What is an Active Cell in Excel?

A lot of new Excel users often get confused with the terminologies used in Excel.

One such term that you would often find in many of the Excel tutorials and videos is the Active Cell.

If you do not know what an active cell in Excel is, I’m going to tell you everything about it in this short tutorial.

It’s really simple but very useful to know when working with Excel.

What is an Active cell in Excel?

An Excel worksheet is made up of individual cells – the small rectangle box where you enter data.

When you select one of these cells, that becomes the active cell.

For example, if I select cell A1 using my mouse or my keyboard, then it would become the active cell in that Excel worksheet.

Active cell in Excel

So if I enter any formula or any text, it would be entered in the active cell.

When you have only selected one single cell in a worksheet, by default that is the active cell.

But what if you select more than one cell? What if I select a range of cells (say A1:D10)?

Even if you have a range of cells selected you would still have only one single active cell in that Excel file.

Note that everything that I cover in this article is applicable for both Excel as well as Google Sheets (and even other similar spreadsheet tools).

How to Identify the Active Cell in a Selection?

As I already mentioned, if you select a range of cells (say A1:D10), Despite the fact that you have multiple cells selected, there would still only be one active cell.

There are two easy ways to quickly identify which cell is the active cell:

Visual Identifier of Active Cell

When you select a range of cells, you would notice that one cell has a different color than the rest of the selection.

For example, below I have selected cells A1:D10, and you can see that while all the other cells are in dark gray color, cell A1 has a lighter shade color.

Active cell in a range of cells selection

This is an indication that this cell (which has a different color than the rest of the selection) is the active cell.

At this point, if you start typing anything, that would be entered in the active cell.

Active Cell Reference in the Name Box

Another super quick way to identify which cell is the active cell is by looking at the Name Box (which is on the left of the formula bar).

The cell reference of the active cell would be visible in the Name Box.

Active cell address in the name box

So if you select one single cell, that cell is the active cell and its reference would be shown in the Name Box.

And in case you select multiple cells, since only one of those cells could be the active cell, you can simply have a look at the name box, and see its cell reference there.

Shortcut to Change the Active Cell

While you can use your mouse or your keyboard to quickly move around in the worksheet and change the active cell, in case you want to quickly take your cursor to a far-off cell and make that one the active cell, here’s a cool trick.

Enter the cell reference (of the cell where you want to quickly go) in the Name Box.

For example, if I want to quickly go to cell Z100, I would type Z100 in the Name Box and hit Enter, and it would instantly take me there

Enter cell address in the name box

Formatting the Active Cell

When you select one single cell in Excel, it becomes the active cell and you can apply any formatting or changes to that specific cell.

And when you select a range of cells, although only one cell would be the active cell, any formatting changes that you apply to that selection would be applied to all the cells (and not just the active cell).

So remember this – when you have a range of cells selected, when you type anything, it would be entered only in the active cell. But if you apply any formatting changes (such as changing the color, border, or cell format), it would be applied to the entire selection.

Some Advanced Active Cell Tricks

Now that you have a good understanding of what is an active cell in Excel, let me also show you a couple of simple tricks that are often used by advanced Excel users.

Enter Formula in All the Selected Cells

When you select a range of cells, and you enter any text or formula, it has only entered in the active cell.

But in many cases, you would want that same text or that same formula to be entered in the entire selection.

For example, below I have a data set where I have Names in column A comma and I want to enter their Departments in column B.

Dataset for data entry

So remember this – when you have a range of cells selected, when you type anything, it would be entered only in the active cell. But if you apply any formatting changes (such as changing the color, border, or cell format), it would be applied to the entire selection.

In this example, I want to enter the same department (say ‘Sales’) in all these cells.

Instead of doing it 1 by 1, or entering it in one cell and then copy-pasting it in other cells, let me show you a faster way.

  1. Select the cells in which you want to enter the data
Select the cells in which you want to do data entry1
  1. Enter the data (which would automatically be entered in the active cell)
Enter the text in the first cell only
  1. Hold the Control key and press the Enter key
Same data entered in all the cells

And Voila!!!!

The same text has been entered for all the cells in the selection.

Similarly, you can also do the same thing with formulas. enter the formula in the active cell, then hold the Control key and hit the Enter key and the formula would be entered in all the selected cells.

And a great thing about entering formulas this way is that it would automatically adjust the cell reference.

A practical example of this would be when you have a dataset with blank cells and you want to fill blank cells with 0 or some text such as NA or a dash. You can select all the blank cells (using the Go To Special technique) and then fill all the blank cells in one go.

Data Entry in a Specific Sequence

This is a less-known Excel trick that could be quite useful if you have a data entry job.

When you select a single cell in Excel, enter the data or formula in that cell, and then hit the enter key, you would automatically be taken to the cell below it.

And here comes the trick.

When you select a range of cells, and then you enter any text or formula, it would be entered in the active cell.

And now when you hit the enter key, you would be taken to the next cell in the selection itself. So if the next cell in this election is below the active cell, you would be taken there, else you would be taken to the next cell in the selection.

For example, if I select cells A1, B2, C3, and D4 (as shown below), enter some text in the active cell (which is cell A1), and then hit the enter key, I would automatically be taken to cell B2 (and not A2).

Selecting non contiguous cells in Excel

Once I enter the data in cell B2 and hit the enter key, I would automatically be taken to cell C3 and so on.

Using Active Cell Property in VBA

If you write VBA macro codes, having a good understanding of how the active cell works would be quite useful.

In Excel VBA programming, you can use the active cell as a point of reference and then write a code around it.

Let me give you an example.

Suppose I want to quickly enter the serial numbers from 1 to 10 (starting from the active cell), and also apply some formatting (make the cell color yellow and apply a border to it)

Below is the VBA code that would do this for me.

Sub Formatting()
For i = 1 To 10
    With ActiveCell.Offset(i - 1, 0)
        .Interior.Color = vbYellow
        .Borders.LineStyle = xlContinuous
        .Borders.Weight = xlThin
        .Value = i
    End With
Next i
End Sub

This VBA code works by using the active cell as the anchor and then covering 10 cells below it. in each of these cells, a serial number is entered and the formatting is applied.

Since this VBA code is dependent on the active cell, whenever I select a cell (thereby making it the active cell) and run this VBA code, it would start from that cell and format the 10 cells below it.

While this is a very simple example, the existence of the concept of the active cell actually makes programming quite easy in Excel.

What Happens to the Active Cell When You Activate Some Other Sheet or Workbook?

As I mentioned, there could only be one active cell. No matter which worksheet/workbook is activated, there would only be one active cell.

When you move away from the current worksheet and activate another worksheet (say you are in Sheet1 and then you go to Sheet2), your active cell would now be in the currently active worksheet (which would be Sheet2).

The same happens with Excel workbooks. If you activate another Excel workbook, then your active cell would be in that activated workbook.

And then if you switch back to your earlier workbook, your active cell would then be in the earlier book.

I hope now you are all clear about the concept of the active cell and how it can be used in Excel and VBA.

I hope you found this Excel tutorial useful.

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