How to access and open an Excel 97/2003 .xls file in Excel 2016, 2019 and 365?

Last updated: May 2020

Applicable to: Microsoft Office Excel 365, 2019, 2016, 2013, 2007. Windows 7 and 10 operating systems.

Skyler set us a note about her Microsoft Excel spreadsheet not opening:

“I work as an analyst and have a significant number of old .xls files were created in the previous versions of Excel. Now that i have upgraded to the new version, Excel 365 won’t open the existing files telling me that they are corrupted and can’t be opened. Is there any possible way to associate or convert Excel 2003 files to/in version 2016 or 2019, so they’ll open up correctly? I have invested significant amount of work in those files and would hate starting all the work from scratch :-(.

Many readers have asked us about how to troubleshoot compatibility issues between older Office versions and the existing version 2016. In this post we’ll discuss what to actually do if Excel is not opening your existing .xls format files or won’t save changes you make to existing spreadsheets into a new format. Although we have written the tutorial specifically for Excel, the information and procedure below are obviously fully applicable to other relevant Microsoft Office applications such as Word, PowerPoint and Visio.

Set your Trust Center settings

  • Open Microsoft Excel 2016, hit File and select Options.
  •  In the dialog box select Trust Center  and hit on Trust center settings.

2015-12-02 23_41_31-Excel Options

  •  Select Protected view on the left, un-check all the options in the Protected View section and select OK.

2015-12-02 23_42_37-Trust Center

  •  Now restart Excel 2016 and try to open the legacy Excel workbook.

Converting xls files to 2016/2019

Compatibility Mode allows to convert Office files so they become usable in later versions.

Two caveats with using Compatibility on your existing xls workbooks:

  • It changes the layout of your document or spreadsheet.
  • It is not reversible – once the file is converted to the new format; in this case – .xlsx; you won’t be able to revert the file to the .xls version. Therefore our recommendation is to backup the file by simply creating a copy of it before you go ahead and follow the steps below:

Fine with the two caveats above? Please proceed as following to convert your workbook to version 2016:

  1. Open your existing spreadsheet.
  2. First off, secure your current work by making a backup of the existing spreadsheet by saving it with a different file name. You might want to add the suffix before_converting to the file name (File>>Save As>>Set the new file name with the suffix and select the current file type)
  3. Now, hit File.
  4. In the Compatibility Mode section, Hit Convert.
  5. If prompted, hit OK
  6. Your old spreadsheet will go through the conversion process and modified to version 2016/2013.

Set Excel’s default format to .xls

This should probably be your last resort, but if the steps below didn’t help, you might want to try setting the Excel 97-2003 workbook format to be the default in Office 2016-2019. If this sounds like a possible solution to you, proceed as following:

  • Open Excel 2016, click on File and select Options.
  • Click on Save on the left and in the Save files in this format drop down box, select Excel 97-2003 workbook.

2015-12-02 23_45_07-Excel Options

  • Hit OK.
  • Now the default save format option for Excel documents will be as a xls file.
  • Voi’la you are able to open older Excel versions in Excel 2016.

Converting Excel workbooks with VBA Macros or Python scripts

If you have a very significant amount of documents you would like to convert, you could potentially automate the entire task. Feel free to contact us for more details.

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