How to find circular references in Excel


Circular references in Excel occur when a formula refers back to its own cell, either directly or through a series of formulas. This can lead to errors and confusion in spreadsheets. Understanding how to identify and resolve these references is crucial for maintaining the integrity of your data. This article provides a comprehensive approach to finding and handling circular references in Excel.

Understanding Circular References

  • What Are They?: A circular reference happens when a formula in a cell refers to itself or to another cell that depends on the original cell.
  • Implications: Circular references can cause calculation errors or result in Excel not working correctly, as the program gets caught in an endless loop of trying to calculate the values.

How to Find Circular References in Excel

  1. Automatic Detection:
    • Excel usually detects circular references and displays a warning message.
    • The status bar at the bottom of the Excel window shows “Circular References” with a cell reference.
  2. Manual Search:
    • Go to the ‘Formulas’ tab.
    • Click on ‘Error Checking’ and select ‘Circular References’.
    • A list of cells with circular references will appear.

Resolving Circular References

  1. Analyze the Formula: Check the formula in the identified cell to understand how it’s referring back to itself.
  2. Modify or Remove the Circular Reference: Either change the formula so it doesn’t refer to its own cell or any cells that depend on it, or remove the formula if it’s unnecessary.
  3. Use Iterative Calculation: If a circular reference is intentional for iterative calculations (like for certain types of financial models), enable iterative calculations in Excel settings (File > Options > Formulas > Enable iterative calculations).

Advanced Troubleshooting

  • Trace Precedents and Dependents: Use the ‘Trace Precedents’ and ‘Trace Dependents’ tools in the ‘Formulas’ tab to visually map out the relationships between cells and understand the loop causing the circular reference.
  • Divide and Conquer: In complex spreadsheets, divide your formulas into separate parts to isolate and identify the source of the circular reference.

Preventing Circular References

  • Plan Your Formulas: Think ahead about the layout of your spreadsheet and how cells will interact.
  • Regular Checks: Periodically use the circular reference check under ‘Error Checking’ to ensure new errors haven’t been introduced.


Circular references in Excel can be a source of frustration and errors. By using Excel’s built-in tools for detection and understanding how to modify problematic formulas, you can efficiently resolve these issues. Regular vigilance and careful planning of formulas can prevent the occurrence of circular references, ensuring the accuracy and reliability of your spreadsheets.

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