Reading Data From Excel Files (xls|xlsx) into R

Previously, we described the essentials of R programming and some best practices for preparing your data. We also provided quick start guides for reading and writing txt and csv files using R base functions as well as using a most modern R package named readr, which is faster (X10) than R base functions.

In this article, you’ll learn how to read data from Excel xls or xlsx file formats into R. This can be done either by:

  • copying data from Excel
  • using readxl package
  • or using xlsx package

Reading Data From Excel Files (xls|xlsx) into R

Preleminary tasks

  1. Launch RStudio as described here: Running RStudio and setting up your working directory

  2. Prepare your data as described here: Best practices for preparing your data

Copying data from Excel and import into R

On Windows system

  1. Open the Excel file containing your data: select and copy the data (ctrl + c)

  2. Type the R code below to import the copied data from the clipboard into R and store the data in a data frame (my_data):

my_data <- read.table(file = "clipboard", 
                      sep = "\t", header=TRUE)

On Mac OSX system

  1. Select and copy the data (Cmd + c)

  2. Use the function pipe(pbpaste) to import the data you’ve copied (with Cmd + c):

my_data <- read.table(pipe("pbpaste"), sep="\t", header = TRUE)

Importing Excel files into R using readxl package

The readxl package, developed by Hadley Wickham, can be used to easily import Excel files (xls|xlsx) into R without any external dependencies.

Installing and loading readxl package

  • Install
  • Load

Using readxl package

The readxl package comes with the function read_excel() to read xls and xlsx files

  1. Read both xls and xlsx files
# Loading
# xls files
my_data <- read_excel("my_file.xls")
# xlsx files
my_data <- read_excel("my_file.xlsx")

The above R code, assumes that the file “my_file.xls” and “my_file.xlsx” is in your current working directory. To know your current working directory, type the function getwd() in R console.

  • It’s also possible to choose a file interactively using the function file.choose(), which I recommend if you’re a beginner in R programming:
my_data <- read_excel(file.choose())

If you use the R code above in RStudio, you will be asked to choose a file.

  1. Specify sheet with a number or name
# Specify sheet by its name
my_data <- read_excel("my_file.xlsx", sheet = "data")
# Specify sheet by its index
my_data <- read_excel("my_file.xlsx", sheet = 2)
  1. Case of missing values: NA (not available). If NAs are represented by something (example: “—”) other than blank cells, set the na argument:
my_data <- read_excel("my_file.xlsx", na = "---")

Importing Excel files using xlsx package

The xlsx package, a java-based solution, is one of the powerful R packages to read, write and format Excel files.

Installing and loading xlsx package

  • Install
  • Load

Using xlsx package

There are two main functions in xlsx package for reading both xls and xlsx Excel files: read.xlsx() and read.xlsx2() [faster on big files compared to read.xlsx function].

The simplified formats are:

read.xlsx(file, sheetIndex, header=TRUE)
read.xlsx2(file, sheetIndex, header=TRUE)

  • file: file path
  • sheetIndex: the index of the sheet to be read
  • header: a logical value. If TRUE, the first row is used as column names.

Example of usage:

my_data <- read.xlsx(file.choose(), 1)  # read first sheet


  • Read Excel files using readxl package: read_excel(file.choose(), sheet = 1)

  • Read Excel files using xlsx package: read.xlsx(file.choose(), sheetIndex = 1)


This analysis has been performed using R (ver. 3.2.3).

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