

    • The software made by the company with whom I have the best affiliate relationship, Cimaware, makes ExcelFix, which is consistently among the most effective commercial software. A demo is available which will show your all of the recoverable information. For $139 you can recover data, formulas, formats, charts and more.

    • New to me is Recovery Toolbox' eRepair Excel. With a personal license at just $27, this seems to be the best value for basic data recovery when Excel itself fails. ExcelFix, and the Kernel and Recoveronix programs mentioned may be better getting back your formatting. Note, I succeeded helping someone with this program once when many of the other more expensive ones failed.

    • Another excellent program, is Recoveronix' Recovery for Excel. It also cost $149 (with a $30 discount available if you link to their site) and recovers formatting. They also have an interesting low cost (relatively speaking) web service for recovering files one at a time here.

    • Advanced Excel Repair (AER) - supports batch recovery and is relatively cheap for this kind of thing at $89.

    • Stellar Excel is also relatively in expensive $69.

    • R-Excel $79 is made by a company that makes disk recovery programs that have saved me a couple of times. $79.

    • Kernel Excel Recovery - Nucleus Kernel products have been impressing me these days so they are worth a try. Inexpensive again, starting at $49.

    • I haven't tried Repair My Excel. Slick advertising. $69.

    • Excel workbook Rebuilder - I haven't had much luck overall with this program although it has 4 different engines for recovering data. In addition to data recovery, this program is supposed to help with extracting VBA from corrupt Excel documents. --03/21/2010 - Note a customer of mine reports lack of success and bad support from them and recommends against purchasing their product.

    • RecoverMyFiles- This program works differently then any of the others. It basically scours your hard drive for files and file fragments of a specified file type. Hopefully an uncorrupted previous file or file fragments still exists somewhere on your drive allowing you to recover or piece together your document.

    • XLS Regenerator - is similar to RecoverMyFiles, but cheaper program and is just for Excel.

    If these programs don't work to your satisfaction then your file is certainly corrupt, but don't despair there are professional Excel file recovery services or labs. They generally cost $49 and up per incident. Here are some--03/21/2010 - A user reports lack of success at contacting three of these services as noted. He later finally made a request to me. For what it's worth I may have to find a new list of services to whom to refer customers. I'm getting better at recovering files, so I may be worth a try too:

    • You can upload files to my temporarily defunct web service text extractor's contact page. I charge only $22 and only if the recovery results are satisfactory to you.

    • http://www.excelwordrecovery.com/ - Did not reply to my Finnish friend's urgent request for help - $50 -$800.

    • http://www.repair-excel.com/ - Did not reply to my Finnish friend's urgent request for help . Don't know prices.

    • http://www.excel-rescue.com/ - my best affiliate company, Cimadevilla Electronica S.L. - Cimaware's parent company has an automatic service for repairing files one at time costing $50 per file. Recommended.

    • http://www.repairfiles.com/index.php -Did not reply to my Finnish friend's urgent request for help - cheap service at $25 - 40. This guy is the only one who explains his methods. Impressive explanation of Excel file structure.

    • http://www.ontrack.com - Ontrack is or at least was one of the biggest names in file and disk recovery. The link is to a form to start a quote process. May be expensive.

    Finally if all else has failed, you can use freeware some to recover your try to recover your data. Some of these programs will only work on Excel 97-2003 files and won't recover even the basic column formatting of a CSV type file.

    1. Linux xls2csv if you are into Linux. It might work with a corrupt file, but only with xls versions.

    2. DocToText - command line true extractor of both numbers and strings. Works with both xlsx and xls files. Works with corrupt xlsx file in conjunction with a zip corruption tolerant unzipper like CakeCMD, No-Frills Unzipper or 7Zip command version. Pretty cool. I use in to do the work in one of the features of Excel Recovery.

    3. CMD Corrupt OfficeOpen2txt - another command line true extractor of both numbers and strings. Works with only with both xlsx files. I sponsored the coding of the program.

    4. Corrupt Office Extractor 3.2 - a nice GUI version of CMD Corrupt OfficeOpen2txt. Has an added feature for zip repair, which is a good pre-extracting step for corrupt xlsx files.

    5. BinText - probably just works on strings and just with xls files not xlsx ones

    6. TextExtract - ditto to BinText.

    7. ReadText ditto again.

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