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

Last updated: August 2018

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

Here’s a question from our reader, Skyler:

“I work as an analyst and have a significant number of old xls files were created in the previous version of Excel. Now that i have upgraded to version 2016, Excel 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 version 2016, so they’ll open up correctly? I have invested significant amount of work in those files and would hate starting 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. The procedure below is 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.

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  •  Select Protected view on the left, uncheck all the options under Protected View and select OK.

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  •  Now restart Excel 2016 and try to open Excel document.

Office Compatibility mode

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

Two caveats with Compatibility mode:

  • 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 before you go ahead and modify it. The process is outlined below.

Please proceed as following to convert your workbook to version 2016:

  1. Open your existing spreadsheet
  2. Take a backup of the existing spreadsheet by saving it with a different 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. 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.

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  • 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.

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